Finland’s international status from 1917 to 2017

In November 1917, Finland broke off from Russia, to which it had belonged as an autonomous Grand Duchy since 1809. The international status and alliances of independent Finland have changed during the past one hundred years, but the country has always remained independent and democratic and has never been occupied.

War-torn years 1918–1920

Finland broke off from Russia during November and December 1917. The Council of People’s Commissars chaired by Lenin recognised Finland’s new independent status on the last day of 1917, followed by Sweden, France and Germany on 4 January 1918. Because of Finland’s close relations with Germany, Great Britain and the United States did not recognise Finland’s independence until May 1919.

A tragic civil war took place in Finland in the spring of 1918. Government troops had to defeat a socialist coup launched at the end of January. There were approximately 75,000 Russian troops in Finland, which had to be expelled. In early April, Germany, at Finland’s request, carried out an intervention in Southern Finland, which had fallen into the hands of the Reds. This helped bring the war to an end more quickly. The war ended in May 1918.

Finland retained its independence and its democracy. The German troops remained in Finland. Finland sought Germany’s support against Soviet Russia. Therefore, in October, Finland elected a German king to rule the country. However, as Germany was defeated in the First World War in November, the king-elect renounced the throne. The German troops left Finland.

Gustaf Mannerheim, elected State Regent in December 1918, had negotiations concerning Finland joining the White generals in the Russian civil war, but the Finnish government rejected the proposition. Finnish semi-official troops crossed the eastern border in an attempt to conquer East Karelian territories for annexation to Finland, but without success. The peace treaty between Finland and Soviet Russia was signed in Tartu in 1920. In the peace treaty, Finland received the Petsamo area on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

Sweden attempted to conquer the Åland Islands in spring 1918. Germany, however, demanded that Sweden retreat from the islands. Sweden then tried to get the Åland Islands through the League of Nations, but the League of Nations decided the case in favour of Finland in 1921, and the island group was granted a large degree of autonomy. In 1922, Finland ratified the agreement on the demilitarisation of the Åland Islands signed by the member states of the League of Nations.

Finland was left to fight alone in 1939

In the 1920s, Finland sought international cooperation with Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia against the threat of the Soviet Union. The so-called border states policy involved a commitment to the League of Nations and international law.

Finland dissociated itself from the border states policy in 1935 and started building relations with the Nordic countries and especially Sweden. In the past, the dispute over the Åland Islands and the language question in Finland had caused friction between the two countries. However, no military union was signed between Finland and Sweden, although it had been in the plans.

As the Second World War started in September 1939, the Soviet Union wanted to establish military bases in Finland and requested minor territorial exchanges. Unlike the Baltic countries, Finland refused. The Soviet Union attacked Finland on 30 November 1939.

Finland defended itself despite the fact that no country had promised military assistance. Germany did not intervene in the conflict, as it had made a pact with the Soviet Union, leaving Finland in the Soviet sphere of influence. Finland was completely alone.

The Soviet Union set up a puppet government led by the Finnish emigrant communist O. V. Kuusinen, imagining that the Reds, who had been defeated in the civil war, would support it. However, the Finnish Left, including the communists, did not support the Kuusinen government, but took up arms to defend the fatherland. A unanimous nation only two decades after the civil war was the first miracle of the Winter War.

Finland fended off the first wave of the Soviet military invasion, winning a few major battles, which raised the morale of the nation. In addition to the Finnish fighting spirit, Finland’s military successes were contributed to by the fact that the Soviet Union had imagined the conquest to be a cinch, a “parade march to Helsinki”, which is why the Soviet troops were ill-prepared for battle.

The West’s offer of assistance saved Finland in 1940

The situation changed when Finland did not simply collapse and fall into the hands of the Soviet Union. In December 1939, France and Great Britain became interested in the war in Finland. They used an offer of assistance to Finland as a means to stop the transport of iron ore from Sweden to Germany. Finland became part of international power politics.

The Soviet Union abandoned Kuusinen’s puppet government and agreed to start negotiations with the Finnish government in January 1940. The Soviet military re-launched a massive attack at the beginning of February 1940. They had doubled the number of troops, which were now better equipped as well.

On the diplomatic front, Great Britain and France tried to persuade Sweden to let British and French troops travel through Sweden to Finland. Finland tried to get the Soviet Union to stop its attack by keeping open the option of accepting the help offer made by the Western powers. Sweden tried to bring the war to an end because it was afraid of Germany.

Militarily, the Soviet Union’s massive attack wore out Finnish troops and forced them to retreat. The situation on the front began to be critical at the beginning of March with the Soviet army making progress. Then, on 13 March 1940, the Soviet Union decided to make peace. Apparently, the Soviet Union feared that it might get into war with the Western powers that were openly supporting Finland.

The price of the war was heavy. On the battle front, 20,000 Finnish soldiers were killed and 44,000 wounded. Finland was saved at the eleventh hour, as the aid promised by the West would have been too little and too late to save Finland. However, their political support was what made the difference.

Finland joins German invasion in 1941

Finland lost ten per cent of its land area in the Winter War. All 400,000 people living in the ceded areas were evacuated voluntarily. Nobody wanted to stay. In addition, Finland leased a military base to the Soviet Union in Hanko at the southern tip of Finland.

Finland and Sweden tried to form a confederation, but it fell through due to Soviet and German opposition. Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway. In the summer of 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic countries and was continually making demands on Finland. For Finland, the situation was threatening.

