History of Finland

Many people are surprised to learn that the country we know as Finland today is a very young country—just 90 years old. For almost seven centuries the Finns were under Swedish rule and then, for over a century, under Russian rule. Perhaps this is the reason that the Finns are so enormously proud of their country and nationhood, seemingly more patriotic than many other nations. Also, this might explain why, as foreigners, no one really knows much about the country although we have all heard of it.

History of Finland

Origins of Finland

Much of Finnish history before the 12th century has been passed on through folklore with very few written records concerning the Finns and their country. In 98 AD, Tacitus mentions a people called the Fenni in the Germania, which is how the population of present-day south-west Finland came to be known. The inhabitants of the interior were called Hamme people, a name derived from an old Baltic word meaning “an inhabitant of the interior”.

It is generally accepted that the first settlers came to Finland about 9,000 BC as antler carvings have been found that evidence the first records of mankind in this region. They occupied the coastal lowlands of southern Finland and lived by hunting elk and by fishing in the Baltic Sea, which was then a fresh-water lake. The land was no more than a bleak, tundra-like terrain without its present-day characteristics. Around 6,000 years ago, the Sami arrived from the east.

There are many competing theories as to the origins of the Finns, but it seems that the south-western part of Finland was settled by boat people from western Europe and the eastern part by nomadic tribes from Russia. These people came from the surrounding areas of the Ural Mountains and the River Volga and settled to become the Finns, Estonians and Karelians of today. From them developed the FinnoUgrian language. These peoples displaced the Sami who migrated further north to Lapland and are today’s Laps (Sami in Finnish).

Two distinct cultures evolved influenced from both the east and the west. The two Finnish tribes, the Hamenites in the west and the Karelians in the east, constantly warred with each other. Trading links were set up with the Estonians and the Swedish Vikings. After about 800 AD, the Vikings began spreading eastwards through the Aland Islands, Finland and into Russia, ruling Novgorod and eventually reaching Kiev in 862 AD. The Karelians traded with Novgorod, supplying them with furs and skins. This contact influenced the Karelian culture enormously. Their craftsmen adopted Byzantine motifs for use in art and jewellery designs and these can still be seen today as “traditional Finnish” designs. The Karelians acquired their Orthodox form of Christianity through contact with the east and Russian monks later travelled north to convert the Laps. In the meantime, Sweden brought Catholicism to the tribes in the west of Finland.

An English missionary, Bishop Henry of Uppsala, was the person charged with bringing Christianity to this region. He was murdered by a man called Lalli, who opposed his teachings. Bishop Henry is the patron saint of Finland.

Being Ruled

In the 11th and 12th centuries, Finland became a buffer between many rival powers. Sweden had established a strong monarchy and became a sustained medieval power. Novgorod had become a powerful military base. The expanding Danish kingdom was successfully resisting Swedish supremacy and founded the city of Tallin, in Estonia, in 1219. To the east, the Teutonic knights were encroaching on the lands south of the Gulf of Finland and were busy warring with the Danes as they tried to take hold of the lands along the Baltic coast. The Finns had not joined together as one nation state of their own and were subjected to influences from all these sources. In fact, they were divided into three main groups: the Suomalaiset (as the Finns call themselves today), the Hamalaiset (the Humanities) and the Karjalaiset (the Karelians).

In the middle of the 12th century, the Swedish throne was occupied by King Erik. The Pope had issued instructions that the position of the Church in Scandinavia needed to be strengthened. As a Catholic, Erik led a crusade to convert the Finns to Christianity. He was accompanied by Bishop Henry who was later left in Finland to consolidate the gains of Erik’s crusade while Erik returned to Sweden. Although not the first, it was this crusade that established the beginnings of an organised Finnish Church. The first cathedral was built in Turku in 1229 and dedicated to St. Erik and St. Henry. The bones of St. Henry were laid to rest there in 1290.

In spite of the fact that the Finnish Church was under the supervision of a Danish See, it was the Swedes who ultimately dominated south and west Finland. Eastern Finland was still heavily influenced by the Byzantine Empire through Kiev and Novgorod. Turku, in south-west Finland, became the centre of both religious and civil authority in Finland. Swedish occupation began in earnest in 1249. A number of incentives were devised to attract Swedish settlers to Finland. Large estates were created. Tax concessions were given. Soon the upper layer of Finnish society comprised Catholic Bishops and Swedish nobility. Many privileges were granted to Swedish soldiers of the Royal Army to entice them to settle. The Swedish settlers began to colonise the coastal regions of south-west Finland and along the Gulf of Finland. They brought with them their language which established Swedish as a major language in Finland.

