Guide: H5 Between wars

or Chapter VII of A Guide to Finland, titled “Between the Wars, a King and some Fascists”

* * *

There are two interesting things in the history of Finland between the end of the civil war (1918) during the First World War’s flames, and the start of the Second (1939): the episode of a King of Finland, and the tale of Finnish Fascists. Both are tales of failure.

Oh, there was a Prohibition too, from 1919 to 1932, but it’s not usually talked about because everyone’s afraid it might happen again if mentioned.

We Finns like our alcohol. We can handle the drink, though not the drinking, and we like our chosen poison.

So, the year 1918. Finland had declared independence from the ruins of Russia, and had fought an unpleasant civil war between republican-aristocratic Whites and socialist-communist Reds: the latter had lost, and thus were either rotting in prison camps, or doing the same six feet under, or otherwise not in a position to have a great deal of say about the ways the country was run.

The First World War was still raging; and as to the perceptive and wise leaders of Finland the invincibility of the German war machine seemed certain, they queried if the German Kaiser could find a suitably lofty lord, preferably a relation of his, to take up a crown for Finland, to cement the love and friendship between the two countries, and to create a royal millstone the greater realm would be willing to defend should some calamity — say a war against Russia — happen.

For the most part, Finnish history has consisted of waiting for the next war against Russia.

This royalty request was made to Germany because there wasn’t anyone else — the other side of the Great War wasn’t interested in helping a country whose civil war had involved a few German soldiers and more German-trained ones on the side now crowing its victory; the newly red Russia wasn’t keen on the red-crushers, and Austria-Hungary… eh, I guess they didn’t know where this speck called Finland was. Anyway, Germany had for a long time been a source of culture and science for Finland, being more cosmopolitan than Sweden, and less distant than France or Britain. (Also, Germans understood that a man just has to get roaring drunk now and then.)

The Finns doing the asking were a mixed bunch: some were idealists, and certain that since there was no lofty enough nobility in Finland — leftover Swedish nobility, sure, and maybe some expatriate Russians, but no real gloriously all-Finnish royal blood they could imagine with a crown — a foreigner from a strong, well-regarded neighbor was the only choice.

Besides, said others, Finland had been ruled by a Swedish king when the land was under Sweden, and sort-of ruled by a Russian King/Tsar when under Russia, so surely this newfangled democracy stuff was against all the laws in the books. (Well, Finland had been sort of declared an independent republic in 1917, but that had been before the unpleasant anti-monarchic red stuff of the civil war, and all.)

Finally, some were more pragmatic, and felt that a king, a strong symbol, would be necessary to keep the uppity peasants and troublesome reds from causing too much trouble.

Some politicians weren’t royalists, but since most of the left-leaning leaders were out of favor and out of office because of the recent civil unrest, the royalists carried the day, the Kaiser gave a name, and on the ninth of October, in 1918, the Finnish Parliament elected Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse, brother-in-law of the Kaiser, as the King of Finland. (“Charles I, King of Finland and Karelia, Duke of Åland, Grand Prince of Lapland, Lord of Kaleva and the North”, some say. Karelia’s the border region of southern Finland and Russia; Åland those isles off the southwestmost point of Finland, Lapland the northern half of Finland, and Kaleva just a traditional name that just might mean Finland, all of it.)

Soon after this king-election the invincible German war machine went down the tubes, and on the 14th of December, 1918, after a “reign” of two months, without ever coming to Finland, without a single command or coronation, Frederick Charles politely said “No”. Thousands of enthusiastic Finns sighed in dismay, and the sale of formal royal portrait postcards plummeted.

Almost immediately, by one of those amazing feats of hindsight, when it now became clear there wouldn’t be a king, no glorious monarch from Great Germany, quite everyone suddenly confessed he hadn’t been a royalist, not really.

Finland quickly adopted a republican constitution, with a president as the (uncrowned) head of state. The 200-seat Parliament was already in existence, as was universal suffrage — Finnish women were, in 1906, among the first to get the vote.

