Cultural Memory and the Finnish Civil War

by Tiia Sahrakorpi

“Why are Finnish people constantly discussing World War II?” The Second World War is brought up by many elderly Finns in interviews concerning Russia’s actions today in relation to Finland. World War II still forms an important part of Finnish cultural memory and self-identification. However, the Finnish Civil War of 1918 does not have a part in the national narrative that I have heard from my own family. Why didn’t my family discuss it more openly, I contemplated recently. As a historian, I wondered: what impact does this narrative have on Finnish society?

In my title, the phrase “cultural memory” is defined with Jan Assmann’s theory of collective memory, where cultural memory is a part of what we remember as a society. He assumes that the process of remembrance is culturally determined and shared collectively. [1] In this particular post, I am using his definition to look at the cultural memory created between generations of the civil war—my grandparents’ (born c. 1930), whose grandparents and parents had links to the conflict, and my own (born c. 1990).

Perhaps one of the most defining conflicts in recent Finnish history, the Finnish Civil War (sisällissota/kansalaissota*) was a traumatic event for its generation. It tore apart brothers and fathers and split the country into two. The conflict was between the communists (reds) vs. the capitalists (whites): both with different visions of Finland’s political future.

The war juxtaposes itself with the First World War because of the connections Finland made with both Germany and Russia. Ties to Russia remained strong even after independence in 1917 and some Finns were influenced by communism and bolshevism (as were, for example, the Germany November revolutionists of 1918). Germany helped train a Finnish military force secretly in 1914, as Russia did not allow Finland an army. [2]

The Finnish Civil War of 1918 was a topic that I remember briefly studying around the age of fourteen. The people involved in this conflict were never given much thought or a voice during history classes, and it wasn’t until recently that the war was discussed with my own family. “Why hasn’t it ever been discussed with me?”, I asked my father when he mentioned it. He just shrugged.

Mattila's good behaviour and ties to the community had to be proved for his release from prison after the Civil War ended.
Mattila’s good behaviour and ties to the community had to be proven for his release from prison after the Civil War ended.

My grandmother’s grandfather, Ivar Adolf Mattila, was involuntarily a part of the Red Army during the war. According to my grandmother, he had been kidnapped while doing construction work, and forced to join the Reds. Throughout the conflict he stayed in prison and had to eat grass due to famine. My grandmother stated that her father believed his father died in prison because he had given up his bread for cigarettes. In court documents written by the victorious “Whites”, his good character had been proven by his neighbours, but he was not given amnesty until late 1918. Two days before his release, he died of starvation. My grandfather’s grandfather fought for the Whites, who had established themselves as a defense force in 1915/1916 in reaction to the Reds, who were attempting the same.

In her view, “It’s no wonder that the relatives of the Red Army casualties are bitter about losing their loved ones and that is why that time period has left bad memories. Vaari [her father] was bitter his whole life after he lost his father at the age of 14-15.”

As a Finn four generations past this conflict, it is striking to me that it is not discussed much for my generation. We are taught about the war, but not given the opportunity to talk about it as earlier generations seemed to. Focus is much more on the Second World War and Russian aggression towards Finland, but its roots were in the Civil War of 1918.(3) The foundations are never discussed, but the Winter War and the Continuation War are frequently talked about within my family. As a society, it seems that people want to forget the Civil War and create a common collective identity and memory surrounding World War II. This narrative appears much more acceptable and nationalistic than the sharp ideological divide of the Civil War.

As Finns, we should re-assess our national narrative of the Second World War as being the beginning of the Finland-against-Big Russia narrative. Instead, we could look at the collective cultural memory of the First World War we share with Europe as a way of understanding our Civil War and the Second World War. As a society, we shouldn’t forget an event simply because an earlier generation attempted to erase and forget about it, or “dealt with it”. My generation hasn’t.


(1) Jan Assmann, “Das kollektive Gedächtnis zwischen Körper und Schrift, Zur Gedächtnistheorie von Maurice Halbwachs” in Hermann Krapoth (ed.), Erinnerung und Gesellschaft. Hommage à Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945). (Wiesbaden, 2005), p. 78.

(2) C. Jay Smith, Jr., “Russia and the Origins of the Finnish Civil War of 1918,” American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Dec., 1955), 482.

(3) Even trying to find find the page on the YLE (BBC equivalent) for video archives is not visibly dated as is with WWII. Link to archive videos from the Civil War: last show done on the trauma left by the war was broadcast in 2004, titled “Inhmimillinen tekijä” (Compassionate Actors). Is this enough coverage in recent on a conflict that had a deep effect on almost half the population?

* – There are multiple names for the conflict that aren’t listed. “Sisällissota” and “kansalaissota” both essentially mean civil war, but “kansalaissota” means directly translated ‘civilian war’ indicating its place in Finnish historical consciousness.

Read more

Marvin Rintala and John H. Hodgson, “Gustaf Mannerheim and Otto W. Kuusinen in Russia,” The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1978), pp. 371-386.

John H. Hodgson, “The Finnish Communist Party,” Slavic Review, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Mar., 1970), pp. 70-85.

Marko Tikka, Terrorin aika – Suomen levottomat vuodet 1917-1921 (Trans: Time of terror: Restless years of Finland 1917-1921). Ajatus Kirjat 2006.

Marko Tikka ja Antti O. Arponen, Koston kevät. Lappeenrannan teloitukset 1918 (Trans: Spring of revenge: Executions in Lappeenranta 1918). WSOY 1999.

C. Jay Smith, Jr., “Russia and the Origins of the Finnish Civil War of 1918,” American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Dec., 1955), pp. 481-502.

Joukko Heikkilä, Kansallista luokkapoolitiikkaa: Sosiaalidemokraatit ja Suomen autonomianpuolustus 1905-1917 (Trans: National class politics: Social Democrats and Finnish defense of its autonomy). Helsinki: Suomen historiallinen seura, 1993.

V. M. Kholodkovsky, Revoliutsiia 1918 v Finliandii i germanskaia interventsiia. Moscow: “Nauka”, 1967.

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