German military assistance to the non-socialist ‘Whites’ in the Finnish Civil War of 1918 led to considerable debts. The Civil War ended in victory for White Finland and the German army in late April with the capture of Vyborg.
The costs of providing the German troops with food and equipment fell on Finland.
“The German troops brought with them 4,000 horses and 84 cows, for instance. They shovelled a lot of manure into the Baltic Sea on their three-day sail to Finland,” chuckles Seppo Hentilä, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Helsinki.
Hentilä has investigated the role of Germany in Finnish wars for more than four decades.
According to a Finnish-German treaty, Finland was not allowed to decide on its relations with other countries without the Germans’ consent. A trade agreement between Finland and Germany helped Finland pay off its debts.
The trade agreement, disadvantageous to Finland, was later supplemented with an agreement on the exchange of goods, which was also unfavourable to Finland. Finnish government funds frozen during the First World War, worth dozens of millions of markka at the time, were used to pay off the country’s debts.
The last debts were not settled until the 1930s. Finland’s was the most conscientious debtor in the world at the time.
“Finland paid the lot. German military assistance was far from charity, as much as some Finns would like to think otherwise,” Hentilä states.
Germany did not volunteer to help Finland
The Germans did not send troops to Finland in April 1918 to assist the Whites in winning the Finnish Civil War of 1918, but rather to avoid the expansion of the First World War.
Hentilä says that Germany was not keen to send troops to Finland, but when it received an official request from Finland and saw other benefits in taking up positions in Finland, it decided to intervene, landing troops in the port town of Hanko.
The German assistance was not necessarily decisive for the result of the war, but it was significant in shortening the war, thus reducing the number of victims.
“Finland had no other options after Sweden refused to help. Of course, it would have been possible to fight the war without external help. For example, C. G. E. Mannerheim, who served as the military leader of the Whites, was not at all happy about Germany getting involved.”
“Electing a king was a mistake”
The involvement of the German troops not only left Finland in economic debt, but also led to Finland’s inclusion in the sphere of influence of the German Empire for the remainder of the First World War. German troops stayed in Finland for just over six months, until December 1918.
After the Civil War, the Germans attempted to turn Finland into a sort of helpmate, says Hentilä. For example, representatives of large German corporations came to Finland to measure forest areas and survey ore deposits. The creation of a German-style army was also considered due to the threat of Russia.
“All this took place in cooperation with the Finnish government,” Hentilä points out.
In early October 1918, Finland elected a German king to rule the country, coincidentally on the same day that Germany contacted the Allied powers to request an armistice and surrender.
“The election of the king was a major foreign policy error for Finland. As a result, the victorious Great Britain, France and the United States refused to recognise Finland as an independent state.”
After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, Finland became fully independent, as it had declared in December 1917. At the same time, the efforts to turn Finland into a monarchy were abandoned, with the country becoming a republic as early as 1919. The change of course was greatly influenced by the pressure exerted on Finland by the victorious powers.
“The most radical German-minded representatives of the Finnish right had to retire from politics. For example, Head of State Pehr Evind Svinhufvud and Prime Minister Juho Kusti Paasikivi resigned in December 1918,” notes Hentilä.