From a Finnish reader, Hannu Sivonen: “We are proud to mention that a Finn, Olavi Maununpoika (alias Olaf Magnusson, Olavus Magni, Olave le Grant) was the headmaster of the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1435.”

The next hundred years saw conflict and skirmishes between the Swedes and the rulers of Novgorod, as each tried to snatch land away from the other. Eventually in 1323, a Peace was signed which established the border between the two countries as running in a north-westerly direction from a place near today’s St. Petersburg in Russia to Oulu in northwest Finland. This brought about a period of relative calm and, as a result, Swedish influence gained strength in the south-western half of Finland. This influence brought about contact with Western Europe and Roman Catholicism. Over the next three centuries, Finland became firmly part of the Swedish Kingdom, adopting their laws and administrative practices. There was little friction between the Swedes and the Finns. The Swedes settled along the coastal lands whilst the Finns lived, for the most part, in the interior. They shared religious, judicial and administrative practices and co-existed peacefully. In the meantime, the north-eastern half of Finland was dominated by cultural links with the East and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In 1527, King Gustav Vasa of Sweden adopted the Lutheran faith and this set Sweden and Finland firmly on the road to establishing Lutheranism as the official state religion. Wanting to expand his territories, he enticed his Finnish subjects to push forward the boundaries set down in the treaty with Russia and encroach upon the Savo and Kainuu areas. Turku became firmly established as the capital of Finland (as a “Duchy” or province) from where the Governor General presided from his castle.

During the “Golden Age” of Sweden in the 17th century, Finland was considered an integral part of Sweden, and the Finns were considered loyal subjects of the Swedish monarch. The official language was Swedish, Stockholm was the capital (Turku being a “Duchy” capital), and by Swedish decree Finland began to grow and prosper. Schools and churches were established, ironworks built, transport systems created and a chain of castle defences built to protect against Russian attack. The Turku Academy was founded in 1640 as the first university in Finland and linked the city to the time-honoured family of universities on the continent. Trade increased but the “burgher” class was predominantly Swedish as few Finns made a living from business. The ethnic Finns were largely peasant farmers. A small minority rented their land and worked for the mansion to pay their rent, but the vast majority were free landowning farmers in the fashion of the free farmer concept based on the legacy of the Vikings. The Swedish medieval society did not have a feudal system like the rest of western Europe. The farmers of Finland took part in the political life in Stockholm, just as any farmer in the western half of Sweden proper, by sending their representatives to the “Diet of Four Estates”. This was a legislative body made up of the “Estates” of Nobility, Clergy, Burgess and (free landowning) Farmers.

The 1700s saw Finland fought over and occupied on numerous occasions. The Russians, under Peter the Great, seized much of Finland and even conquered the west coast. In trying to regain its lost territories, Sweden warred with Russia for the best part of one hundred years. The Great Northern War (the Big Hate in Finnish) saw Sweden regain some territory through peace negotiations which had to be later ceded to Russia. Then came the Napoleonic Wars which were to have a lasting impact on Finland. After Tsar Alexandra I and Napoleon signed the Treaty of Tilsit, Russia attacked Finland in 1808. Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809 and the Swedish king, Gustav IV Adolf, lost his crown to Napoleon. One of Napoleon’s Marshall, Bernadotte, was subsequently invited to become the new Sovereign and his descendants still reign today, warmly loved by both Swedes and Finns.

Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire with the Tsar of Russia being the Grand Duke of Finland. This period of Russian rule lasted for 108 years. Tsar Alexander I was a liberal and treated the Finns and their institutions with respect. Swedish laws remained in force, the Lutheran church left untouched, he recalled the Diet of Finland (after a 50-year pause), and power was given to its own senate with only major decisions having to be approved by the Tsar. Russia encouraged Finland to develop as a country, made free basic education available to all, established universities and transferred the capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812. In the mid-1800s, Finland issued its own postage stamps, had its own customs office and gained its own currency, the markka. Equal official status was given to the Finnish language, alongside Swedish. Railroads were built and institutions created. Finland began to benefit greatly from this annexation. Russia benefited by having Finland as a buffer state between itself and Sweden.

