School essays depict civil war cruelty

School essays written in the autumn following the end of the Finnish Civil War offer a multi-dimensional insight into the battle of Tampere. However, the stories written by people with first-hand experience are overshadowed by the White winners’ interpretation, says Docent Marianne Junila, who has done long-term research on the subject.

School essays written in the autumn following the end of the Finnish Civil War offer a multi-dimensional insight into the battle of Tampere. However, the stories written by people with first-hand experience are overshadowed by the White winners’ interpretation, says Docent Marianne Junila, who has done long-term research on the subject.

“Under the pressure of war and ideology, everyday life values are quickly forgotten about, and replaced by the values of a military society. And this does not only apply to the ones waging war, but covers the entire society up until the last school child.”

This is how Docent of Finnish and Scandinavian History Marianne Junila describes the observations she made when examining school children's experiences of the Finnish Civil War. Junila’s research is based on 340 school essays written by female students at an all-girls school, Tampere tyttölyseo, in the autumn of 1918, and it has generated various articles.

The essays were part of a national project organised by the National Board of Education and the National Archives for storing war memories. “The writing order was given to all schools, but we have not found a unified collection of essays from anywhere else”, Junila says.

Texts written by young people aged 11–20 are rare source material even from an international point of view: the observations’ freshness distinguishes them from adult memories and makes them authentic experience history.


Raiding of homes equalled desecration

Tyttölyseo’s approximately 500 pupils were mainly from families of officers or entrepreneurs, and there were only very few working class girls. And since the writing task was implemented by a teacher with strong affiliations with the White, there was no sign of the Red in the essays.

“The material has definitely been filtered through self-censorship. There were clearly students with non-political homes, but in some essays, the White perspective is very intense”, Junila says.

This does not prevent examining the experiences. The writing task sought after eyewitness descriptions, and the detailed questions were not suggestive. “After answering the questions, many writers’ own experiences started to unravel.”

The essays start from the end of January 1918 when the Red Guard took possession of Tampere. For the writers, the state of emergency equalled first and foremost the end of school and everyday routines. Some tried to study at home, but were unable to focus. People spent time observing the city and its fortification.

The White men who had not left Tampere were forced by the Red to participate in building defence. “Almost all men were captured in the street”, wrote 17-year-old Kaisa. Fathers and brothers fetched from home and home raiding awakened the feeling of insecurity in many writers.

“All the abducted ones eventually returned to their homes, but of course people did not know that at the time, and they had heard rumours about Red brutality. For many people, the most traumatic experience was when labour-class Red Guards invaded the homes of bourgeoisie families. ‘I felt that the sanctity of my home was desecrated’, one of the girls describes”, Junila says and summarises:

“The war becomes real to a child, when home no longer offers protection. Therefore, for example, during the Second World War, efforts were made to keep the home front in Germany as normal as possible: it created the illusion that nothing serious was taking place.”


Residents hiding for over two weeks in the laundry room, 3 April 1918. Photo: Siiri information service / Tampere museums


War operations became more important than civilian needs

Soon school pupils were offered various tasks. It was common to work in a military hospital, and writers reminisced with pride how they used to tear gauze or assist in the operating room. The patients were Red soldiers brought over from the front, and some writers considered helping them as objectionable, while others regarded them as patients.

Some were even recruited to carry messages from the White or weapons within the city. “The teacher had written in the margin: ‘Excellent!’ But the finest was if you joined the White troops, like half a dozen older girls had done.”

These writers presented the war as a noble picnic, which they were upset to leave – girls sent to join the service troops clearly did not have to experience war on the front. But also the ones remaining in Tampere adopted the values of a military society:

“Many wrote that they ‘had not done anything’, although they had been helping their mothers under the conditions of rationing. The writers assumed that they were expected to make an effort to assist the White. When the society militarises, civilian duties lose their meaning.”

However, even a simple trip to the shop became dangerous at the end of March, when the White encirclement closed around Tampere, and the bombing began. “Many people experienced this as total terror: will our house be hit? However, only some people’s relatives lost their homes.”

The grenade fire lasted for two weeks, and people took shelter in whatever stone construction they could find. They also met Reds in the shelters, and the tension was often relieved by one of the sides moving elsewhere. During the fire, kids were sometimes defiant and climbed up blocks of flats to observe the war proceedings. It offered the girls an opportunity to cross gender boundaries in a similar way to joining the troops.

“Some spoke of the bombings as a fascinating sight: the horizon was on fire. Children are known to have experienced other wars in a similar way.”

In the essays, expressions such as “Bombs were dropping down like the rain” were repeated, as though the bombing happened by itself. “This is a way to cope with the dilemma: the writers had been told to fear the Reds, and then the first real experience of violence was actually caused by the White”, Junila states.


Red prisoners in Keskustori, 6 April 1918. Photo: Siiri information service / Tampere museums


Seeing death terrified and numbed the writers

Battles in the city started at the turn of March and April. Aili, 17, depicted the forced participation in a nutshell: “Soon there was a severe battle taking place between the Business School and our house.” The essays also describe how war became a part of everyday life. “Our house was totally surrounded by corpses. Two had jumped out of the window, and one had slit his throat with a razor. The White set their military baggage in the yard, had a meal and set off to take over the whole of Tammela”, Ester, 15, wrote.

None of the writers lost any family members, but more than a third saw people being shot. Most of them were executed. The descriptions were riddled with macabre details: “Next to each one there was a pile of pink brains.” Some wondered why seeing death did not terrify them, and used numbness as an explanation. The antithesis was shock and anxiety. “My sister and I became almost mentally ill”, said Sylvi, 13.

An aggressive joy about “cleansing” Tampere flickers in the essays, but it is surpassed by sorrow and compassion for the dead as well as refugees flooding into the city. This observation is connected to the other central conclusion made by Junila: the writers’ experience is more multi-dimensional and calmer than the stark story told by the White winners, which appeared in school books around the same time the essays were written, and prevailed for the following twenty years.

“The stories told by people with first-hand experience were covered by the official truth. If their stories were used to unravel the Civil War, it may have offered a fertile ground for a shared story, a national reconciliation.”

The essays end with the occupation of Tampere; the writers kept strictly with the title Memories from the mutiny of 1918. Junila has, however, examined some of the writers’ later phases. Their lives seem to have continued normally.

“The third important result could be that people managed to remain somewhat sensible. These essays contain understanding and sorrow, which is a good starting point.”


Text: Jarno Mällinen

Main photo: A child is playing in the street after the occupation of Tampere, 10 April 1918. Photo: Siiri information service / Tampere museums




Last updated: 4.7.2018