The Finnish Civil War as Depicted in Väinö Linna's "Under the North Star"
The Finnish Civil War as Depicted in
Väinö Linna's Under the North Star

Päivi Aalto, Spring 2005 (US)
A FAST-FIN-1 Finnish Institutions Student Paper
FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

This paper will discuss the effects of Väinö Linna's novel trilogy Under the North Star1, and especially its second part, The Uprising, on the attitudes of the Finnish people right after the release of The Uprising in 1960, and still today. The Uprising was about the Finnish Civil War, which was fought in 1918 between the Reds, who were mainly working men, and the Whites, who were land-owners. The Uprising was the first novel to explore the Finnish Civil War experiences of the Red side, which had lost the war. The history of the war up to that point had been written by the Whites, who had won the war. Before The Uprising, no one had had the courage to write about the subject from the Red point of view, because the division between the Whites and the Reds was still very much alive. The Finnish Civil War remains a controversial subject even in today's Finland.

The Reasons for the Civil War

The Finnish Civil War took place in 1918 between the Whites and the Reds. The Whites, who were mainly land-owners and peasants, defeated the Reds, who were mostly workers and not as wealthy as the Whites. Among the reasons for the war were the Reds' resentment at not being able to own their houses and the land they were cultivating,2 and the Whites being scared of the Reds and the support they gained from Russia. Historians disagree on whether the Reds wanted Finland to be a part of Russia or independent, but agree that independence was the objective of the Whites. The war was cruel and thousands of people were killed. Some died in battles, but a considerable number also in prison camps3. Many were executed on the spot without a trial.

The Reds may have seemed very Russian-minded, because they had Russian soldiers fighting on their side. Nevertheless, the main reason for their uprising was not to follow the footsteps of Russia and its revolutionaries. In Linna's opinion the reasons were " problems, hunger and anguish and decades of oppression and injustice" (in Stormbom 191). In Under the North Star this point of view is clearly visible. The reader cannot help feeling sympathy for the poor people who were not allowed even to own the piece of land they lived on. They did not ask for much; only to have something permanent.

Some historians say that the Reds wanted Finland to become a part of Russia, because they had voted against Finland becoming independent in 1917. However, one should consider that the Reds voted against the bill of independence only because they did not like the way it was written. They wanted to add that things in the bill should be discussed with Russia. That actually happened later. Väinö Linna says that "if there was something that the Reds and Whites agreed on, it was the question of independence" (in Stormbom 191).

The Whites justified the war by thinking that they were fighting the Russians. However, Professor Ohto Manninen indicates that there were only about 10,000 Russian soldiers taking part in the battles with the Reds. Many of those soldiers were in Finland as a result of the First World War. When Finland became independent in 1917, the Finnish government wanted the Russian troops out of the country. Academician Eino Jutikkala points out that they did not leave, though, because the First World War was still underway. Finland did not have an army, so the situation would have been too dangerous for the Russian city of St. Petersburg, which is located near the Finnish border (13).

Jutikkala states that the Whites had prepared to free Finland from prospective Russian rule, but they found themselves fighting against fellow Finns. He further believes that Finland might have become a part of Russia if the Reds had won, whether they had wanted the absorption to happen or not (19). Thus, the Reds' intention to both win the war and keep the independence was unrealistic.

After the Civil War

The effect of the year 1918 in history writing has not been studied very much. It is still obvious that the impact of the war has been great. There was mainly White literature available after the Finnish Civil War. If Red books were written, they were not taken into consideration from the historical point of view. The reasons for the Red uprising were not even brought up; it was seen as a "national shame." Some people wanted to forget that the war ever happened (Ylikangas 93).

The Whites had their own interpretation of the events of 1918. They made their heroes out of Ostrobothnian4 farmers, who were really just a small part of the Whites. The farmers were useful, though, being of the same social background as the Reds. The Reds rising against them among the other Whites made it seem as if the Reds did not care that they were fighting against people who were in a similar situation to theirs. This made it easier to think that the Reds actually rose against the whole parliament and the government it had appointed, which provided a convenient reason for the Whites to fight them. But that was not the motive of the Reds. Their intention was to rise against rich land-owners, who kept the social system going, and who they thought had done wrong to them — not everyone who was White (Ylikangas 96).

The Finnish Civil War Today

The Finnish Civil War is still such a controversial topic today that bringing it up may cause disagreement even among family members. Especially in the minds of elderly people the division between the Whites and the Reds is still alive. Linna introduces an explanation for this:

It is incomprehensible how the winners of the war thought that they could conjure up a national unity by hiding the truth of what happened in 1918. The effort to build a new Finnish ideology on this mess has been hopeless. That is why the 1918 feud is still alive. (in Stormbom 191-192)

The Finnish Civil War can still appear in newspaper headlines,5 as evidenced by events in Tampere6 in the early spring of 2005. Tampere was a Red town in 1918 and it still shows. In Tampere there is a statue of Mannerheim, a Finnish military commander who led the troops of the White side during the Finnish Civil War. This statue is vandalized on a regular basis, because some people in Tampere are still against the Whites. When Mannerheim was chosen "the greatest Finn of all time" in a contest organized by The Finnish Broadcasting Company,7 someone wrote 'lahtari'8 on the statue. Another thing which demonstrates the visibility of the Finnish Civil War still today is the recent suggestions that have been made in Tampere to erect other memorials to the Finnish Civil War. These suggestions include a museum for Väinö Linna (Niemelä, Väinö Linnalle) and a monument commemorating the events in the year 1918 (Niemelä, Sisällissodan). Neither of the memorials would be particularly Red or White.

