White Guard (Finland)

White Guard (Finland)

The White Guards is one translation of the Finnish term "Suojeluskunta" (plural: "Suojeluskunnat", Finland-Swedish: "Skyddskår)", which has received many different approximations in English, including "Security Guard", "Civil Guard", "Civic Guards", "National Guard", "White Militia", "Defence Corps", "Protection Guard", "Protection Corps" and "Protection Militia".

These "White Guards" constituted the bulk of the victorious White Army during the Finnish Civil War (1918), and parts of it formed the main forces of the Lapua Movement's failed coup d'état, the Mäntsälä Rebellion (1932).

Similar paramilitary militias existed in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, i.e., in lands like Finland which were under Russian sovereignty until the end of World War I. These militias remained in existence until World War II, partly evolving towards Home Guards. The phenomenon should be distinguished from the Freikorps established in Germany after its defeat in the first world war, although some similarities exist.

The following text is intended only to cover the situation in Finland.

Historical context

During the first years of the 20th century, Russia had been working on the abolition of Finland's autonomous status. As a result, there was a strong discontentment in Finnish society. In 1905, Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War. In Russia, this caused the Russian Revolution of 1905. In Finland, the unrest was expressed in the Finnish general strike of 1905. During the strike, the Finnish police forces were effectively disbanded, as they had been closely associated with the Russian authorities. Municipal, mostly unarmed, security guards were spontaneously organised by individuals associated with the constitutional and Social Democratic parties. At first, all political groups were able to work together, but towards 1906, the civil guards of large towns were divided along party lines. The first violent clash between Red and White Guards occurred in July 1906 in Helsinki, but after the return of Finnish autonomy, the moderate social democrats and the whole constitutional party withdrew from military activities. However, the radicalised Red Guard of Helsinki did not disband, despite an order from the Social Democratic leadership, and took part in the mutiny at Viapori fortress alongside revolutionary Russian military. In subsequent fighting, imperial Russian troops destroyed the Red Guard as an organisation.

The February Revolution in Russia 1917 caused the collapse of Russian political and military power in Finland. Again, the Russian-associated Finnish police was effectively disbanded, while the undisciplined Russian troops engaged in violence, mostly towards their own officers. During the summer of 1917, spontaneous paramilitary groups were founded to secure peace and order. Although the founding of these "fire brigades" was often done in nonpartisan manner, they usually split into two opposing factions during the Autumn of 1917. The initially unarmed Red and White Guards strove to obtain weapons. The Red Guards usually were able to get arms from the revolutionary Russian military units, while the White Guard got theirs from Swedish and German supporters abroad. At the same time, the political tensions between socialists and non-socialists escalated. Inside the Social Democratic party, the official leadership was derailed while the executive committee of the Red Guards and the labour unions gained more power.

The White Guards in the Civil War

The Senate, led by Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, proposed a Declaration of Independence, which the Parliament adopted on December 6, 1917. Declaring independence is one thing, exercising control over the territory is another. Svinhufvud's "White Senate" had nothing but the "White Guards" to rely on as yet. There were 42,500 Russian soldiers in Finland. Although the Imperial Russian Army was slowly dissolving, and had already started to withdraw its units from Finland, the undisciplined Russian military posed a substantial challenge to Finnish authority.

In parliament, the question on forming a new security force was hotly debated. On January 13, 1918, the non-socialist majority gave authorization to the Senate (Finnish cabinet) to organize a Police force of the White Guard. Soon the Senate asked General Mannerheim to form a new Finnish army on the basis on the White Guard militia. In Southern Karelia, the White and Red Guards clashed in small-scale engagements as both sides attempted to secure the railway to St. Petersburg. During the night between 27th and 28 January 1918, the White Guards started to disarm and arrest the Russian garrisons in Ostrobothnia. During the same night, the executive committee of the Red Guards declared the Finnish Socialist Workers' Republic in Helsinki. The Civil War of Finland had begun.

Neither the Red nor the White Guard were trained for combat. Structures had to be built in extreme haste by both parties. The White Army had a better foundation for this, as it received the Finnish Jaeger troops, some 2,000 men trained by Germany since 1915. These trained soldiers were able to act as instructors and officers, forming the officer and NCO corps of the new conscription army. In addition, the White side had 1,200 volunteers from Sweden, of whom a large part were officers), and a significant number of Finnish officers who had previously served in the imperial Russian Army, but returned home after the revolution.

