Victor Serge

A Page from Finnish History

Wholesale Massacre of Finland’s Workers
Made ‘Republic’ Possible


Source: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 93, 16 December 1939, p. 3.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

(Concluded from last week)

Finland secured its independence as a result of the October Russian Revolution. Fatally misunderstanding the laws of the class struggle, the social democrats set up an “Ideal Democracy” which left untouched the property and, consequently, the power of the bourgeoisie. Kuusinen, who, at the head of the social democrats, led the Finnish workers to disaster then, is the same Kuusinen who now heads Stalin’s hand-picked “government” in Finland. In both roles he exemplified his hostility to the real socialist revolution. Mannerheim, who led the Whites against the Reds in 1918, leads the Finnish Army today.Editors

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The bourgeoisie displayed much greater realism than the social democrats. It immediately set on foot a small White army, the backbone of which was the 27th Jaegers battalion of the German army, composed of young Finns – about five thousand altogether. A former general of the Russian army, a Swede by birth, Mannerheim, took command of these troops and promised to ‘‘re-establish law and order in fifteen days.”

At the beginning of hostilities the Red Guard was composed of only fifteen hundred poorly armed men. The Whites, who were masters of the Bothnian Gulf cities in addition to the agrarian provinces, took the offensive along a front that stretched from the Gulf of Bothnia to Lake Ladoga.

There were Russian garrisons in the cities of Sveaborg, Vyborg and Tammerfors. A section of the Baltic fleet was anchored in Helsingfors. Antonov-Ovseyenko, Smilga and Dybenko had formed Bolshevik organizations among these troops and sailors. The Russian garrison at Tammerfors, commanded by the revolutionary officer Svechnikov, repulsed Mannerheim’s first attacks. Thus protected by the Russians, the Finnish Red Guard could have armed and organized. But at this moment the Brest-Litovsk treaty forced the Soviet Republic to withdraw its troops.

Germany Turns the Tide of Battle

There remained only a thousand or so volunteers incorporated in the Red Guard. Svechnikov together with a Finnish socialist, Ero Happolinen, directed the operations. The government’s efforts at organization, from January 15 until April 1, resulted in a workers’ army of about sixty thousand men (thirty thousand of them in reserve), and in numerous partially successful battles.

The leader of the White government, Svinhufvud, obtained the help of the Kaiser. Twenty thousand German soldiers under von der Goltz disembarked at Hagoe, Helsingfors and Loviza, taking the Reds from the rear. The capture of Helsingfors, after a stubborn street battle in which the Germans and the Whites used workers’ wives and children as a cover (one hundred were killed), was followed by ferocious reprisals. Artillery bombarded the Workers’ House. A Swedish newspaper published the following information: “Forty Red women, who were said to be carrying arms, were led out on the ice and shot without trial.” More than three hundred dead were picked up in the streets.

Social Democrats Assure the White Victory

The moderate tendency in the social democratic government, represented by Tanner, prevented rigorous measures against the Whites in the interior until it was too late. The courts frequently condemned counter-revolutionists to nothing more than a fine or to the mild pains of imprisonment. If there were any summary executions, they were entirely on the initiative of the Red Guard. The indecision of the government, differences among the leaders, refusal to push forward with the revolution, the half-heartedness of the agrarian reforms, and the effect of the Brest-Litovsk treaty weakened the Reds. The arrival of German troops demoralized them; at this moment Germany was at the height of her power.

Mannerheim surrounded Tammerfors, where ten thousand Reds under Russian officers resisted furiously. The city was taken house by house, after several days’ battle. Two hundred Russians were shot. Several thousand of the besieged got away; two thousand were shot or massacred; five thousand were made prisoners.

At Tavestehus, between Tammerfors and Helsingfors, the decisive battle was fought. Twenty to twenty-five thousand Reds concentrated on this point, driven back from the North by Mannerheim and from the South by von der Goltz. Their retreat to the East was cut off. In defiance of orders they had brought their families, and often all their meagre possessions with them. It was more a migration than an army. These masses, who easily became a rout, could hardly maneuver. The Whites raked them with shrapnel. Although surrounded, they fought heroically for two days before they surrendered. Several thousand of the men managed to open a retreat toward the East. The surrender was followed by a massacre. The killing of the wounded was the rule. There remained the ten thousand prisoners, who were interned. Vyborg fell on May 12. Several thousand of the Red Guard took refuge in Russia.

