Finland started to integrate into the value community of Western democracies, when the League of Nations granted membership to the country in December 1920, writes in this science blog Pasi Ihalainen, Professor of General History, University of Jyväskylä.

In the League of Nations, Finland was considered to have all properties of an independent state with a free constitutional system of government, agreed borders with her neighbours as well as capacity to protect the minorities in the country. During the interwar era, Finns found internationalism as their common denominator.

After the monarchic adventure of 1918, the centre-right government of Finland had made a quick turn away from the German orientation and towards the West. It regarded the protection of international law as a guarantee for independence and trusted that the League of Nations would give a voice to a small country amidst the great world powers. Finland had just left behind a bitter dispute, which escalated into a Civil War, over the form of government. The League of Nations, which was defined as a union of democratic states, was hoped to back up the republican constitution achieved as a compromise.

This hope was shared by the majority of Social Democrats as well, who believed that the membership would strengthen parliamentarism in foreign policy and advance the cause of the working class. In contrast, the left wing of the party denounced the League of Nations as capitalists’ plot against the working class. Non-socialists, for their part, doubted the patriotism of all socialists. Up until Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the rhetoric of the extreme Right about the threat of “Jewish internationalist Marxism” gained publicity in the right-wing press.

Liberals sought for a legally bound international order and co-operation to serve national interests. In the moderate Right as well, the pragmatic approach gained emphasis: International solidarity was believed to give Finland protection against the Soviet Union. International trade and scientific-technological co-operation were considered to benefit the Finnish economy. It was wished that also the Evangelic-Lutheran Church would become more international.

When the Nazis rose to power in Germany in 1933, internationalism became a survival strategy for Finland in between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany.

Even Rabbe Axel Wrede, a representative of the Swedish People’s Party, who in 1918 had judged the social democratic movement as bolshevism, found that Finland benefitted from internationalism and that there was nothing wrong with the internationalism of the Social Democrats.

The extreme Right’s conspiracy theories about the pervert marriage of internationalism and parliamentarism were rejected in other non-socialist groups. When the Social Democrats renounced communist internationalism and emphasised the compatibility of patriotism and internationalism, international orientation was becoming a part of a shared value basis.

The League of Nations was incapable to protect Finland from the Soviet Union’s aggression in the Winter War. In spite of this, most Finns’ trust in internationalism as the way for a small nation was recovered after the Second World War. Integration into the Western value community of democratic countries is Finland’s survival strategy also today. This strategy encompasses – in accordance with the promise of the year 1920 – also the inclusion of all minorities in building the nation.

Pasi Ihalainen

The writer is Professor of General History.

Further information:

Pasi Ihalainen’s article on Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in the League of Nations was published in Parliaments, Estates & Representation 39 (1), 2019, 11–31. He has also written a chapter on internationalism debate between the World Wars for the edition Debating Internationalisms: A European History of Concepts Beyond Nation States (Berghahn Books).




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