So, after these royalist missteps, Finland thus became a democracy — and like so many democracies, was eventually threatened by the bogey of fascism. The Finnish branch of this unlikable ideology manifested in the western coasts, called Pohjanmaa, and was named after one of its cities “Lapuan liike” or the Lapua Movement.

Ah, Finns aren’t very good in thinking up striking names.

Basically, the movement was a continuation of the victorious White ideas into rather brutal extremes. Eventually the prison camps were closed down, and the remaining skeletal prisoners walked free. Elections were held, parliamentary occurences occured, and the socialist parties came back to the Parliament.

Since this restoration wasn’t exactly what some factions wanted, there was much grumbling, and much of this happened in Pohjanmaa, the part of Finland stereotyped as stout, quiet, slightly homicidal coastal-plain farmers who, when they’ve had enough, whip out the traditional knife and do ugly things with it.

This backwoods nationalist-slash-fascist movement was basically an immense, burning hate affair against everything even slightly red in color. Rallies were held, action from the government (e.g. “Ban the reds!”) was demanded, and though there was some response from that direction, it never was enough.

Now and then, when enough liquor had been consumed, some suspected red-sympathiser was bundled into a waiting car by a clutch of knife-wielding ruffians, driven a long way eastwards and then kicked out. This practice, which sometimes ended with the beaten and terrified victim shivering in some wood near the Russian border, or then in some town of eastern Finland, was known as muilutus — the term is impossible to translate, but throw Shanghaiing and mild lynching together, and you have an accurate enough description. Sometimes such antics ended in a murder.

As time passed, the list of reddish people grew by bounds that now seem almost ludicrous — socialist? liberal? pacifist? labour unionist? Damned commies all! Most probably atheists, gays, book-reading types, foreigners and people who just spoke funny were included as well.

The movement had many initial sympathizers — after all, anti-communism seemed necessary in those days, with the muscle-flexing giant Soviet neighbor and all — but as educated and power-holding people couldn’t quite understand the use or charm of violent eastward-rides and other paranoiac populist yells, that support soon waned, and as Finns aren’t good in rising up in open rebellion, the movement found itself in trouble. Even the formerly acquiescent generals and White militia leaders started to question the increasingly shrill things they were told. (“No, I am rather certain that rifles don’t rust because there’s a stealthy communist blowing on them!”)

When the ultra-nationalists then made the mistake of kidnapping the ex-president Ståhlberg — he was, after a rough eastward ride, released in some small eastern town — the polite if forced smiles turned into frowns. The moderates said “Ah, copulate this all!”, and as only the extremists were left, they got even shriller, even more demanding. In 1932 they tried a rebellion of sorts, with little support and less planning. The then-president, Svinhufvud, made a radio speech — possibly along the lines of “Come on, guys. What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Go home and sleep that booze off.” — and the rebellion crumbled. Some trials, some prison time for the leaders, and a general feeling of embarrassment followed. The movement was dead.

Finns aren’t very good with mindless populist fervor; it’s probably because of the cold, cold winters.

In 1933, fascism-related things failed to crumble in Germany, with bad results.

Curiously enough, these two little things related here were the most dramatic occurrences between the wars (1918-1939), but they aren’t considered very important by Finns. No, of all the happenings of the 20th century, the distinction of universal recognition falls on the wars just before and just after them — the kinslaying civil war, and the wars related to the general brouhaha of the Second World War, to which we will turn in the next chapter.

Now, one would think that after all this Finland would be a bitterly divided and fragmented nation: grumbling royalists, haughty aristocrats, harried democrats, leftover Jaeger soldiers, careful socialists, stealth communists, frothing nationalists, rabid fascists, bumbling hicks, and so on. Maybe that was so, but in 1939, when this tale continues, Finland was united by the strongest unifying force of all.

No, I am not speaking of love.

Rather I refer to xenophobia: the fear and hate of the External Enemy — in this case, Soviet Union.

Finland would really be lost without some variant of Russia at its eastern borders.

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Prev: Russia (2/2)Contents — Next: WWII (1/2)

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