Finnish “Culture” Expressed to the Defeated Workers

The victors massacred the vanquished. Since ancient times class wars have always been the most frightful. There are no more bloody and atrocious victories than the victories of reactionary classes. Since the blood-bath inflicted on the Paris Commune by the French bourgeoisie, the work had not seen anything comparable to the horrors of Finland. From the first shot of the civil war, “belonging to a workers’ organization in White territory meant arrest; to have been an official in such organization meant execution. The massacre of socialists reached such proportions that it ended by interesting no one.” At Kummen, where 43 Red Guards fell in battle, nearly five hundred persons were executed! There were “hundreds” executed at Kotka, a town of thirteen thousand inhabitants. “They didn’t even ask their names; they just led them away in groups.” At Raumo, according to a bourgeois newspaper, “five hundred prisoners captured on May 15 got the punishment they deserved the same day.” “April 14 in Toeloe, a suburb of Helsingfors, two hundred Red Guards were killed with machine guns ... The Reds were hunted from house to house. Many women perished.” At Sveaborg the public executions were set for Trinity Sunday. In the neighborhood of Lakhtis, where the Whites took thousands of prisoners, “the machine guns worked several hours a day.” “On one day alone two hundred women were killed with dumdum bullets; pieces of flesh flew in every direction.”

At Vyborg six hundred Red Guards were lined up three deep in front of the fortress moat and coldly picked off with machine guns. Among the intellectuals who were murdered we mention the editor of the Social Democrat, Jukho Raino, and the writer, Irmani Rantmalla, who while being led to his execution by boat “threw himself overboard hoping to drown, but his coat preventing him from sinking. The Whites killed him in the water with gun fire.” There are no figures on the total number massacred. Current estimates run between ten and twenty thousand.

“Peace” Takes Its Toll in the Prisons

The official figures for the number of Red prisoners interned in concentration camps was seventy thousand. Famine, vermin and epidemic ravaged the prisons. A report signed by the well-known Finnish doctor, R. Tigerchtet, stated that, “From July 6 to July 31, 1918, the number of prisoners in the Tammerfors concentration camp and the neighboring prison varied between 6,027 and 8,597. Of the prisoners 2,347 died in these twenty-six days and the average mortality among the prisoners reached as high as 407 per 1,000 per week.” On July 25, there were still 50,818 revolutionists in Finnish prisons. In September of the same year, 25,800 were still waiting trial.

For a time the bourgeoisie thought of exporting the “labor power” of its prisoners. A law was passed authorizing the shipment of those condemned to hard labor to foreign countries. Germany, depopulated by the war, was ready to exchange chemical and mineral products for this penal labor force. The German revolution halted the project.

This social purge continued for months in every section of the country. On May 16 warrants were sworn out for the former social democratic deputies who had remained in the country (the revolutionists had already perished or fled). Three of the deputies “committed suicide” in prison during the night of July 2. A dozen more were condemned to death. The supreme court upset this decision in January 1919 and passed one death sentence, six sentences to life imprisonment, four twelve-year sentences, one eleven-year, five ten-year, five nine-year, fifteen eight-year, and two seven-year sentences. “Many of those condemned,” Kataya wrote, “were social democratic traitors to socialism, who had spent all their lives serving the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie revenged itself blindly.” As usual, the White terror made no distinction between the reformists – whom the victorious bourgeoisie no longer needed – and the revolutionists.

With law and order re-established, the Finnish bourgeoisie began to consider a monarch to be chosen from the Hohenzollern family. The more and more precarious situation in Germany, however, put an end to the plan.

To Cripple the Workers for Many Decades

It would not be an exaggeration to say that more than one hundred thousand Finnish workers were struck down by the White terror, either shot or given long sentences – altogether about one quarter of the working class. “Every organized worker has either been shot or imprisoned,” write the Finnish communists in the early part of 1919.

This information permits us to make an important observation on the White terror, which has since been confirmed in Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, etc. The White terror is not to be explained by the frenzy of battle, by the violence of class hatred, or by any other psychological factor. The war psychosis only plays a secondary role. In reality it is the result of a plan and of historical necessity. The victorious owning classes realize clearly that they can only assure their domination on the morrow of a great social battle by inflicting a bloodbath on the proletariat that will cripple it for years to come. And as the working class is much more numerous than the owning class, the number of victims must be very large.

The total extermination of all the advanced and intelligent elements of the proletariat is the objective of the White terror.

Thus a defeated revolution – regardless of the circumstances – will always cost the proletariat infinitely more than a victorious revolution, no matter what hardships and sacrifices the latter may require.

One more observation. The slaughter in Finland took place in April 1918. Until this time the Russian Revolution had shown magnanimity toward its enemies almost everywhere. It did not turn to the Red terror. We have mentioned bloody episodes during the civil war in the South, but they were exceptional. The victorious bourgeoisie of a tiny country, that was counted among the most advanced in Europe, reminded the Russian workers that Death to the Vanquished! is the law of social war.

Last updated on: 28 June 2018