VÄINÖ TANNER: A Remarkable Finnish Left-Wing Statesman

Väinö Tanner (1881-1966) was one of the most important figures of the Finnish Social Democratic movement. Indeed, he should be recognised as one of the most Social Democrats of all Europe, but despite his achievements, he remains largely unknown outside of Finland. This should not be the case, however, for even now, decades after his death, the ideas and goals of this iconic statesman are widely discussed among Finnish Social Democrats, political scientists, and historians, and his influence is still felt in the Party’s work. Hated by many, and admired by countless others, he was one of the most central figures of Finnish politics for decades. Tanner shaped the Social Democratic movement perhaps more than any other Finn, and he made a number of controversial decisions. He played a central role in creating the Party’s identity as a political group committed to democracy and to international and specifically Western cooperation. A reformist strongly critical of Communism, Tanner despised both Nazism and Bolshevism, and worked tirelessly for ensuring the survival of democracy in Finland. In Tanner’s politics, Social Democracy and patriotism were combined into a republican love for the freedom of his homeland and its people.


Tanner was a fascinating man of seemingly numerous contradictions. Born to a working-class family, Tanner studied business and law, worked as a businessman in the co-operative movement, and eventually became quite wealthy. While working in Germany as a young man, he discovered Socialism. He was fascinated by the idea that Socialism could be achieved by reforming the existing political system, without resorting to revolution, but rather, by improving the flaws of capitalism slowly and by legal means. This idea would become central to all his political thought. Here, Tanner was influenced both by practical considerations and by the reformist literary canon, parts of which he went on to translate into Finnish. Tanner became a Social Democratic MP in 1907, and eventually went on to become the president of the Social Democratic Party of Finland (serving first in 1918-1926, and then 1957-1963) and of the International Co-operative Alliance (1927-1945), and he held various ministerial positions both during war and peace, even serving as Prime Minister (1926-1927), and as acting President in 1927.

Tanner had to face a wide variety of problems during his career. Economic recession, while challenging, would pale in comparison with the problems caused both to Tanner and to the Party by the wars Finland saw in the first half of the 20th century. In 1918, the newly independent Finland – having declared its independence from Russia in 1917 – faced a true crisis, as the nation was torn in half by a bloody civil war caused, among other things, by complex political disagreements, social inequality, and long-time injustices. The Reds – industrial workers, tenant farmers, and ideologically-driven Socialists with their self-appointed government – and the Whites – conservatives, the legally elected government, members of the middle and upper classes, and wealthier farmers – fought a short war, but the consequences of the conflict were strongly felt for a long time. Even today, the war remains a painful memory, and one that is rarely discussed in a neutral manner, as both sides both committed and suffered heinous crimes. As many Social Democrats were heavily involved with the Red side, the Whites, who won the war with Imperial German assistance, would for a long time remain suspicious of anything resembling Socialism. Tanner, who had not participated in the war and who had considered the Red mutiny foolish and dangerous, understood the need to convince the former Whites that Social Democrats are capable of peacefully working together with other political groups within the existing system. Controversially, Tanner and his allies used a great deal of energy in shaping the Party into a modern, truly democratic movement that does not aim at the immediate creation of a Socialist society. As many of the radical Socialists of the Party had fled to Soviet Russia after their defeat in the civil war, many of Tanner’s ideological opponents were out of the way. Due to the work done by Tanner and others, the Party decided to work within the existing political and economic structure. Tanner ultimately succeeded in completely rehabilitating the Party in the eyes of its former opponents, and many on the political right have been happy to co-operate with it ever since.

The wounds caused by the civil war and the injustices committed by the victors in its aftermath were, despite social reforms and amnesty granted to many prisoners of war, still at least partially open in 1939, when Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union without a declaration of war. Finland was one of the countries Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had agreed would be handed over to the Soviet Union, as per the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. During this Winter War, civilian targets in Finnish cities were deliberately bombed. Interestingly, Joseph Stalin had originally been certain that the Finnish proletariat would welcome the Red Army as its liberator. It did not. Tanner, who had repeatedly been called a Fascist by Stalinist propaganda, served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Winter War, which ended on March 13, 1940, after having lasted for 105 days. The war united the previously divided elements of the Finnish population, and throughout the conflict, the Social Democrats were strongly committed to upholding Finnish liberty in the face of Soviet aggression. Tanner played a decisive role in building up the fighting spirit and uniting the Finnish people.
After the war, Finland was forced to cede approximately 11 % of its territory to the Soviet Union. The war had taken a heavy toll on the disastrously organised Red Army, which had previously been crippled by Stalin’s purges. It had lost hundreds of thousands of men, thousands of tanks, and hundred of airplanes in various battles. Finland, on the other hand, suffered not only the loss of land and thousands of lives, it also lost a large part of its economy, along with other forced concessions. Hundreds of thousands of people from the lost territories had to be relocated elsewhere in Finland. After the war, under pressure from the Soviet Union, Tanner was removed as Minister of Foreign Affairs and appointed as the Minister responsible for ensuring the people’s well-being in the hard situation of the time. This critical work was done by regulating the economy and the use of labour. Tanner also repeatedly criticised the propagandist, pro-Soviet Finland–Soviet Union Peace and Friendship Society, which was actively supporting the Soviet cause in Finland, and whose activities were often directed specifically against the Social Democrats – or, as Stalin called them, the ‘Social Fascists’ – and Tanner.

