A Brief History of Finland

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Finland

The first humans arrived in Finland about 7,000 BC after the end of the last ice age. The earliest Finns were stone-age hunters and gatherers. Over thousands of years, successive waves of people entered Finland. After 2,500 BC people in Finland lived by farming. About 1,500 BC they learned to make tools and weapons from bronze. About 500 BC people in Finland learned to use iron. However, the Finns had little or no contact with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome.

Finland in the Middle Ages

The recorded history of Finland began in the 12th century. By 1120 Christian missionaries were operating there. They were prepared to use force to convert Finland! The Swedish king Eric led a crusade in 1157. An Englishman, Bishop Henry of Uppsala, assisted him. Henry stayed after the Swedish soldiers left and he was martyred. Later he became the patron saint of Finland. However, in 1172 the Pope said that the Finns would convert and then renounce their faith as soon as their enemies had left. He advised the Swedes to subject the Finns by permanently manning fortresses in Finland.

However, the Swedes had rivals in Finland. The Danes invaded Finland twice, in 1191 and 1202. Furthermore, the Novgorodians (from part of what is now Russia) hoped to control Finland and convert the people to the Eastern Orthodox Church. They fought the Swedes at the River Neva in 1240 and won a decisive victory. However, the Swedes returned in 1249. Earl Birger led this second crusade. He succeeded in conquering Hame and built a castle at Hameenlinna. Finally, in 1291 a native Finn was made bishop of Turku.

However, the Swedes were keen to conquer Karelia. In 1293 they sent an expedition under Marshal Torgils Knutsson. At first, they were successful but in 1381 the Novgorodians counterattacked. The two sides made peace in 1323. Karelia remained in Novgorodian hands.

Meanwhile, Swedish colonists migrated to Finland in large numbers and after 1323 Finland became a province of Sweden. Swedish law came to apply in Finland (although it was tempered by Finnish custom). In 1362 the Swedes allowed the Finns to participate in the election of a Swedish king. Then, in 1397, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland). The Union broke up in 1523.

Finland 1500-1800

The reformation in Finland was led by Mikael Agricola who became bishop of Turku in 1554. When he died in 1557 Finland was firmly Lutheran. Then in 1581, Finland was made a Grand Duchy. Meanwhile, Helsinki was founded in 1550.

However, in 1596-97 Finnish peasants rose in rebellion in the Club War (so-called because the peasants were armed with clubs). The nobles ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion. Afterward, the peasant’s condition did not improve but Finland became an integral part of Sweden.

The end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th were years of hardship for the Finns. In 1696-97 there was a severe famine. Malnutrition and disease reduced the population of Finland by about a third.

Then came the Great Northern War of 1709-21. In 1713 the Russians invaded Finland and marched across it. The Swedish-Finnish army made a last stand at Storkyro but was defeated. The Russian occupation from 1713 to 1721 is known as the Great Wrath. Wealthy Finns fled to Sweden but peasants could not escape. King Charles XII ordered the Finns to start guerrilla warfare against the Russians, which naturally led to reprisals. In 1721 peace was made but Charles XII had to surrender the south-eastern part of Finland to Russia.

Meanwhile in 1710 plague reached Helsinki and devastated the population.

War broke out again between Sweden-Finland and Russia in 1741. The Swedes were defeated at Villmanstrand. The Russian army occupied the whole of Finland but the treaty of Albo, which ended the war in 1743 left the status quo unchanged except that Russia took a small part of Finland.

War broke out again in 1788. This time a man named Magnus Sprengtporten led a separatist movement. However, he attracted few followers and the war ended in 1790.

Finland in the 19th Century

Finland was finally detached from Sweden in 1809. The Russians invaded Finland on 21 February 1808. The Russians captured a fortress at Sveaborg in May but the Swedish-Finnish army won a victory at Lapua in July. However, in September 1808, the Russians won a decisive victory at Oravainen. Swedish troops then abandoned Finland and left to their own devices the Finns made peace with the Tsar. During the 18th century, Sweden was declining and Russia was growing more and more powerful so the Finns bowed to the inevitable.

In March 1809 the Finnish Diet (a form of parliament) accepted Tsar Alexander as their ruler. He agreed that Finland would become a Grand Duchy rather than a part of Russia and he promised to respect Finnish laws. In 1812 the Tsar moved the capital of Finland from Turku to Helsinki.

Little changed in Finland in the early 19th century. Then in 1856, the Saimaa canal was built. It enabled the Finns to export timber from their great forests to western Europe more easily.

In the late 19th century Finnish nationalism began to grow. As early as 1835 Elias Lonnrot published a collection of Finnish folk poems called Kalevala. After 1850 interest in the Finnish language and culture grew stronger. In 1858 the first Finnish-speaking grammar school opened. By 1889 half of the grammar schools in Finland spoke only Finnish.