The creation of institutions, the distancing of the capital from Sweden, the recognition of their own language, the development of its own money and stamps, and a conscript Finnish Army, lead to a strengthening of the Finnish sense of national identity. Thus, the Finnish independence movement gathered momentum. One of the first to encourage independence was Al Arwardisson, who stated: “Swedes we are not, Russians we will not be, so let us be Finns”. Around this time, Elias Lonnrot published his work The Kalevala, which was an epic poem based on the spoken folklore of the many Finnish “tribes” around the country. This proved to be a lynch pin in the swell of the independence movement because it came at a time when the Finns were beginning to think about who they were as a nation. For the first time ever, their own history and culture were written down and all could learn what it really meant to be Finnish.

The 1860s are referred to as “The Hunger Years”, when almost one-third of the population died from starvation. Many rural advisory centres were established to help farmers manage their farms more efficiently and effectively so they could increase food production. Farmers Associations started and the “seeds of knowledge” were passed on in schools.

20th Century History of Finland

In 1906, a new single-house parliament, the Eduskunta, was created. Men and women alike from all stations in life were given full voting rights. Finland in one stroke changed overnight into a modern state. Finland was the first European country to grant women full political rights— universal and equal suffrage, meaning they had the right to vote AND the right to stand for election to Parliament. Indeed in the first election of Eduskunta of Finland in 1907, there were 19 women elected. So the women really exercised their right.

From Finnish readers: The people were so outraged by Nicholas II’s Russification attempts that they instigated a peaceful demonstration at the statue of Tsar Alexander II in the Senate Square in Helsinki. Here the demonstrators brought thousands of flowers in honour of Alexander’s birthday; Nicholas II could not arrest anyone for respecting his grandfather! In every town, there used to be an Alexander or Nicholas Street. After independence, only Alexander Streets remained.

In spite of the many advances that Finland had enjoyed under the Russians, the Finns still felt oppressed. They had had a hundred years of ruling themselves as an autonomous Grand Duchy and during the turbulent years of the 19th century, they remained loyal to Russia. Then Tsar Nicholas II attempted to turn Finland into a mere Russian Province and his “Russification” methods caused an outcry. Finnish intellectuals and artists were stirred by this greater oppression and helped create a surge of nationalism. Jean Sibelius composed his masterpiece Finlandia and Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted scenes from the Kalevala. This provided a core around which a new nation could rally. The Finns became emotionally ripe for independence. The Russian Revolution of 1917 resulted in the seizing of power by the Communists and the ousting of the Tsar. As a result, with their customary speed and efficiency, the Finnish senate declared independence on 6 December 1917. While they were prepared to stay “loyal” to a Tsar, they were not prepared to be loyal to a mob in Moscow and Leningrad. Just one month later, Finland was recognised as an independent state by the Russians themselves.

Independence of Finland

One of the perplexing questions for the new nation was whether it should become a republic or a monarchy. The Finnish Left, “The Reds”, comprising the working classes, aspired to a Russian-style socialist independent nation. The Whites, comprising the newly established government, favoured the option of becoming a monarchy based on the German model. Vladimir Lenin, however, recognising he would need support in the ongoing World War I, decided to give the Finnish Reds 10,000 guns and lend them troops to attack the Finnish Civil Guards (The Whites) in Vyborg. This forced the senate to flee Vaasa and a civil war ensued.

The poor harvest of 1917 meant the Finns were once again facing starvation. The widespread devastation of Russia meant that no food supplies would come from there. Aid committees were set up in Sweden, Britain and US to send food for distribution by the government, but the dilemma arose for these countries as to whom it should be sent. The White Government appeared to be in alliance with the Germans, then the enemy of Europe, and the Reds were supported by Russia, who had just exacted a bloody revolution.

On 28 January 1918, the Civil War started in earnest. It was fought on two fronts: the Reds, supported by the Russians, strove for revolution in Helsinki; the Government Troops (The Whites) fought Russian forces near Vaasa, were commanded by Mannerheim, who had spent most of his military career in the Russian Imperial Army, and were supported by the Germans. This new nation was divided. The Reds claimed the South whilst the Whites stood their ground in the North. The Civil War lasted 108 days and claimed the lives of 30,000 Finns. The Whites eventually became the victors under the military prowess of Mannerheim.

The Civil War ended on 16 May 1918. The Prince of Hessen, Friedrich Karl, was asked to become king of Finland by the Eduskunta on 9 October 1918 and accepted. However just one month later, Germany was defeated in World War I and the Prince of Hessen resigned his kingship and the political model Finland wanted to adopt became discredited (the crown and throne still exist). Finland then chose a republican state model and Professor K J Stahlberg, a liberal-minded constitutional lawyer, became the first president (1919–1925).

