Recognition of Finnish independence – after 6 December 1917
On 6 December 1917, The Parliament of Finland adopted the Declaration of Independence and an action plan for the achievement of independence that were put forward by the Svinhufvud Senate. One of the most notable items was gaining international recognition for Finnish independence.
Gaining recognition was a complex affair due to the world politics at the time. Both alliances had adopted the concept of nations’ right to self-determination in their declarations during World War I. Furthermore, Bolsheviks, who had declared freedom for all peoples, had seized power in Russia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. In the years to follow, this would mean the emergence of several new nation states, but in December 1917 the Finns were one of the first in line. Finland could be the one to pave the way, which meant that the superpowers were watching the situation with reservations. The overall situation was, in all respects, in constant change. The Bolshevik rule was still on shaky ground, and it seemed likely that new rulers would rise to power in Saint Petersburg in the near future. At the same time, peace negotiations were ongoing between Russia and Germany. If peace was to come, it would completely reorganise the situation of World War I. Finnish independence was a tiny piece of a much bigger puzzle.
For the Svinhufvud Senate, the situation was problematic. Contacts to different parts of belligerent Europe soon made it clear that recognition could not be expected before agreement on the matter was reached with the former mother country. The scouts sent to Russia by the Senate and the various parties received the same answer as before: the Bolsheviks were prepared to recognise Finnish independence, but the other political groups pleaded that the decision was to be taken by the Constitutional National Assembly, which was still in the planning phase. The Svinhufvud Senate was not initially prepared to negotiate with the Bolshevik government. In addition to ideological grounds, there were also practical reasons. Germany was the only superpower that had recognised the Bolsheviks. If the Bolsheviks were to be overthrown in the near future or World War I was to end in the victory of superpowers that would not recognise the Bolshevik rule, this would entail the risk of annulment of any agreements on independence made with the Bolsheviks.
On 22 December, the Finnish Parliament made the unanimous decision of playing it safe and addressed a plea of recognition to the Constitutional Assembly of Russia. At the time, two weeks had already passed since the Declaration of Independence, and gaining recognition had not progressed from square one. At the same time, the armistice negotiations between Germany and Russia stagnated. The Finnish question was not included as an item in these negotiations, but the Germans were concerned about the western powers becoming involved in the Finnish question, if the matter was prolonged. This is why the Germans began to press the Finns to go directly to the Bolshevik government to seek recognition of their independence.
Finally, on 29 December, the Senate of Finland completed a request for recognition to the Government of Russia and sent a delegation, led by Svinhufvud, to take it to Saint Petersburg. There was another small obstacle in the way, as the Russians demanded that the letter must be addressed specifically to the Council of People’s Commissars. After amendments to the text, the Council of People’s Commissars accepted it for processing in the last moments of the year 1917. The decision was made according to the promises given: the Council decided to propose the recognition of Finnish independence to the Central Executive Committee. Four days later, on 4 January 1918, the Central Executive Committee accepted the proposal on recognition.
Recognitions of Finnish independence from Sweden and France followed immediately, during the same day. The German recognition arrived a few days later, but it was stated that the decision had been taken immediately on 4 January. Soon after, Norway and Denmark followed with their recognitions. However, the principle Allied Powers – the United States and the British Empire – were not prepared to recognise Finnish independence at this point, even though they expressed their sympathy towards the Finnish people.
When the Parliament convened, on 8 January, Svinhufvud was able to make the solemn announcement that Russia, Sweden and France had recognised Finnish independence and that a similar declaration was to be expected from Germany. “By making this announcement to the Parliament, the Government herewith expresses its conviction that the people of Finland will prove adequately worthy, both internally and externally, of taking their place side-by-side with the noble nations that have recognised her freedom.” In his reply, the Speaker of Parliament, Mr Lundson stated that the Finnish people had received the news of the recognitions with joy. He concluded his speech by leading “a heartfelt triple eläköön (long live) cheer” in honour of the nations that had recognised Finland’s independence. After this, another three “brisk eläköön cheers” to celebrate free Finland.
It was only after the news of the recognition of Finnish independence that the Finns dared to celebrate. Newspapers featured big, exciting headlines on a centuries-old dream coming true. Massive celebrations soon followed across the country. All social classes participated in the celebrations, but Finns no longer fit under one roof. In the capital city, the middle class celebrated in the National Theatre, whereas the working class convened at the People’s Hall. The freshly independent nation was on its way towards a Civil War already in the moment of festivities.
Even after internal battles, the independence remained on unstable ground. World War I continued, as did the Civil War in Russia. The foundations of Finnish independence remained shaky for a couple of more years. World War I ended in November 1918, but Eastern Europe drifted into an era of revolutions and civil wars. During 1918, a total of 15 countries recognised Finnish independence. Finally, in the spring of 1919, the United States and the British Empire gave their recognition of independent Finland. The Treaty of Tartu, signed on 14 October 1920 between Finland and Soviet Russia, is considered the final seal of the process of gaining independence. The conditions in Europe started to stabilise after World War I and the restless times that followed. Finland was a young nation that had gained recognition from its neighbours and all of the most important powers.
Text: Samu Nyström