Although in the beginning of the war, the White Guard formed the bulk of the White army, the conscripted units very soon matched the White Guard units in number. These troops, which were much better disciplined and trained than the volunteer Guards, proved to be crucial for the outcome of the war. The Red side never accomplished conscription, which was one of the reasons for its demise.

After four months of bitter civil war, the Red Guard was defeated, and the White Guards were recognized as one of the key agents in the victory. In reality, the German intervention units and especially the 2,000 Jaegers trained by Germans had been instrumental in the White victory, but for the political reasons, the importance of the White Guards was heavily stressed. The Civil War erupted at a time when Finland was focusing on the Russian threat: Russia had tried to russify Finland for 20 years; White Russia wanted to limit Finland's autonomy; Russian soldiers had been an immediate source of disorder before the war; and Russian Bolsheviks were perceived as dangerous ideological enemies. In this situation, it was easy for large parts of the Finnish public to assume that the Civil War had been "The War of Liberation" from Russia. Consequently, the Reds were stamped as traitors.

The White Guards were accordingly depicted as Finland's freedom fighters. The aftermath of the Civil War was, however, extremely bloody. As the Reds had murdered some 1,100 people in their zone of control (so-called "Red terror"), the Whites retaliated ruthlessly, executing some 7,370 people after the recapture of the Red areas (so-called "White terror"). It is estimated some 9,720 Finns were executed in the Civil War and its aftermath. Some 4,000 Whites and 4,500 Reds were killed in action. The famine of 1918 claimed another 20,000 Finns. Of those who perished, some 13,000 persons were in the prison camps. Because of their ruthlessness and eagerness to retaliate, the White Guards earned the title "Lahtarikaarti" (Butcher Guard) amongst the Reds.

The White Guards after the Civil War

After the Civil War, the function of the White Guards was unclear. In some municipalites, the local White Guard was understood to be a part of the municipal administration. In others, the organisation was considered to have a primarily political role in safeguarding the result of the war. [fiSelén, K. and Pylkkänen, A. (2004). "Sarkatakkien armeija – Suojeluskunnat ja suojeluskuntalaiset". WSOY, Juva. ISBN 951-0-29418-7. Pp. 29–30.] The organisation was given a legal basis on 2nd August 1918 by a decree of the Finnish Council of State. Changes to the decree were made later, refining the organisation's structure. From the beginning, the White Guard was considered to be a voluntary part of the Finnish military. [fiSelén, K. and Pylkkänen, A. (2004). "Sarkatakkien armeija – Suojeluskunnat ja suojeluskuntalaiset". WSOY, Juva. ISBN 951-0-29418-7. Pp. 35–36, 165.]

The local White Guards function in the following 20 years - up to the Winter War - was a mixture of Veteran Corps and Home Guards. After 1921, the White Guard organisation consisted of the General Staff, White Guard districts and local White Guard chapters. Every municipality had at least a single chapter, which in part acted as an NGO, but in military affairs was part of the national chain of command. In an economical sense, each chapter was responsible for its own funding, although it received a minor grant from the state budget. [fiSelén, K. and Pylkkänen, A. (2004). "Sarkatakkien armeija – Suojeluskunnat ja suojeluskuntalaiset". WSOY, Juva. ISBN 951-0-29418-7. Pp. 50–51, 35–36.] The White Guard was active in numerous branches of life. It organised sports activities, especially cross-country skiing, shooting, orienteering and Finnish baseball. [fiSelén, K. and Pylkkänen, A. (2004). "Sarkatakkien armeija – Suojeluskunnat ja suojeluskuntalaiset". WSOY, Juva. ISBN 951-0-29418-7. Chapter "Pitäjän paras urheiluseura" (pp. 84–94).] For fundraising, the chapters organised numerous informal events and lotteries. It is estimated that about one fifth of all get-togethers in Finland were organised by the White Guard. To this end, the White Guard chapters had several hundreds of choirs, orchestras, and theatre groups. [fiSelén, K. and Pylkkänen, A. (2004). "Sarkatakkien armeija – Suojeluskunnat ja suojeluskuntalaiset". WSOY, Juva. ISBN 951-0-29418-7. pp. 95, 53–54).]

The Chief of the White Guard and the district chiefs were selected by the President of Finland. From 1921 until the organisation's demise, this post was occupied by General Kaarlo Malmberg. Usually, the district chiefs and most officers in the district headquarters were from the regular army.

