Travels through war torn Finland

October 9th, 2013 by Carys Lewis, Assistant Archivist

As a History graduate I’m ashamed to admit that prior to starting to catalogue the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) archive I knew nothing about the Finnish Civil War which occurred from 27 January to 15 May 1918. The war was fought between the Social Democrats led by the People’s Deputation of Finland (commonly referred to as the Reds, who received support from the Russian Soviet Republic government) and the anti-socialist Conservative led Senate (the Whites who had support from the German Empire). The Whites won the war which saw both sides partake in campaigns of terror away from the battle field, an estimated 37,000 people died out of a population of 3 million – the majority being Reds who died in prison camps or in the terror campaigns.

During June and July 1922 Matilde Widegren, first President of the Swedish section of WILPF, and her colleague Svea Säfverström travelled through Finland witnessing the effects of the civil war. The WILPF archive contains a typed report of the women’s experiences with some photographs illustrating what they saw. The report includes some statements on the current feelings of the Finnish population such as this:

“The hatred is still very strong. Most people look at the friends of peace almost as traitors. For fear of Soviet Russia and the Communists Finland has not only a great army but also a numerous safeguard of young men, who volunteer in all kinds of military work… Other things that are stirring up the animosity are the beautiful monuments which are erected on the graves of the fallen white soldiers, the Communists having had to bury their dead comrades in some desolate places.”

Grave of the White Soldiers, 1922

Grave of the White Soldiers, 1922

This statement is consistent with other accounts I have read of the relations between the two opposing sides following the end of the war with some Finnish people identifying themselves as “citizens of two nations.” Finland did not recover its pre-war economic levels until 1925 – the war unsurprisingly having a drastic effect on the economy. Therefore the following description of the women’s arrival in Finland rather goes against both what Widegren had previously written and accepted historical fact:

“Arrived in this country we found that it had a prosperous time. New houses were built, old ones repaired and painted; practically no people were unemployed… The new feeling of freedom, symbolised by the white flag with the blue cross, gave a feeling of courage and happiness.”

Widegren was most likely escorted by local officials on her visit. It’s conceivable that they took her to places and introduced her to people who supported the victorious Whites, keeping hidden areas and people who could reflect the whole story of life in Finland.

One of Widegren’s aims was to “study the conditions of the fugitives in Finland,” meaning refugees who had fled their home nations for Finland. She reports that fugitives from nations or regions related to Finland the government were generous towards however those who fled from Russia suffered despite kindness from individual Finns.

Refugees, 1922

Refugees, 1922

The work being done for “the red children” whose Communist parents were killed in the Civil War is highlighted, the wife of the Finnish President is revealed to have “energetically worked for founding children’s homes and for having the children adopted in good families…the whole government do their utmost to reconcile ‘the red ones’ to the State, but these efforts are quite disapproved of by the Conservative parties.”

Widegren also reports on peace campaigning activity, the Finnish section of WILPF had disbanded but whilst travelling she encountered women interested in reviving the section. The Fellowship of Reconciliation was active with a small branch of 20 “brave and active people.” The concluding statement of Widegren’s report sums up her feelings towards peace work in Finland:

“When I left Finland after five weeks I did it with a strong feeling of the local difficulties for the peace work but also with a thorough conviction of the necessity of this work not only for Finland but for our peace work in general.”

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