Eighty years on: Mäntsälä Rebellion was a Finnish road not taken
Right-wing radical coup of 1932 thwarted by strong Nordic tradition of adherence to law
By Matti Huuskonen
Eighty years ago, the so-called Mäntsälä Rebellion had all the ingredients for a full-blown coup.
An armed militia group prevented a speech being delivered by a Social Democrat MP, then barricaded itself in the Civil Guard headquarters in Mäntsälä and began to pressurise the local governor and the Minister of the Interior to resign.
The men of Mäntsälä [a small town about 60 kilometres north of the capital] received the enthusiastic backing of the far-right radical Lapua Movement, with a history of actions - often violent and always of a non-Parliamentary nature - that sought to restrain a perceived Communist threat in the young country emerging from the Civil War.
The Lapua Movement upped the ante and demanded the resignation of the entire cabinet.
It reinforced its demands by issuing an order of general mobilisation to its followers. The call was answered by some 6,000 men from around the country.
The rebellion lasted just over a week and ended on Sunday March 6th, 1932, with the dispersal of the armed bands and the arrest of the leaders.
Shortly thereafter, the Lapua Movement was banned by law.
The dénouement of the Mäntsälä Rebellion was strikingly different from the European mainstream of the day.
"Elsewhere internal crises such as this one tended to end up in coups d'état by either the conservative or radical factions. In the Europe of the 1930s, there were only a dozen or so democratic states", notes Senior Lecturer Vesa Vares from the Department of Political History at the University of Turku.
In the Finnish case, a conservative seizure of power would have meant that President Pehr Evind Svinhufvud (1861-1944, head of state from 1931 to 1937) would have used the rebellion as a means of taking control with the backing of the Finnish Army.
"A radical coup on the German or Italian model would on the other hand have seen a dictatorship led by the Lapua Movement or by its nationalist and anti-Communist successors IKL (the Isänmaallinen Kansanliike, or 'Patriotic People's Movement')", explains Vares.
Neither of these outcomes came to pass. What was it that caused the rebellion to dry up and to preserve democracy in the fledgling Republic of Finland?
"Lack of a leader", says Docent Lasse Laaksonen from the University of Helsinki.
The rebels got themselves a military commander from the Secretary-General of the Lapua Movement K.M. Wallenius, a Major-General and the former Chief of General Staff of the Army, but no sufficiently powerful political leader surfaced to carry things forward.
The Lapua Movement's leader Vihtori Kosola was also, to coin a phrase, past his best sell-by date by 1932. The conservative President Svinhufvud, who hasd been put into the job in part through pressure from the lapua Movement itself, ultimately came down - to their great disaapointment - firmly against the rebels' cause.
General C.G.E. Mannerheim (later to become Finland's wartime commander-in-chief and the country's sixth President) supported the resignation of the government behind the scenes, but preferred not to come out publicly to put his considerable weight behind one side or the other.
The timing was also wrong.
By 1932, the Lapua Movement had in a sense outstayed its welcome and some of its actions had made people nervous, even if they might have shared the movement's anti-Communist views.
The rebellion was a desperate, and partly spontaneous final flaring-up of radical right-wing thinking in the country", is the interpretation Laaksonen offers.
The Lapua Movement had come into being in 1929 as a reaction to the doings of Communists in post-Civil War Finland.
The Communists, ostensibly defeated a decade earlier, were taking orders from Moscow, preparing for the overthrow of the state, and engaging in workplace terror and sabotage, pressuring workers who had fought on the side of the Whites in the Civil War.
The Finnish Communist Party was founded in Moscow in 1918, and was by now a banned organisation. Nevertheless, the Communists took part in elections in this country under an assortment of cover organisations with different names. Communist newspapers, once also banned, were again raising themselves up like so many phoenixes from the ashes.
In the very straitened circumstances that Finland found herself in the depression years, the Lapua Movement determined to put a stop to this nonsense once and for all, and took matters into its own hands, since the governments of the day seemed incapable of doing anything.
