February 3, 1918 – Reds and Whites Clash as Fi…

February 3, 1918 – Reds and Whites Clash as Finnish Tensions turn to Civil War

Pictured – Members of a bourgeois militia take to the streets in Vasa. All around Finland people mobilized into paramilitary formations to fight their enemies.

Finland, which had avoided becoming involved in the First World War, and then gained its independence from Russia in December, was about to get a war of its own as class tension heated up around the nation. The Finnish working class demanded reforms from its new bourgeois government, but found the dynamism and success of the Bolsheviks in Russia too good an example not to be followed. Since the Finnish Social Democratic Party refused to seize power, Finnish radicals did so themselves. On January 27 an armed group of Red Guards declared a revolution in Helsinki.

Revolution quickly became civil war as the middle-class fought back. By disarming Russian troops, nationalist Finnish paramilitaries had quickly acquired stockpiles of rifles and machine-guns. This Civil Guard, led by an soldier named Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, now declared itself the Finnish army, and formed a White Senate in Vasa for a new government fleeing from Helsinki. There, in the industrialized south, the Reds had quickly mobilized support form urban workers and rural laborers, who organized into groups of Red Guards eventually some 80,000 strong, including many women. The White forces in the north had fewer men, but better arms as well as the support now of 1,000 Swedish volunteers and 1,200 Finnish Jaegers, who had been trained and fighting for the German army against Russia since 1915.

Besides these few well-trained soldiers, however, the war was to be fought largely between amateurs, whether enthusiastic volunteers or reluctant conscripts. For now the fighting remained limited to local skirmishes and uprisings as the two sides coalesced and probed their enemies.