The Whites extracted a bloody vengeance on their defeated enemies. Reds and their families were captured and locked up in prison camps where thousands died through starvation and neglect. An estimated 10,000 people died in these camps. By 1924, the problem of political prisoners was gone, though bitterness lingered on through another generation.

The Constitution of 1919, whose main architect was Stahlberg, retained the single-house parliament that was established in 1905. It also stated that Finnish and Swedish would be the national languages of the new republic and established the right of citizens to use their mother tongue before the law courts and administrative authorities. Records and documents were to be written in the mother tongue and this would be guaranteed by law. Regions would be unilingual unless a minority group existed which represented over 10 per cent of the local population. This would be reviewed statistically every ten years. Helsinki and Turku were to be bilingual. At the time, Swede-Finns accounted for only 11 per cent of the total population. The government recognised that toleration and accommodation of this minority would best serve the interest of the country as a whole. Shortly afterwards, Finland was admitted to The League of Nations and was, therefore, recognised by all as a new independent country.

The 1930s saw the fledgling nation at a low ebb. Civil war skirmishes continued with Right- and Left-wing extremists battering and bruising political life. Attempts were made to outlaw Marxism, which resulted in Fascism being made illegal. Fighting broke out between university students of the two language groups and a bitter language war ensued which shook the administration, universities and cultural circles. Finland developed close ties with Germany partly in response to the threat of their predatory giant neighbour, the USSR.

Before World War I, the Finns were said to be the most sober people in Europe. The consumption of liquor in Finland was decreasing year by year. In June 1919, the government introduced prohibition which was generally recognised as a sound strategic policy by the vast majority of the nation. By 1931, the law was repealed. It had turned out to be an economic disaster, creating a lucrative black economy. The State Alcohol Corporation was established having the right to sell liquor. Thus the importation and distribution of alcohol became state owned and state directed.

During the time between the two world wars, this new struggling nation gained an international reputation for bravery, honesty, integrity and hard-work. In spite of the fact that the economy was still agrarian based and two-thirds of the population worked on farms, Finland became the only country to pay its debts to the United States. Towards the end of the 1920s, the country’s industrial production was increasing and there was an export boom in forest-related products which provided much needed foreign currency. At the same time, Finland began to shine in athletics with its sporting hero Paavo Nurmi (the Flying Finn) winning seven gold medals in three Olympics. Continuing success in athletics led to Helsinki being chosen as the venue for the 1940 Olympic Games, which were eventually held in 1952 due to the interruption of World War II.

With war clouds gathering over Europe, the Soviet and German Foreign Ministers signed a pact of non-aggression on 23 August 1939. The pact laid the way for Germany to have a free hand in Lithuania whilst the Soviet Union could move against Finland, Estonia and Latvia; Poland would be divided between the two powers. The Finns hoped to escape the conflict by declaring their neutrality. However, 1939 saw the outbreak of war in Europe into which Finland was reluctantly dragged on 30 November when the Red Army (the USSR) invaded, arguing that its security needed south-eastern Karelia and some other military areas by the sea. Also, the USSR had become insecure and suspicious of its near neighbour creating ties with the West.

The “Winter War”, as it became known, was especially tragic as temperatures during an extremely harsh winter fell to -40ºC (-40ºF) and soldiers on both sides died in their thousands. In spite of inflicting enormous losses on the Russian troops, after 100 days, the Finns had to sue for peace; the south-eastern part of Karelia (10 per cent of its land) was ceded to the Russians and Finland had to find home for 450,000 fleeing refugees. It was this episode that taught the Finns that they would never be safe from their giant neighbour and that they were unlikely ever to vanquish them—therefore, in future, they needed to tread very warily. Also, Finland learned that no other nation would come to its rescue.

The Finns are proud to quote: “Of those countries that participated in the war in Europe, only three capitals were left unoccupied by the enemy at any time of the war: London, Moscow and Helsinki. Of the same countries, only UK and Finland retained a democratic system of government all through the 1930s and the wartime.”

The Soviet Union stepped up their efforts to wrest more land from the Finns and in desperation Finland turned to Germany for help. Although there was never any formal agreement between the two countries, German troops were allowed right of passage through Finland to Norway. When hostilities between Germany and Russia broke out in June 1941, the “Continuation War” between Finland and the Soviet Union began. The valiant struggle of the small Finnish Army resulted in them repossessing Karelia and even land they had lost in the 18th century. However, in the summer of 1944, the Russians overwhelmed the Finns. Mannerheim negotiated an armistice with the Soviets and, as a result, then began to oust 200,000 German troops from Lapland. This struggle lasted until the general surrender in the spring of 1945.

