by Kristofer Jäntti
Introduction to the Series
‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Populism’. Since the 1980’s Europe seems to be in the grips of a ‘populist zeitgeist’. It manifests itself in the success of organisations such as Jean Marie Le Pen’s Front National in France or Geert Wilder’s Party of Freedom in the Netherlands. Finland too has not remained immune to the spreading virus, seeing the recent stellar rise of the True Finns, or, to use their new official English name, simply ‘Finns’.
With this year marking the the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, and with Europe still recovering from its financial meltdown (and Fascists roaming the corridors of thbe Greek parliament), it would be prescient to have a glimpse at the still internationally unknown subject of the Far Right in Finland. Before we get into the endless squabbles about definitions, in this series the Far Right will be defined as any nationalist party to the right of the conservatives on the political spectrum which is opposed to certain features of liberal democracy. The Far Right will be extreme (read: Fascist) when it is opposed to the whole structure of liberal democracy.
Part 1: The Rise of Finnish Fascism
As in many European polities during the interwar period, Finland saw the rise of a Far Right Movement which ultimately morphed into card-carrying Fascists with military aesthetics and bold talk about ‘purifying the nation’ and hope of military expansion. Though the first popular Far Right Movement, the Lapua Movement, was not Fascist per se – it certainly did display clear antipathy towards Communism.
This vehement anti-Communism has its roots in the Finnish Civil War of 1918 which was fought between the Bolshevik-inspired ‘Reds’ and the nationalist non-Communists Whites, with the latter ultimately victorious. The Civil War, as usually the case with domestic conflicts, was very bloody and left the young republic highly divided. The Civil War particularly fostered a deep suspicion towards left-wing politics among the more right-wing elements of Finnish society. In the eyes of many, the left-wing became synonymous with the Russian threat to the Finnish nation. This development paved the way to the institutionalisation of the paramilitary ‘White Guards’ into the ‘Civil Guards’ constructed to ensure the continued existence of ‘White Finland’. In terms of influence the Civil Guards numbered at their height around 100, 000, dwarfing the 25, 000 of the regular army.
Most experts (Siltala, Uola, etc.) agree on the importance of the Civil War as vitally important in the formation of the Finnish Far Right. It is not surprising that the Lapua Movement emerged in the ‘White heartland’ of Ostrobothnia – an agricultural region on the West Coast of Finland known for its religious pietism. The spark that ignited the Movement was the provocative action of the Communist party to organise a public rally in 1929 of 400 red-shirted youths through the front organisation ‘Young Workers Educational Association’, though this was disbanded by spontaneous actions by the local populace
This spontaneous reaction led to the formation of the Lapua Movement and quickly escalated into violence. This ranged from destroying communist printing presses to attacking ‘enemies of the nation’. A favoured ‘technique’ that became known as ‘muilutus’ was to abduct and physically abuse perceived left-wing sympathisers and transport them to the Russian border. These covert operations were undertaken by special ‘strike squads’, one of which even abducted the former Progressive president, Ståhlberg, and his wife.
The silent approval of the violence by many on the right of Finnish politics meant that the Lapua Movement started also to gain major political leverage. For example, the Movement staged a ‘Peasant March’ which is reminiscent of Mussolini’s March on Rome. Vihtori Kosola, the leader of the movement, did not get a prime ministerial position but it placed a sufficient amount of pressure on parliament to enact the so-called ‘communist laws’ which effectively banned Communism in Finland from 1930 to 1944. They also put sufficient amount of pressure in order to elect their own candidate ‘Ukko Pekka’ Svinhufvud from the National Coalition Party (conservatives) into presidency.
The Peasant March marked a further radicalisation of the movement which now not only sought to protect the nation from Communism, but also to curb all left-wing politics altogether. The culmination of this was the so-called Mäntsälä Rebellion – the most serious internal threat the Finnish state has encountered, discounting the Civil War. As the government did not heed to the Lapua Movement’s demand to ban the Social Democrats altogether, they staged an armed rebellion in the town of Mäntsälä and hoped that this would spark a widespread insurrection amongst the Civil Guards, who were known to be very sympathetic to it. Fortunately for Finland the army and the majority of the Civil Guards remained loyal to the government, ensuring that the rebellion was defeated. The irony of history lies in the fact that the Lapua Movement was finally banned in 1932 using the very communist laws they vigorously called for.
The successor to the Lapua Movement was the ‘People’s Patriotic Movement’ (IKL), formed by former Lapua Movement activists and, unlike its predecessor, as a political party. The new party continued the fervent anti-Communism and even retained Kosola as leader to begin with, but it now started to take on a more decidedly Fascist appearance: introducing such terms as ‘kansankokonaisuus’ a direct translation of the German Volksgemeinschaft (People’s Community) into the Finnish political lexicon, aspiring to replace liberal democracy with Corporatism , while promoting the very Fascist idea of military expansion to create ‘Greater Finland’.
The new party did not have the same influence as the Lapua Movement but as far Fascist parties go in Europe, the IKL was electorally quite successful managing to get over 8% of the national vote in the 1936 parliamentary elections and was in government during the war years.