Initially the movement's aims were backed by the entire non-socialist political camp. The Social Democrats were quiet. The SDP had no great wish to defend their Communist rivals, but at the same time, as Vesa Vares points out, they were all too aware of who might be next on the list.
The conservatives of Kokoomus (the National Coalition Party) were the most sympathetic towards the extra-Parliamentary Lapu Movement.
By their very existence, the Lapuans were thought to offer a means of shifting the political balance towards the right and in so doing they would keep the country's centre-right political battlefrield firmly in Kokoomus hands.
"For Kokoomus, the Lapua Movement was much the same as the Red Guards were for the Social Democrats in 1917, or the animal activists and anti-fur demonstrators for the modern Greens: a bit of a nuisance when they went too far, but fundamentally on the right side of the fence and helping things along. A kind of extra-Parliamentary motor driving their own aspirations", explains Vares.
Both the Lapua Movement and Kokoomus itself were at their strongest in 1930.
In that year, the conservatives won a major election victory and saw their own man - P.E. Svinhufvud - elected as Prime Minister.
Svinhufvud's government set about realising though lawful means the main aspiration of the Lapua Movement, namely the ramming through Parliament of the "Communist Laws", among them the outlawing of Communist newspapers under a draconian Protection of the Republic Act.
Ironically, this very same Act was used in November 1932 to ban the Lapua Movement itself.
The passing of these laws by Parliament in 1930 was preceded by considerable extra-mural pressure being brought to bear, in the form of violent kidnappings and beatings, and even murders of known Communists and sympathisers.
A term that came into general parlance was "kyyditys", the kidnapping of someone and driving him or her to another part of the country, typically to the eastern border with the Soviet Union, where the battered victim would be dumped out of the car and left to fend for himself.
In the summer of 1930, around 12,000 farmers, many of them carrying concealed firearms, marched on Helsinki.
Meeting the "peasant marchers" in the Senate Square was the then President Lauri Kristian Relander (1883-1942), and alongside him stood the Lapua Movement's very own "Kosolini" [after the resemblance of his style of speaking to that of Benito Mussolini], Vihtori Kosola.
However, the emboldened Lapua Movement arguably "jumped the shark" just a few months later in October 1930, when the violence that was accompanying the passing of the Communist Laws climaxed in the kidnapping and carrying to the eastern city of Joensuu of the 1st President of the Republic of Finland, Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg, together with his wife.
Ståhlberg was a popular and iconic figure, and this action against his person swiftly removed support for the Lapua Movement among the public at large and among the political centre-right.
It was definitely a bridge too far, and a wake-up call that whilst the Communists had been put in their place, the rabblerousers who had done the disciplining were now posing a nasty problem all of their own.
The final victory of the Lapuans could be considered the fact that they got their own man - or at least they perceived Svinhufvud at the time as "one of theirs" - into the Presidential Palace in 1931.
"All the same, Mäntsälä came hopelessly late for the Lapua Movement", argues Vares.
The fundamental reason behind the defeat of right-wing radicalism and the triumph of democracy at a precarious moment in Finnish history was, in the view of Vesa Vares, the tradition of Nordic trust in the rule of law.
During the period when Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, the Finns had had plenty of time to ponder how to extricate themselves from the autocratic rule of the Czar.
The answer came through the Scandinavian connection: "Respect for the law, a civic society, and civilised manners", lists Vares.
"The legacy of this separates Finnish conservatives of the 1920s and 1930s from their counterparts in many other countries of Europe, where things took a different path under otherwise similar circumstances. To add to this, we in Finland had a strong centrist party in the Agrarian Union, and a strong Social Democratic Party, and this also conspired to force the conservatives to adapt."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 6.3.2012
Vihtori Kosola (Wikipedia)
Mäntsälä Rebellion (Wikipedia)
Lapua Movement (Wikipedia)
Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, 3rd President of Finland (Wikipedia)
MATTI HUUSKONEN / Helsingin Sanomat