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Centennial Story of Finland Part 2: First Years of Independence 1917–1927 - Embassy of Finland, Washington - Consulate Generals of Finland, New York, Los Angeles : Current Affairs


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News, 2/6/2017

Centennial Story of Finland Part 2: First Years of Independence 1917–1927

How did Finland develop from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the most successful nations in the world? Join us as we explore Finland’s journey through the lens of Finnish-American relations. In part two we will examine Finland's first ten years as an independent country.

The Communist revolution of October 1917 in Russia enabled the Finnish senate to declare independence on December 6, 1917. Independent Finland was first recognized by the Soviets one month later. By mid-January 1918, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and France had recognized the independence of Finland.

The Finnish officials eagerly asked also the United States to recognize Finland as an independent state. While Secretary of State Robert Lansing stated that there was no U.S. objection to a Finnish deputation, the political upheaval and uncertain conditions following Russia’s Bolshevik revolution led the U.S. to adopt a “watch and wait” policy towards Finland.

When the new nation was trying to find its way, Finland lapsed into a bloody civil war. At the end of January 1918, Finnish left-wing parties challenged the government which was forced to flee Helsinki. The Red Guards originated mainly from the working class, and benefited from backing by Russian Bolshevik leaders who wanted Finland to become a socialist republic. The White Guards represented mostly the upper and middle classes, farmers and peasantry, and benefited from German support. After 108 days of heavy fighting and approximately 37,000 Finns killed, General Carl Gustaf Mannerheim led the White Guards to victory in May of 1918.

Photo: Ivan Timiriasew, Helsinki City Museum
White Guards in Helsinki in 1918
White Guards in Helsinki in 1918

After the civil war, parliament voted to establish a constitutional monarchy, the Kingdom of Finland, with a German prince as a king. In May 1918, President Woodrow Wilson stated that the U.S. “shall be willing to recognize the Republic of Finland only when she shows that she is not controlled by Germany, as she now seems to be.” After Germany lost World War I, Finland rejected its monarchy ambitions, instead identifying as a free republic in the summer of 1919. Finland elected its first president, K.J. Ståhlberg, later that same year.

Finland’s fragile independence finally gained the long sought American recognition on May 7, 1919. Foreign Minister Rudolf Holsti thanked Secretary Lansing for this recognition, stating, “Your Excellency’s letter will remain for ever [sic] one of the surest shields of Finland’s independence and a noble guide to her of the lofty ideals which have been the fundamental source of the democratic freedom of the United States themselves.”

Even though the United States gained its independence almost 150 years before Finland, the underlying reasons for independence were similar. Both countries had been a part of an empire, and they fought to govern their own territories. Both nations had the same concept of freedom, which translates to political freedom, economic freedom, religious freedom and the freedom of opportunity. The Finnish Declaration of Independence was modeled after the “Spirit of America.”

The relationship between the two countries grew steadily stronger. Between 1918 and 1920, the U.S. exported 170,000 metric tons of grains and foodstuff to Finland, alleviating Finland’s acute food shortage at the time. The food relief cost Finland more than $16 million, of which $8.2 million was borrowed from the U.S. government. Finland consistently met the 25-year repayment terms of its food relief, and is the only country in the world to fully pay back its war debts to the U.S. In addition to this, Finland and the U.S. signed several agreements and treaties to advance trade and the friendly relations between the countries.

After the Finnish civil war, the Finnish government pursued a policy of national reconciliation. The country developed quickly during the 1920s. It went through an agrarian reform, breaking up large estates controlled by the old nobility and dividing the land between farmers. Former tenants gained the ownership of approximately 120,000 leased farms. These reforms further strengthened the role of the farmers who had historically been independent.

Photo: Helsinki City Museum
Workers at the Ströms farm in Malmi, Helsinki
Workers at the Ströms farm in Malmi, Helsinki
Photo: Miina Sillanpään säätiö
Minister Miina Sillanpää
Minister Miina Sillanpää

One important milestone was reached in 1926 when Social Democrats, who had been on the losing side in the civil war, gained the office of the Prime Minister and formed a minority government. Many leaders of the Women’s Rights Movement served in the Parliament, and Miina Sillanpää became the first female Minister (for social affairs) in 1926. The women MPs played an instrumental role in developing the education system, as well as healthcare and social services.

During the 1920s Finland was trying to define its place in the world. The country joined the League of Nations in December 1920, and this membership became the cornerstone of Finnish foreign policy. One of the greatest achievements of the League of Nations was solving the territorial dispute of the Åland islands. The majority Swedish speaking islands wanted to rejoin Sweden, but the League of Nations announced in June 1921 that Åland islands would remain an autonomous and demilitarized part of Finland.

In the 1920s, runner Paavo Nurmi was a source of great national pride to the newly independent country. Nurmi was inspired by Hannes Kolehmainen, who "ran Finland onto the map of the world" in the Stockholm summer Olympics of 1912 by winning three gold medals. Nurmi decided to do the same, and he became a household name around the world. During his career Nurmi broke 22 world records and won nine gold and three silver medals in three different Olympic Games.

In early 1925, Nurmi started a widely published tour in the U.S. The tour began at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, and during the next five months the “Flying Finn” competed in 55 events, winning 53 of them and breaking several world records. The tour made Nurmi extremely popular in the U.S, and he even met President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.

Photo: Library of Congress
Paavo Nurmi at the White House
American track and field athlete Joie Ray (center left), President Calvin Coolidge and Paavo Nurmi at the White House

Next Parts

Centennial Story of Finland Part 3: Interwar Instability 1927–1937

Centennial Story of Finland Part 4: Finland Fights Bravely for Her Independence 1937–1947

Centennial Story of Finland Part 5: Recovering from War and Hosting Olympic Games 1947–1957
Centennial Story of Finland Part 6: Navigation in Cold War Turbulence Requires Skill 1957–1967

Centennial Story of Finland Part 7: Developing Welfare Services and Hosting Major Helsinki Conference 1967-1977

Centennial Story of Finland Part 8: Booming Economy and Admiration for the U.S. 1977–1987 

Centennial Story of Finland Part 9: End of Cold War – Europe Whole and Free 1987–1997

Centennial Story of Finland Part 10: Finland Takes Its Place in Globalized World 1997–2007

Previous Part

Centennial Story of Finland Part 1: The Path up to 1917

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Updated 7/4/2018

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