The Finnish civil war of 1918 was, it could be argued, the key event in the nation’s history. A decisive break with Russia, which had controlled Finland since 1809, the war led Finland ultimately to independence. The war lasted barely four months with widespread fighting across the country. It also, however, saw the formation of the notorious prison camps.
On 1917, the internal troubles in Russia gave Finland the opportunity to declare independence. The Eduskunta (national legislative body) proclaimed independence on July 18th 1917 but were instantly dissolved by the Russian provisional government. A new parliament was formed on December 6th 1917, which again proclaimed independence. On January 27th 1918, civil war broke out between the two main factions in the population; the Reds (punaiset), the socialists, and the Whites (valkoiset) the conservatives.
The first prison camps were established at the early stages of war in the Northern part of Finland controlled by the Valkoiset. By March some 4,000 Punaiset and 5,000 Russian soldiers were housed in the camps. This number rose to dramatically after the battle of Tampere on April 5th and the first large camp was built. By the end of April, thousands of refugees, mostly punaiset, were on the move heading east for the Russian border. More than 30,000 were captured by the valkoiset between the towns of Hämeenlinna and Lahti. Initially held at the Fellman concentration camp, the women and children were released, but around 11,000 male refugees and Red Guard members were sent to the camp at Hennala. When the war ended, May 15th 1918, there were some 80,000 prisoners who were transferred to 13 main camps, located mostly in the southern parts of the country.
The Eduskunta was now the government of an independent country with all the responsibilities that that entailed. As a result, the management of the camps was not a high priority and was left in the hands of the white army. As a result conditions rapidly deteriorated.
During the war summary executions had taken place but be June of 1918 the Political Offence Court (Valtiorikosoikeus) was established and courts martial proceeding began against the prisoners. Those found guilty of war crimes were executed, those found to have merely fight on the red side were given prison sentences and those who were merely innocent punaiset sympathisers were released. However, the lack of overall government control allowed many camp commanders to influence the courts martial. For example, Hans Kaln, commander at Hennala camp, had 200 women and children executed despite the directive to release such prisoners, as mere sympathisers.
The other main issue in the camps was the brutal living conditions. Of the 1,482 children known to have been held in the camps 104 died of starvation and disease. It has been estimated that between 12-14,000 prisoners died in the camps out of a total population of about 80,000.
The camps had been hurriedly built for a war situation and did not have the infrastructure for long term use. Latrines were poorly built and insufficient in number contributing to the spread of disease. Dysentery was rife through-out the camps. Food supplies were sporadic with most rations being well below what was required. No one in the government took responsibility for food supplies and camp commanders were left to find supples where they could locally, Equally, food parcels from family members were left to rot as there was no government order given for their distribution and no central records held as to which prisoners were in what camp.
In August 1918, Robert Tigerstedt a medical scientist made a secret report where he stated, ‘…such a death rate was never seen before and nothing like that could have happened even during the times of Czarist Russia.’ At the time of Togerstedt’s report around 30 prisoners a day were dying in in the Tammisaari prison camp in Ekenäs, a mortality rate of 34%. Tigerstedt’s report was leaked to the Swedish press by Finnish Social Democrats leading to widespread international condemnation. This was followed by a visit to the Suomenlinna camp by the businessman Hjalmar Linder to see some of his former employees. Linder wrote an open letter to the Swedish language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet saying ‘the Red Madness has turned into a White Terror as people are dropping dead like flies’. Despite Linder being condemned as a red sympathiser, the government finally acted and took over control of the camps. By the autumn of 1918, conditions in the camps had markedly improved. Food supplies were regularised and rations increased. New latrines were built and medical facilities improved. Almost half of the prisoners were released with the other transferred into work camps. Prisoners continued to be released and their numbers had fallen to 4,000 by the end of 1919. The last cams were closed in 1921 and the final 100 prisoners were sent to the camp at Tammisaari. The last 50 prisoners were released in 1927.