The nation’s struggle for independence, and the heroic and successful fight to retain that independence during World War II against immense odds (2 million vs 300,000), came with a price. In such a tiny population, 90,000 Finnish men lost their lives and 158,000 more had been injured. Finland had been truly unlucky—the Germans razed Lapland to the ground on their way out and the Soviet Union wrested territory and inflicted heavy war reparations. Finland, like Poland and the Baltic States, had been in the firing line as Stalin and Hitler played out their power games. However, unlike them, she did not have to cede her sovereignty and remained independent. The Finnish Army was never routed.

From a Finnish reader, Hannu Sivonen: You mention that Finns are proud of their war achievements… The Finns did not lose the war, but arrived at goal “as good second” as they say.

Post-War Finland

Dreams of a “Greater Finland”, which had been the aspiration of a whole generation, were discarded as the nation faced up to the massive burden of trying to repay its debts. The reparations to the USSR amounted to US$ 300,000,000: 70 per cent heavy engineering (machinery, ships, locomotives, etc) and metal products; 30 per cent wood products, textiles and shoes. The schedule of payments was impossible and, with the USSR controlling the exchange rate, the debt doubled. Once again there was a shortage of food, everything was rationed and poverty was widespread. When America offered Marshall Plan aid, Finland refused, preferring to keep its independence. The government taxed heavily and invested in plant and machinery. Finland went through the fastest process of industrialisation and urbanisation, the like of which has not been seen until today in China. However, the war reparations were finally paid off in 1952.

In 1948, the Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance was signed which bound the two countries in a semi-military agreement. Finland still laid claim to its neutrality but the shadow of its giant neighbour meant that Finland still had to bow to the wishes of the Soviet Union, even in terms of its own domestic politics.

Urho Kekkonen, the Finnish president from 1956 to 1981, was a master diplomat and became one of the great leaders of his time. He managed to grasp the nettle in the difficult relationship with the Soviet Union, cautiously walking a tightrope. He gained fame abroad as host of the initial meeting of the “Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe”, held in Helsinki in 1975. He led Finland as a founding member of the Nordic Council. As a result, they enjoyed the same benefits as Scandinavia: free movement of labour, a passport-free zone, joint research and educational programmes and pursuit of the same type of welfare programme.

Finland was accepted into the United Nations in 1955 and joined EFTA (the European Free Trade Association) in 1961. She managed to conclude a comprehensive customs agreement in 1973 with the European Economic Union and made a similar agreement with COMECON of the Eastern bloc countries. The Soviet Union still exercised a great deal of influence over Finland up until the late 1980s, blocking its membership of the European Community and minimalising any influence from the United States. In 1989, Finland became a member of the Council of Europe. By choosing a path of neutrality, Finland opted out of the arms race.

The 1970s and 1980s were boom times in Finland. Free at last from war reparations, Finland’s advance in industry, farming, trade, commerce and the professions was driven by sheer profit. However, from the outset, this drive was not aimed at the gain of the individual citizen but at the welfare of the nation as a whole. Taxation remained high. Through the 20th century, increasing attention was paid to finding solutions to social and economic problems through legislation and public expenditure: “The interests of the people as a whole should be the active concern of enlightened citizenship.”

During the 1960s, many people migrated to the south and large urban areas grew up around Helsinki. Many areas in the north and east lost a large percentage of their young people. Self-sufficiency in food was reached by 1960 with bigger farms and more productive techniques to increase the food supply. This in itself created new problems: what to do with overproduction and how to employ everyone.

The food industry became focused on quality and environmental aspects:

  • Animal husbandry
  • Diary farming
  • Organic farming
  • Crop cultivation
  • Berry production
  • Fishery centres
  • Regional centres for country women and homemakers

Fortunately for Finland, the Soviet Union was so dependent on its products that Finland kept supplying them in exchange for oil and other raw materials. Finland’s economy began to boom.

The Strength of Finland

“Finland’s greatest contribution to the 20th century lies simply in the fact that it has survived intact as a nation state, dedicated to the principles of parliamentary democracy, and that it has been able to maintain a welfare state, rising living standards, despite the battering it has taken from a hostile world during the brief period of its national independence. A small weak nation learned to live alongside a predatory giant neighbour—without losing its sense of national identity.”

Fred Singleton, A Short History of Finland