The situation began to change when Germany started to show interest in Finland, first by opening discussions on arms sales in August, then by arranging for the transportation of German soldiers to and from Northern Norway through Finland, and finally in November, by explicitly denying the Soviet Union the free rein it had requested in respect of Finland.

The German leader Adolf Hitler decided on Operation Barbarossa, i.e. the invasion of the Soviet Union, in December 1940. Finland was gradually informed about the plan and military cooperation was launched. At the end of February 1941, it was decided for certain that Finland would join the German campaign.

A few days after the Germans started their invasion, Finland began its own attack on 25 June 1941. Before that, the Soviet Union had bombed Finnish towns. Finland’s objectives for the war were to restore the old borders, conquer East Karelia and overthrow Bolshevism.

There were three phases in this so-called Continuation War. In the attack phase, Finland advanced to the old border and then continued onwards, occupying East Karelia. In terms of casualties, the attack phase was the heaviest phase of the war. In December 1941, the front stabilised and the trench warfare phase began. It lasted until June 1944, when the Soviet Union started a major offensive. In the heavy battles of the summer of 1944, Finland was forced to retreat but managed to stop the Soviet invasion.

During the Continuation War, Finland was dependent on German armaments and supplies of food and industrial raw materials. Although there was no formal agreement of alliance between Finland and Germany (they were officially co-belligerents), Germany and Finland coordinated their military actions and were de facto allies.

From war to peace 1944–1948

In August 1944, Finland took a daring step and changed sides in the war. Finnish President Risto Ryti resigned and freed Finland from the promises of cooperation made to Germany. Field Marshal Mannerheim, commander-in-chief of the army, was elected President and launched peace talks with the Soviet Union. Although there were still 250,000 German soldiers in Northern Finland, Finland made separate peace with the Soviet Union.

In the armistice agreement of 17 September 1944, Finland undertook to expel the German troops. Thus ensued the Lapland War, during which about 3,000 Finnish soldiers were killed. Total Finnish battle casualties in the Continuation War were 39,000 dead and 158,000 wounded. Civilian casualties in Finland were small compared to other countries that fought in the war.

In the armistice agreement, ratified in 1947 by the Paris Peace Treaty, Finland lost 12 per cent of its territory, or about 4.5 million hectares of land. Porkkala military base had to be handed over to the Soviet Union for 50 years.

Those who had returned to the recaptured areas had to leave their homes for a second time. There were 420,000 of them, or 11 per cent of the population. The evacuees and demobilised men were allocated 2.8 million hectares of land, about half of which was state-owned and the other half expropriated from private landowners.

The size of the Defence Forces was limited to 34,000 men and the number of armaments was limited. At the end of the war, the strength of the Finnish Defence Forces had been 530,000 men.  The population of Finland at that time was 3.8 million.

Finland was ordered to pay war reparations worth 300 million US dollars at the pre-war rate of exchange. The reparations were up to 15 per cent of government expenditure and 5 per cent of Finland’s total production. The reparations consisted of goods: mostly ships, machinery and products of the forest industries.

In a political trial, Finnish war-time leaders were found to be guilty of the war and sentenced to imprisonment. President Risto Ryti was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, two war-time prime ministers received six-year sentences and five other ministers were sentenced to prison for 2 to 5½ years. In order to change the political direction of the country, the directors of the Finnish Broadcasting Company and the National Agency for Education, as well as the Rector of the University of Helsinki were dismissed. Under duress from the Allied Control Commission, Finland dissolved 3,300 politically suspect associations.

The years immediately after the war are called the “danger years” because of the pressure to turn Finland into a communist state. The armistice agreement allowed previously banned communist activities. In the parliamentary elections in March 1945, communists received 23 per cent of the votes, becoming the second largest party and receiving cabinet positions.

Democracy and rule of law survived

Why did Finland not become a communist country? The main reason is that the Red Army never occupied Finland. The Finnish social order and institutions on which the rule of law was based remained intact and the market economy survived. There were free elections.  The civil service corps was only subjected to minor purges. The old parties and leaders continued with the exception of those found guilty of the war.

In the spring of 1948, Finland was persuaded by the Soviet Union to sign a military pact. However, the Agreement on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (YYA Treaty) was more limited than the corresponding treaties in Eastern European countries the Soviet Union had occupied. In the parliamentary elections in the summer, the communists lost votes. President J. K. Paasikivi changed the direction of politics by appointing a Social Democratic minority government and dropping the communists out of the government.

The next turn of events occurred in 1955 when Finland became a member of the Nordic Council and the United Nations, and the Soviet Union abandoned the Porkkala military base in exchange for the YYA Treaty being extended. Finland began to pursue neutrality and joined the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1961 as an associate member.

During the insecure times following the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Finland proposed to host a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The CSCE summit meeting in Helsinki in 1975 consolidated Finland’s position as a neutral country. Finland entered into a free trade agreement with the EEC in 1973, safeguarding its commercial interests in Western Europe following the break-up of the EFTA.

With the Cold War drawing to a close, Germany reunified and the Soviet Union dissolved, Finland had established itself as a prosperous democratic country with Western values. The military pact with the Soviet Union was denounced and Finland joined the European Union in 1995 and adopted the euro in 2002.

Finland is militarily non-aligned and not a member of NATO. Finland participates in military cooperation with Sweden, the other Nordic countries, the EU and the United States.