Students in 1917: traitors or champions of independence?

In 1917, University of Helsinki students campaigned actively to extricate Finland from Russian rule, but they had to be careful to avoid repercussions for the University and the country. When the University cancelled its autumn term due to food shortages, they spent their time practicing military skills in secret in the facilities of the gymnastics and fencing department.

“Students also had a significant role in Finland gaining her independence both within and beyond the University, both in 1917 and the preceding years. The Jäger Movement was started by University students in 1914, and the student radicals prepared for Finnish independence in many ways by enlisting Germany’s help,” explains historian, Docent Samu Nyström.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Finland was a Grand Duchy under the Russian Czar, and a part of the Russian Empire. Young Finnish men did not have to fight in the war, as Finland paid significant compensation to Russia to exempt them from serving in the Russian military. However, a group of University students volunteered for the Russian army in 1914.

Radical ideas about extricating Finland from Russian rule began to circulate among the students very soon after the beginning of the war. Activists met in the Ostrobotnia building of the Pohjalainen Student Nation early in the autumn to discuss methods of gaining independence from Russia. They decided to turn to Germany.

“University leadership knew what the activists were doing. Deputy Chancellor Hjelt had German sympathies, and was consequently particularly supportive of the project,” says Nyström.

The first group of students, approximately 200 men, travelled to Germany to a scout camp in February 1915. They would become the first members of the Jäger Movement.

“Originally, the Jäger Movement was mainly a student project,” emphasises Samu Nyström.

In 1916, the Russians discovered what was happening, and  blocked the passage of prospective Jägers into Germany. Some of the men, including students, were jailed in St. Petersburg.

Minimalist resistance

The University had always played a prominent role when the Russian emperor visited Helsinki. But Emperor Nicholas II’s visit in the spring of 1915 was a source of some consternation for the University.

“They didn’t want to invite a conflict that could hurt the University, but neither did they want to seem too welcoming. They decided to stage a minimal welcome: a group of about 200 students and the University’s teachers greeted the Emperor from the steps of the Main Building as he drove past along Unioninkatu,” says Samu Nyström.

New international ideas and ideologies tended to spread primarily through universities.

“In this sense it was natural that students of the University of Helsinki campaigned actively for Finnish independence. The University had trained all of the country’s educated populace,” Nyström points out.

By the spring of 1917, World War I had been raging for three years. Daily life was becoming increasingly grim everywhere in Europe. Inflation was rampant, and necessities were in short supply. In March, the Russian Revolution broke out, and the Emperor was overthrown.

“The Russian Revolution evoked no major enthusiasm at the University among the German-sympathising leadership or the student body,” says Samu Nyström.

The new commander-in-chief of the Baltic Fleet of the Russian navy, Admiral Maximov, spoke at the Great Hall of the University soon after the Revolution, urging students to join the revolutionary troops. He also suggested the establishment of a common workers’ order guard. The students were not convinced by Maximov, but they agreed to stay calm.

Two days later, Maximov invited student representatives to his ship and restated his appeal. The students were conciliatory, but did not commit to Maximov’s proposals.

“Students played a very prominent role in the days after the Revolution. When the revolutionary Minister of Justice Kerensky visited Helsinki, he was greeted by students. They wanted to find out what Kerensky thought, and he promised some liberties for Finland. The strength of the Jäger battallion increased the significance of students in the post-revolutionary negotiations,” says Nyström.

The Revolution also led to the collapse of the police system in Finland. In the larger cities, the police was replaced by municipal militias. In Helsinki, this was arranged in cooperation between workers and the bourgeoisie according to the groups established during the 1905 general strike. Students were included in the latter group. The militias patrolled the streets in pairs, with one representative from each group. Approximately 200 students participated in the militias.

Cancellation of the 1917 autumn term

After the heady, even carnivalistic summer fuelled by revolutionary sentiments, the crises sparked by the world war deepened in the autumn of 1917.  Despair began to take hold.  The Russian army’s ability to fight had plummeted, and the Eastern Front drew ever nearer.  There were even rumours of Russian’s planning to evacuate Helsinki.

“The food shortage in Helsinki was becoming critical. The University’s leadership decided to cancel the autumn term. All teaching, with the exception of some clinical courses in medicine, was cancelled. It was still possible, though, to complete examinations and degrees, and teachers’ salaries were paid. The goal was to encourage students to stay in their home towns, away from Helsinki,” explains Nyström.

Some students did stay home. They established voluntary fire brigades and sports associations around Finland, effectively cover organisations for White Guard groups. The intention was to build up manpower for an uprising against the Russians.

The students resisted the decision to cancel the term, and many came to Helsinki. As there was no teaching, they had a great deal of free time.

“The ones who came to Helsinki established a students’ White Guard, to support the Jägers.” The White Guard trained in the gymnastics and fencing hall on Fabianinkatu, at the location of the current new side of the Main Building, in a low wooden building and in apartments owned by student nations.

“They trained with rapiers, toy rifles and gymnastics batons. Command words were translated from German into Finnish. Jägers would also visit from Germany to train the White Guard,” explains Nyström.

During the autumn, the political divisions in Finland became increasingly intense, forcing the White Guard to train in secret. They posted guards at the doors, drew the curtains and issued commands quietly.

The students’ White Guard kept its distance from the Helsinki White Guard established in the early autumn, as its primary goal was to release Finland from Russian rule. The students’ White Guard did not want to interfere in internal power struggles.

Not all students were connected to Germany, and the Triple Entente powers Britain and France also had their supporters among the students. The student body also featured pacifists, who in December handed out copies of their manifesto on the streets, demanding the disarmament of all guards.

Patriotic celebration in January 1918

In January 1918, the University’s spring term commenced as usual. Finland had declared independence in December, and during the first days of the new year, it was recognised by Russia, Germany, France and the Nordic countries.  

“The opening of the academic term on 19 January featured independence themes prominently. Finland’s red flag with the lion crest was hoisted on the roof of the Main Building. The students’ evening gala featured patriotic speeches along with the premiere of Jean Sibelius’ Jääkärimarssi. The German song Die Wach am Rhein was also sung with great enthusiasm. The atmosphere was excited and patriotic. The gala can be considered one of the culminations of the Jäger Movement,” says Samu Nyström.

A week later, the Civil War broke out in Finland.