Towards freedom – Steps to independence taken in 1917 before the Declaration of Independence
As the First World War dragged on, both the Central Powers and the Allied Powers had begun to talk about the self-determination of peoples. Effort was made, in many ways, to support the aspirations of the adversary’s minority peoples to break away. The Jaeger Movement of Finland is an example of this. More precise definition of self-determination was avoided, however, as both sides had multinational great powers which feared that the wrong types of examples would lead to division within their own ranks as well.
“I venture therefore to trust that the Finnish people’s right of self-determination, the beginning of independence for the people of Finland, now rests on a sure foundation and it is our duty to develop it firmly and consistently, and in such a way that the Finnish people’s independence will be guaranteed in the near future.”
Vice Chairman of the Senate Oskari Tokoi,
20 April 1917
Following the February (March) Revolution of Russia, diverse aspirations of emancipation arose in many of the Empire’s peoples. In Finland, the manifesto issued in March restored the country’s autonomy to be in line with Finns’ interpretation of political science. At the start of Parliament’s session, in their speeches both Speaker of Parliament Manner and Vice Chairman of the Senate Oskari Tokoi, both of whom represented the Social Democrats, stressed Finland’s aspirations for the widest possible freedom. At the same time, negotiations were launched with the provisional government of Russia concerning the highest power exercised in the Grand Duchy by the Emperor and to whom it had transferred. Of Russia’s political groups, only the Bolsheviks declared their unreserved support for peoples’ self-determination. Of the other political groups, some opposed the increasing of liberties and the rest stated that the power of decision belonged to the national assembly that would be convened later to enact a constitution.
In July a proposal on the use of the highest power in Finland, negotiated with the Russians, was put before the Parliament of Finland for debate. During consideration of the matter in a committee the proposal was changed, by the Social Democrats in particular, into a considerably more radical proposal that came to be known as the Power Act. According to the legislative proposal, in Finland the highest power would be transferred to Parliament and only foreign policy and military issues would continue to be decided by Russia. During the debate in Parliament, the Power Act was backed by the Social Democrats, the Agrarian League and the active wing of the bourgeois parties. From the standpoint of its supporters, it was in practice a declaration of independence. Opponents of the legislative proposal considered it illegal government adventurism that endangered the future of the Finns. In the decisive reading on 18 July 1917, Parliament approved the Power Act by a vote of 136 to 55. The decision making was made easier by information from St Petersburg, which indicated that the provisional government was tottering because of a dispute over Ukrainian autonomy and an attempted Bolshevik coup. Following the decision, at the request of the Speaker most of the Members of Parliament and people in the gallery rose to their feet and gave three cheers.
It soon became apparent that the power struggle in St Petersburg culminated in the strengthening of conservative forces within the provisional government. The Russian government was able to block the Finns’ efforts by force one more time, and thus handed down a manifesto dissolving Parliament. In the Finnish Senate, the vote on publishing the manifesto was split down the middle. The Social Democrats opposed publication while the bourgeois senators considered it best to follow the orders of the provisional government. With an even vote, the decision was left to the governor-general, who acted as chairman of the Senate. The Power Act therefore was not approved and Parliament was dissolved.
“Through the last elections the Finnish people have been invited to answer whether it is really true that the people of Finland want to take control of internal affairs into their own hands. And an answer has been received. From every quarter the answer is: Let Finland be independent!
Speaker of Parliament Johannes Lundson,
1 November 1917
Meetings of the joint Finnish–Russian legal advisory council continued in mid-October but a compromise still was not found. The idea of independence was further strengthened in the new Parliament elected at the start of October; the differences of opinion mainly concerned the mode and means of implementation. The general situation seemed to be developing favourably for the Finns: the Germans were on the move on the Eastern front and the provisional government could no longer rely on its troops in Finland. In early November the provisional government finally came to a compromise and was preparing to issue a manifesto where, with certain reservations, it would hand over the right to exercise the highest power in the country to the Senate of Finland. The compromise was reached too late, however, as the provisional government fell to the Bolshevik revolution just before the manifesto was issued.
In the new situation, Vice Chairman E. N. Setälä of the Senate and the speakers of Parliament declared that the fall of the provisional government meant in practice that the sovereign connection between Finland and Russia had been severed. When Parliament convened on 8 November 1917, the Speaker’s Office declared that according to the Constitution Act of 1772, Finland no longer had a user of supreme power. The solution proposed was to appoint three state regents to whom the highest power that the provisional government had inherited from the Emperor would be transferred. In practice this would also mean the severance of the state connection. The proposal received a contradictory reception. Members of the Agrarian League who had supported the Power Act of July proposed that it would still be recognised, and the Social Democrats presented a broader programme known as the We demand declaration. Following colourful stages, the votes held the next day led to Parliament’s approval of the transfer of supreme power to state regents, by a vote of 106 to 90. The atmosphere in Parliament following the decision was already so strained that the selection of state regents could not be carried out in the next sessions. The state regents remained unchosen and matters again took a new turn soon.
The internal power struggle and the proximity of the St Petersburg revolution led the working people to call for a general strike in November. The Social Democrats announced that the implementation of the demands of the We demand programme was to be the central objective of the strike. At the centre were the Power Act and the legislation on municipal elections and working hours which had been rejected with it in July. At the start of the session on 15 November, the Speaker of Parliament proposed that the Grand Duke’s power be transferred to the Senate Finance Department temporarily. At the initiative of the Agrarian League, however, a compromise was reached, where power was transferred to Parliament temporarily. Unlike in July, this time, the Russians were no longer given any provisions to power in Finland. The Agrarian League’s proposal was backed by the Social Democrats and the independence men of the bourgeois parties, and was approved by a vote of 127 to 68.
Parliament immediately exercised its new ascendancy by approving the controversial laws that were rejected in July. Once the general strike ended, a new government composition was sought. When the Senate of Setälä resigned, on 24 November Parliament approved the list of senators compiled by Svinhufvud, which consisted of independence men from bourgeois parties. The new Senate took up its work on 27 November, announcing that the safeguarding of independence was its most important task.
Text: Samu Nyström