Finland declares independence on 4 and 6 December 1917
What would happen next in St Petersburg and the World War were critical to the realisation of Finland’s independence. When he became Chairman of the Independence Senate, P. E. Svinhufvud had announced that the Senate’s most important goal was to strengthen independence. How the project might proceed, and how soon, depended on many issues.
The nation thirsted for independence, but a happy outcome required the right timing. The Senate did not want to give a declaration of independence in a situation where it would not be possible to promote independence in practice. On the other hand, it was by no means certain that the near future would bring any better time. Finding a united national will was difficult, however, because Finns were badly divided. Independence was generally accepted as the goal, but there was no consensus about procedures. Therefore, it was also necessary for the Senate to take into account that Parliament was unlikely to accept the Declaration of Independence unanimously. In the end, the Svinhufvud Senate decided to opt for a rapid action tactic: the Declaration of Independence would be brought before Parliament as an announcement at the very beginning of December.
The big day came on 4 December 1917. Parliament had just begun to debate the issue of taking out a short-term government loan when the Speaker stated “Debate on the issue is interrupted for a short time. The Chairman of the Senate wishes to present a certain matter.” The senators then entered the Plenary Hall. In front of Parliament, Svinhufvud read a 16-point list of measures that the Senate would submit to Parliament for debate. Among them were proposals related to the form of government as well as items concerning normal parliamentary work.
Afterwards, Svinhufvud continued, “While among these presentations are extremely important proposals for amendments to constitutional laws, including a proposal for a new form of government for Finland, in this regard, on behalf of the Senate of Finland, I wish to state the following” – and he read the Declaration of Independence.
Members of Parliament from the bourgeois parties stood while listening to the speech. Speaker of Parliament Lundson said in response: “Honourable Senator! The dearest wish of the Finnish people at this time in the events of world history is to reach the governmental goal to which every nation that has risen to self-awareness aspires: to be a completely independent nation. With sincere satisfaction, as concerns the announcement you have now made, it can be seen that the Government has taken, and will continue to take, the necessary measures to realise Finland’s independence.” The senators then left the Plenary Hall.
It soon became apparent that the procedure was not the best possible one after all. The Social Democrats demanded that Parliament have the opportunity to discuss the proposals, and many bourgeois MPs also began to consider that Parliament, as the supreme power, should have a say on the matter. Moreover, representatives of foreign countries let it be understood that recognition of independence would be easier if the declaration had the approval of Parliament. Thus the government parties decided on 5 December that the communication would be submitted to Parliament for approval on 6 December 1917.
On 6 December, 1917, the plenary session of Parliament began at 2.00 pm. After organisational issues, the Speaker noted that five MPs had submitted a letter to the Speakers, which proposed that Parliament recognise the Senate’s measures to promote independence:
We request the opportunity to present to today’s plenary session, for decision by Parliament: Owing to the fact that the Government has presented to Parliament a proposal for a new form of government, built on the ground that Finland is an independent republic, Parliament, as the supreme state power, decides for its part to approve this principle
and also to approve that the Government, in order to gain recognition for Finland’s independence as a state, take the measures that the Government has announced are necessary for this purpose.
Helsinki, 6 December 1917.
Santeri Alkio. Pekka Ahmavaara.
Ernst Estlander. Kyösti Haataja.
Thereafter, Kullervo Manner of the Social Democrats made a counterproposal which called for Parliament to declare Finland to be an independent republic, but that independence should be realised on a “conciliatory path with Russia”. No actual debate on the proposals took place; instead, Parliament proceeded directly to voting. By a vote of 100 to 88, Parliament approved the proposal of the bourgeois parties. Parliament then returned to the matters on the agenda. The Parliament and Senate of Finland now had clearly stated that Finland was moving towards complete independence. Next came efforts to obtain international recognition for independence.
Text: Samu Nyström