Only able-bodied males between 17 and 40 years of age could be full members of the White Guard. Every member was required to attend a specified amount of training on the pain of losing membership. The members were required to buy their own equipment and rifle, but the local chapters helped their members, if the chapters had funds for it. Until 1934, the White Guard would have formed a division in the full-scale mobilisation. [fiSelén, K. and Pylkkänen, A. (2004). "Sarkatakkien armeija – Suojeluskunnat ja suojeluskuntalaiset". WSOY, Juva. ISBN 951-0-29418-7. pp. 335, 53–54).]

In 1934, the Finnish mobilisation system was changed. The new system was based on military districts acting as the local mobilization centers. In practice, the military districts coincided with the White Guard districts. In case of mobilisation, these two would be unified to act as a single home front district. After the change, the White Guard members formed the cadre of all war-time units, but no specific guard units were planned for mobilisation. On the other hand, the separate war-time White Guard units were removed from the mobilisation plans. The aim of the White Guard was no longer to provide ready fighting units but to act as a voluntary training organisation for reservists. Only the Guard Chapters immediately adjacent to the eastern border had responsibility for starting the initial defence against invasion. [fiSelén, K. and Pylkkänen, A. (2004). "Sarkatakkien armeija – Suojeluskunnat ja suojeluskuntalaiset". WSOY, Juva. ISBN 951-0-29418-7. pp. 368–369).] This effectively ended the role of the White Guard as a separate, political armed force.

During the war, the Guard membership mostly served at the front. In the home area, the Guard districts formed the local headquarters for the military districts and the oldest and youngest Guard members served in guard and anti-aircraft duties. After the Continuation War, the Finnish White Guards were disbanded in 1944, as per demands by the Soviet Union. However, the military district system as the basis for mobilisation was retained, now fully as an Army structure. In the Winter War, the White Guard was responsible for the carrying out of the mobilisation. A quarter of the manpower of the field army consisted of Guard members. This contribution proved important as the Guard members were the best trained and equipped personnel in an army which lacked even basic supplies.


*end of 1917 = 30,000men
*when the civil war started = 35,000men
*in the end of the civil war = 70,000men
*in 1920 = 100,000men

Relations with politics

The frosty relations between White Guards and Socialists started to ease during the 1930s. During the 1920s, Socialists had demanded the White Guards be demobilised, but as the Guard leadership and the overwhelming majority of the members remained loyal to government during Mäntsälä rebellion, the demands were moderated to making the Guards an official part of the army.

The political rift between the White Guard and the labour movement was ultimately healed during the Winter War, when leadership of the Guard and the Social Democratic Party issued a joint statement February 15, 1940, in which the Guard leadership recommended local Guards to recruit Socialists and the Party leadership recommended to its members that they join the Guards. At the same time, the employers' associations agreed to collective-bargaining schemes with the trade unions.

The White Guards relations towards non-socialist parties were mostly warm. The Guard did not distinguish between any non-socialist political views and received the support of all non-socialist parties. Only during the Mäntsälä rebellion did these relations detoriorate, as some more radical parts of the Guard were linked with the extreme right-wing.


The disbandment of the White Guard effectively ended all Finnish voluntary military training for the next decades. The sports activities of the Guard were shouldered by ordinary civilian sports associations, while the psychological work of instilling a national defence spirit was continued by the reservists' associations. However, the Guard itself is a contentious issue, which still divides the people along political lines.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland unilaterally renounced the military articles of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947. Following this, the NGOs working in fields with connections to total defence formed the National Defence Training Association of Finland ( _fi. Maanpuolustuskoulutus ry) which started to organise supplemental voluntary training primarily for Finnish Defence Forces reservists in conjunction with the Defence Forces. The legal basis for the activities was given by changing the Act on Defence Forces in 1994. More accurate basis was given by the Act on Voluntary Defence Work of 2007, which will make the Association a nominally independent public organization under political state control. As the heritage of the White Guard in Finland is very mixed, the National Defence Training Association does not consider itself to be the successor of the White Guard.

See also

* Red Guards (Finland)
* Lotta Svärd – voluntary auxiliary organisation for women.
* Soldier's Home Associations


External links

* [http://www.mosinnagant.net/finland/TheCivilGuardOfFinland.asp THE SUOJELUSKUNTA: A History Of The Finnish Civil Guard] by Jarkko Vihavainen

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