White Guard (Finland)

From Academic Kids

The White Guards is one translation of the Finnish term Suojeluskunta (plural: Suojeluskunnat, Finland-Swedish: Skyddskår) that has received many different translations to English, for instance: Security Guard, Civil Guard, National Guard, White Militia, Defence Corps, Protection Guard, Protection Corps and Protection Militia.

These White Guards constituted the bulk of the victorious White Army during the Civil War in Finland (1918), and also the main forces of the Lapua Movement's failed coup d'état, the Mäntsälä Rebellion (1932).

Similar paramilitary militias existed in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, i.e. in lands like Finland being under Russian sovereignty until the end of World War I. These militias didn't cease to exist until World War II, partly evolving towards Home Guards. The phenomenon should be distinguished from the Freikorps established in Germany after her defeat in the first world war, although some similarities exist.

The following text intends only to cover the situation in Finland.


Historical context

(See also: Civil War in Finland)

Tensions during Russia's failed war against Japan led, among other things, to a General Strike in 1905, during which "Red" (Socialist) "Protection Guards of Workers" were organized, but also "White" (anti-Socialist) "Security Guards". The White and Red Guards were typically disguised as fire-brigades, which suddenly became a matter of great national concern in Finland.

The first violent clash between Red and White Guards was already in July 1906 in Helsinki, but the renewed Russian oppression ment a common enemy, why serious conflicts would wait until after the February Revolution in Russia 1917, when tensions over issues such as Parliamentarism, land reform and democratization of municipal elections, between a Socialist majority in Finland's Parliament and Cabinet, and the non-Socialist minority supported by Kerensky's revolutionary Provisional Government in Russia, led to increased polarization, strikes and some political violence. "Red Guards" were set up in some towns, as the Police in Finland was virtually abolished by the Provisional Government of Russia, although few Red Guards were established before November due to resistance from the Social Democratic leadership.

In this situation some of the old fire-brigades were revived, simply as an answer on the insecurity and lawlessness. Particularly on the rural countryside, where the strike-connected violence actually was most intense. Suojeluskunnat were organized by leaders of the local societies, that was usually Conservative academics and industrialists, but "the Reds" were often collectively invited through their employers or their local Labor Union.

New elections for Finland was announced by the Russian government, and the Left lost their absolute majority in the Parliament.

The February Revolution, and even more so Lenin's Bolshevist October Revolution, ignited hopes also in Finland. The polarization and mutual fear between Leftists and Rightists in Finland had increased dramatically. About 30 political assassinations were reported. Subsequently a pure non-Socialist cabinet was appointed, which after the Bolshevists had seized power in Russia felt squezed between increasingly revolutionary Socialists at home and aggressive Bolshevists in Saint Petersburg, proximate to Finland's border in South-East. Numerous Russian troops stationed in Finland made bad things worse, as they too were enthusiasmed by the revolutionary frenzy, which they called their "svoboda" - their freedom. The svoboda appeared for the Finns as the Russian military going off control. They were intoxicated, they looted, they acted violently and they executed their officers. And on top of all this: a General Strike in Finland.

The White Guards in the Civil War

The Senate, led by the national hero Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, proposed a Declaration of Independence, which the Parliament adopted on December 6th, 1917. Declaring independence is one thing, exercizing control over the territory is another. Svinhufvud's "White Senate" had yet nothing but the "White Guards" to rely on. The 42,500 Russian soldiers had to be disarmed and sent back to Russia, and the "Red Guards" had to be kept in check. Unfortunately the necessary confidence had disappeared.

The Civil War in Finland was ultimately ignited, when Svinhufvud's Senate on January 13th, 1918, was authorized by the Parliament to organize a Police force of the Suojeluskunnat. Soon the Senate asked general Mannerheim to form a new Finnish army on the basis on the Suojeluskunta militia, which already had begun in small scale to disarm the Russian garrisons - at the same time intending to stop the flow of weapons to the Red Guards.

Neither the Red Guards, nor the White, were trained for combat. A structure of the armies had to be built in extreme haste. The White Army profitized on the Finnish Jaeger troops (2,000 man) able to act as instructors and officers, on volunteers from Sweden (1,200 man, of whom a large part officers), and on Finnish officers from the Russian Tsarist units, who returned home after the October Revolution. The White Army could use confiscated Russian weapons, and weapons delivered by Germany. The Red Army got weapons from Bolshevist Russia, and had initially more men in arms, but lacked instructors and officers.

The White Guards after the Civil War

The defeat of the Red Army, after four months of bitter Civil War, made the White Guards recognized as one of the key agents in the victory.

In reality, German troops had made a necessary contribution to the Whites' victory, but for the sake of National Pride, it was important to stress the importance of the White Guards, the basis of the White Army, and of the Finnish Jaegers, the Army's elite.

The Civil War erupted in a time when Finland was focusing on the Russian threat: Russia had tried to russify Finland for 20 years, White Russia wanted to limit Finland's autonomy, Russian soldiers were the closest threat, and Russian Bolsheviks were perceived as the most dangerous. In this situation, it was easy for large parts of the Finnish public to assume that the Civil War had been The War of Liberation from Bolshevist Russia, and consequently perceiving the Reds as traitors.

Germany's defeat in the World War, half a year after the Civil War, followed by soured relations with Sweden, having turned Socialist, particularly in connection with Åland's attempted cessession from Finland, made it even more natural to talk quietly about the foreign (i.e. Russian, German, and Swedish) contributions to the White victory.

The White Guards could accordingly be depictured as Finland's freedom fighters.

The local White Guards function in the following 20 years - up to the Winter War - was a mixture of Veteran Corps and Home Guards. They also sponsored numerous sport competitions and promoted voluntary national defence. In Winter War members of the Guard provided the fourth of the manpower of the field army, the contribution made more important as they were the best trained and equipped personnel as they had had to purchase their own rifle and overcoat during their membership of the Guard.

The frosty relations between White Guards and Socialists started to ease during 1930s. During 1920s Socialists had demanded dismantlement of White Guards, but as Guard leadership and overwhelming majority of the members remained loyal to government during Mäntsälä rebellion, the demands were moderated to making Guards official part of the army. The rift was ultimately healed during the Winter War, when leadership of the Guard and the Social Democratic Party issued a joined statement February 15, 1940, where Guard leadership recommended local Guards to recruit Socialists and Party leadership recommended it's members to join Guards.

After the Continuation War, the Finnish White Guards were disbanded in 1944, as Soviet Union demanded this.

See also


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