However, at the end of the 19th century, Tsar Nicholas II tried to clamp down on Finnish nationalism. In 1899 he issued a manifesto, which said he had the power to make laws for Finland, without the consent of the Finnish Diet if those laws affected Russian interests.

Finland in the 20th Century

The pendulum then swung the other way. In 1902 Finnish was made an official language along with Swedish and in 1905 the Tsar withdrew the manifesto of 1899. In 1907 a new assembly was elected to replace the old Diet. This time all men were allowed to vote.

From 1906 Finnish women were also allowed to vote. Finland was the first European country and the third in the world, after New Zealand and Australia to allow women to vote in national elections. Furthermore, in 1907 Finnish women became the first in the world to win seats in a national parliament.

However, in 1910 the Tsar severely restricted the power of the Finnish legislature. He declared that he had the power to pass laws for Finland if its effects were not limited to the internal affairs of that region.

But the reign of the Tsar was soon over. He abdicated in March 1917. In July 1917 the Finnish Diet declared that it had authority in all matters except foreign policy. Then on 6 December 1917, the Diet declared Finland an independent Republic.

Meanwhile, in October 1917 a conservative government was elected in Finland. The far-left decided to try and take power by force. The Red Finns seized Helsinki and other towns. However, General Gustaf Mannerheim led the White Finns. In April 1918 they captured Tampere. Meanwhile, the Germans intervened. German troops captured Helsinki. By the middle of May, the rebellion had been crushed. Subsequently, 8,000 reds were executed. Another 12,000 died in prison camps.

In October 1918 a German Prince, Charles Frederick of Hesse was made king of Finland. However, his reign was extremely short. After Germany signed the armistice on 11 November 1918 Mannerheim was made regent. Shortly afterward, in 1919 Finland gained a new constitution. In July 1919 Finland’s first president K J Stahlberg replaced Mannerheim. Finland became a republic.

Following Finnish independence, farming was reformed. In the years 1918-1992, many leaseholders became smallholders.

In 1929 the Communists demonstrated in Lapua. As a result, right-wingers foamed an anti-Communist movement called the Lapua movement. In February 1932 the Lapua movement tried to seize power in Mantsala. President Stahlberg defeated the rebellion but the rebels were treated leniently.

Finland became involved in the Second World War. In 1939 Stalin feared an attack from the West. He wanted to take territory from Finland to protect his northern flank. Stalin offered to give Finland other territories in exchange but the Finnish government refused so Stalin decided to use force.

The Winter War began on 30 November 1939. The Finns were heavily outnumbered but they fought bravely. The Russians invaded Finland north of Lake Ladoga but they were defeated at Tolvajari and Suomussalmi. Meanwhile along the Karelian Isthmus Finland was protected by the Mannerheim Line, a network of forts concrete bunkers, and trenches. The Russians tried to break through but the Finns held them up for several weeks.

However, on 14th February 1940, the Russians penetrated the Mannerheim line and Finland was forced to seek peace. The war ended with the Treaty of Moscow on 12 March 1940. Afterward, Finland was forced to surrender the southeast including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg) and more territory north of Lake Ladoga. About 22,000 Finns died in the Winter War.

In June 1941 Finland joined with Germany in attacking Russia. The Finns called it the Continuation War. The Finns quickly recaptured their territory. However, in December 1941 Britain declared war on Finland and after the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, the Finns realized they must leave the war. n Negotiations began in March 1944 but Finland rejected the Russian demands. However, defeat was inevitable and Finland made a ceasefire with Russia on 5 September 1944.

After the war, Finland was forced to surrender large amounts of territory to Russia. The Finns also had to pay reparations. The Continuation War cost 85,000 Finnish lives. However, a final peace treaty was made with Russia in 1947.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the treaty of 1947 was replaced by a new treaty in 1992 in which both sides agreed to settle their differences in a friendly manner.

There were about 450,000 refugees from the territory taken by the Russians, which added to the strain on Finland’s economy. However, Finland slowly recovered from the war. By the early 1970s, the Finnish economy was booming. However, in the late 1970s, it declined. In the mid and late 1980s, Finland enjoyed rapid economic growth but it ended with a recession in the early 1990s. There was mass unemployment. However, at the end of the century, Finland recovered.

Before the Second World War, the main occupation in Finland was agriculture. Since 1945 metalworking, engineering, and electronics industries have grown but Finland is still less industrialized than the other Scandinavian countries. The main resource of Finland is timber.

In 1995 Finland joined the EU. In 1999 Finland joined the Euro.

Finland in the 21st Century

Meanwhile, in 2000 Tarja Halonen was elected the first woman President of Finland. In the same year, Helsinki celebrated its 450th anniversary.

In 2024 the population of Finland was 5.5 million. In 2023 Finland joined NATO. Today it’s a prosperous country.

Helsinki Cathedral

Last revised 2024