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“Today, we are not looking for the culprits of the war. Instead we observe how Finland and the Finnish people found their way from war to reconciliation,” said President Sauli Niinistö.
President Niinistö was addressing people in Nivala, located in Northern Ostrobothnia region, who had gathered to remember the Finnish Civil War (January 27 – May 15 1918) and the centernary of President Kyösti Kallio’s reconciliation speech.
The war was fought between the social democratic reds and conservative whites after the Russian Empire collapsed in World War I and the rule over Finland with it. Finland declared its independence in 1917, but the society was in a turmoil and this resulted in a power vacuum, where, according to one interpretation, the leadership of the state was seen as not belonging to anybody. In fact, there are many interpretations for the cause of the civil war. Nevertheless, in result, the agrarian and industrial workers clashed against the middle- and upper-class whites.
The whites won. The war resulted in about 37,000 casualties. In Nivala, which was the residence of Senator Kyösti Kallio, he held his stirring speech. Kallio became later the fourth president of Finland.
Niinistö continued: “We have gathered here today to pay tribute to this great Finn as well as to those choices and achievements that the Finnish people have together made during the past hundred years.” “We have successfully defended our freedom and created one of the most stable and free societies, which is also one of the happiest in the world. Even the air here is the cleanest. This is quite a remarkable feat for a small nation. And it is an achievement that will also show the way forward: it obliges us to manage our own affairs, while also taking responsibility for international matters.”
“We have successfully defended our freedom and created one of the most stable and free societies, which is also one of the happiest in the world. Even the air here is the cleanest.”
Kallio gave his speech in the church of Nivala on May 5, 1918. “We have to create a kind of Finland, where there are no reds nor whites, but just Finns who love their fatherland, citizens of the the Republic of Finland, where everybody feel belonging to the society as its members and they feel like they thrive here,” Kallio said to a church full of listeners.
According to President Niinistö, Kallio gave the speech at a very difficult time. “In May 1918, the Finnish Parliament was still suspended, people took the law into their own hands, executions prevailed in the country and the army held a kangaroo court based on martial law.”
Niinistö said that the Vaasa and Helsinki senates joined forces on May 4, and Finland finally had a government that governed the entire country. Independence had now been implemented in practice, not just declared. The institution of a head of state had been born. The Finnish flag was replaced. The construction of Finland as a state could begin.
The rest of Niinistö’s speech went like this:
But once the guns fell silent, the most difficult task remained: the reconstruction of society, restoration of trust and finally reconciliation. The road from war to peace is hard, sometimes impossible. It takes a lot of wisdom and patience, a spirit of conciliation. Above all, it takes time and strong institutions which are constructed gradually and will only earn the trust and support of the people through their activities.
I have talked about participatory patriotism. The sense that this country and community are mine because I, too, am part of them. I enjoy the support and protection provided by my country, and in return, I participate to the best of my abilities in its construction and defence. Implanting this sense into people’s minds in the early decades of Finnish independence has been the foundation for our success.
It would be a misrepresentation of history, however, to say that immediately after the Civil War Finland would have smoothly or straightforwardly been capable of shifting to politics that nurtured social inclusion. But important steps in that direction were taken in any case. One of these essential first steps was the reconciliation speech by Kyösti Kallio. It is an irony of history that the speech was not saved in its entirety for posterity. Yet its core message is still strong.
Nurturing democracy is an invaluable tool in reconciling different points of view. This is a good rule of thumb: even where there is diversity and people of different backgrounds, convictions and goals, we have a right to disagree.
Besides speeches, Finland also needed action, of course. Some action had already been taken before the Civil War when the Working Hours Act for the eight-hour day and the Local Government Act for the development of local and regional democracy were enacted in November 1917. Prepared by Kallio, the Crofters’ Act had also been presented to Parliament in January 1918, but was not passed until the following October. Other reforms that continued after the Civil War included compulsory education and conscription. Another important step was “Lex Kallio,” initiated in 1921, legislation allowing landless rural people to buy small farms and in that way gain affinity and new hope.
Democracy was strongly anchored in Finland, which eventually had chosen the republican form of government. Finland was the only country to become independent in the aftermath of the First World War and also to retain its independence and democracy throughout the turbulent 1930s and 1940s. The Winter War Miracle that saved our freedom was therefore not created in autumn 1939 but achieved by our own choices during those two decades following the Civil War. It is historical symmetry that during the Winter War, Kyösti Kallio was again in a key position, this time piloting our nation through a difficult period as the President of the Republic.
I have said that we have to try to reconcile ourselves with our past. This is an ongoing process which may never be finished. Every generation will have to reconsider the main historical events in the context of their own time. Understanding is not the same as acceptance. It is impossible to accept all that enmity and cruelty that the Civil War brought out in the Finnish people. We must try to understand the situation that led to war, however. It is the only way to ensure that the important lessons of the past remain in our minds.
The lesson of 1918 is that the most important task of a nation is to ensure its own integrity and stability. Participatory patriotism is therefore just as important today as it was a hundred years ago, and we are all responsible for it. I encourage you, ladies and gentlemen, to take the responsibility. Nurturing democracy is an invaluable tool in reconciling different points of view. This is a good rule of thumb: even where there is diversity and people of different backgrounds, convictions and goals, we have a right to disagree. This is something we must be able to respect, however differently we ourselves might think. This is what Kyösti Kallio urged his fellow citizens to do, to seek reconciliation—in his famous Nivala speech as well as consistently in his other actions. Let’s not forget it.