The conflict of 1939-1940 was followed by the Continuation War in 1941, where Finland attempted to retake the land it had lost after the Moscow Peace Treaty of 1940, which had ended the Winter War. During the interim peace, the Soviet Union had repeatedly tried to interfere in Finnish politics, and in the eyes of the Finnish public, it was clear that the Kremlin had no good will towards Finland. Between 1941 and 1944, Finland fought its own, separate war against the Soviet Union, while receiving crucial German assistance, and coordinating with the Germans. There was, however, no treaty of alliance between Finland and Germany, and Finland retained its democracy throughout WWII. The war started when Soviet bombers once again attacked Finnish cities in 1941 shortly after the start of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, after it had become clear to the Kremlin that Finland was co-operating with Germany.

During the war, Tanner served as the Minister of Trade and Industry, and later as the Minister of Finance. The work he did in organising Finland’s economy during the war played an important role in the overall war effort, and at first, the war did go very well. Officially, Tanner supported his government’s actions in the war, but privately he, like many other Social Democrats, felt that the Finnish troops should ultimately not advance beyond the pre-1940 border of Finland, unlike many on the right, who believed the war could end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of a Greater Finland, which would have included vast areas of land in Eastern Karelia. Tanner, however, considered such dreams unrealistic.
Despite the best efforts of the Finnish government, Army, and people, in 1944, the situation was dire. It was clear that Germany would lose the war, and Finland had to ensure its survival by rapidly ending its own war against the Soviets. In a number of decisive defensive victories, the Red Army’s advance into Finland was halted, and due to an extremely well-organised anti-aircraft defence, Stalin’s desire to see Helsinki reduced to ruins remained unfulfilled. Stalin wanted to focus the Red Army’s power on fighting the Germans, and the Continuation War ended with the Moscow Armistice in September 1944. The harsh peace terms were confirmed, and the war formally ended, in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947.
For his role in defending Finland’s freedom and for his political ideology, Tanner was considered a war criminal by the Kremlin. In 1946, in a war responsibility trial demanded by the Soviets and other Allies, yet organised by the Finns, in contradiction with Finnish law and the generally impermissible nature of ex post facto laws, Tanner was found guilty and convicted, along with seven other politicians, including the war-time right-wing President Risto Ryti. The trials were – and still are – considered shameful in Finland, and Onni Petäys, who played a central role in the prosecution of these men, shot himself shortly after they were convicted. The Kremlin had wished to shatter the Social Democratic Party and to ensure its own power over the Finnish Left by removing moderate voices – indeed, the Soviets had specifically demanded that Tanner be prosecuted. However, the Social Democrats remained a force to be reckoned with, much to the chagrin of Stalin and the Finnish Communists, who consequently had to compete over the control of trade unions and the entire Finnish Left with Tanner’s party.

After the war, Tanner remained an important personality in Finnish politics. Even while imprisoned, he was the leader of the right wing of his party, and he was released before having served his full sentence of five and a half years. He was supported by many anti-Soviet, Social Democratic war veterans, and they quickly turned their attention to creating a system of co-operation with the moderate right wing. The organisations they founded and the Brothers in Arms Axis they created were intended to weaken the influence of Communism and the Kremlin in Finland, and they, like the entire Social Democratic Party, received extensive financing from the West, and even from the CIA. These right-wing Social Democrats who looked up to Tanner were committed to ensuring Finland’s place among the Western democracies, and in Communism, they saw both a political disaster, and the danger Soviet intereference in Finnish affairs – indeed, the Finnish Communist organisations were heavily supported by Moscow. The Brothers in Arms Axis was seen as a threat by the Kremlin, as the Soviet leadership feared its pro-Western stance, and its lack of commitment to Finnish-Soviet co-operation, which served as the basis of Finnish-Soviet relations ever since the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance signed in 1948 by the two countries.

In 1951, Tanner returned to the Finnish Parliament, and in 1957, he was once again elected President of the Social Democratic Party. In 1962, he left Parliament, and in 1963, he relinquished the leadership of his party. He remained active in the co-operative movement until 1964, when the 83-year-old statesman finally retired. He died in April 1966, and his funeral was attended by numerous political figures, both Finnish and foreign. Notably absent, however, was the long-time President Urho Kekkonen, whose pro-Soviet politics and role in the war responsibility trial – having served as the Minister of Justice when it took place – had earned him the lasting ire of Tanner.

The political legacy left by Tanner serves as a reminder of our most cherished values. First and foremost, Tanner was committed to democracy, resisting all attacks on the sovereignty of the people. Tanner was also a true left-wing visionary who worked hard on many social reforms that greatly improved the lives of ordinary Finns. He saw how political violence, mutinies, warfare, and extremist demagogy would not bring about the liberation of humanity, and he consistently opposed the radicals’ calls for armed revolution, favouring the path of reform, dialogue, and co-operation. The numerous political offices he held during times of national crisis reveal the tremendous respect he was rightly accorded even by his political opponents. His uncompromising love of honesty and freedom deserve to be remembered with the utmost respect, and he has time after time been mentioned in political discussions as an example of a true Social Democrat. It is only fitting that even today, the Väinö Tanner Medal is the highest award the Social Democratic Party of Finland can bestow on any of its members.

Erik Immonen is a student of World Politics at the University of Helsinki and a proud graduate of the second edition of the School of Democracy. He is also serving as board member at the Helsinki Social Democratic Students’ Association.


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