The Reception of Under the North Star

When Under the North Star part two, called The Uprising, was published in 1960, the reviews were surprisingly positive (Stormbom 187). The Finnish Civil War was almost a taboo subject, so people expected that negative things would be brought up in the discussion about the book. However, nobody wanted to be the first one to talk about the delicate matter. As Stormbom points out, critics seemed to love the artistic side of The Uprising and did not want to cause problems by mentioning the war (185). Thus, the silence was not because of healing that had taken place, but because of wounds that were still open (187). Finally a discussion about the accuracy of Väinö Linna's portrayal of the Finnish Civil War was started by the press in Sweden9 about two months after the publishing of The Uprising (188).

Today Under the North Star has a respected status both in Finland and abroad. This is how the book is described in a book review in a Finnish-American newspaper:

The Uprising is the most powerful novel written about the Civil War of Finland on 1918, which erupted only a month and a half after Finland's Declaration of Independence ... Fueled by passions on both sides, the class conflict, particularly the land issue, erupts into war between Finns, between the haves and the have-not's, between neighbors ... With deep insight and a strong commitment to truth, Linna describes how the victors handled the aftermath of the three-month war, the pseudo-trials, the executions, and the prison camps. (Vapaa Sana)

The Meaning of Under the North Star

Under the North Star may be considered a response to the history writing before it, although Linna did not write it for that purpose. Almost every critic and reader has taken for granted that Linna wanted to defend the Red uprising, but his first outlines prove that he intended to write a novel concerning life through his own experiences. Linna's conception of the war had been similar to the White history books until he started doing research on the topic for his novel. Soon he discovered that he must take the historical aspect into consideration, because he found the White idea of the war one-sided and distorted. Then he decided to try and bring out a more accurate view of the Finnish Civil War (Stormbom 173).

Linna says:

No one can deny the fact that the history of the Finnish Civil War was written by the winners and that it is distorted. It is human that this has happened; if the Reds had won, the picture would probably have been as one-sided to the other direction. (in Stormbom 189)

Linna's work has been beneficial for the Finnish people. As Linna writes: "No people can continuously try to ignore such a momentous turning point as the year 1918 was for us. And it is psychologically impossible to try and underline the positive aspects of the matter without paying attention to the negative ones" (Stormbom 215). Under the North Star created discussion in the newspapers when it was published. That discussion obviously could not correct every problem concerning the Finnish Civil War, but it showed the direction in which to go. That is the value of it (Stormbom 215).

Urho Kekkonen, the President of Finland from 1956 to 1981, evaluated the meaning of Väinö Linna and his novel trilogy Under the North Star as follows:

Linna is above all a portrayer of significant social conflicts. The events of the year 1918 and the development leading to them, as well as the Continuance War, had not been topics of discussion as social issues. Linna broke the shield around them. This ventilated healthily the stagnant and stuffy cultural atmosphere of the post-war period. And it did good. I believe I am not mistaken if I say that it is thanks to Väinö Linna that Finns as a nation have recovered from many sore emotional wounds of their childhood. (13-14)

Can a Novel Be a History Book?

Historians have said that Under the North Star should not be seen as a history book. This is also Linna's view, but, as Professor Emeritus Jaakko Paavolainen says, there are no material errors in the novel (188). Linna can be considered quite an expert on history. He did a lot of research on the subject and attempted to be objective. As Stormbom says:

All ideas are depicted without any emphasis or whitewash, I dare say objectively. This does not stop the writer from feeling sympathy for the beaten. But the sympathy is not ideological or political but human. He [Linna] does not defend the uprising, but brings out the motives in a way that contrasts with the White history writing. (184)

Väinö Linna himself has said that Under the North Star is not history but fiction. That said, how much does it affect people's impression of the Finnish Civil War? Many may not remember to think of it as fiction because it is based on real events. For the generations of Finns who have been born after the war, Under the North Star has been almost like a history book. It has given younger people a much more Red view of the war than real history writing. Novels may also have historical value, because they are so much more widely read than real history books.

The difference between a historian and a novelist is their way to gather information. Linna's method was to try and discover the emotions behind the actions. He interviewed people who had lived at the time of the Finnish Civil War. He traveled the same road that the Reds took when they retreated from Tampere, and he visited the actual places of battles. Actions really come alive in one's mind when seeing a place where they happened. It is very different from sitting inside and reading books — except for Linna's book. In the reader's point of view he has succeeded in capturing all the fear and pain as well as the positive emotions. Maybe this is because of his experience and his passion for the subject.

Under the North Star — Facts and Fiction

When reading Under the North Star one does not really notice the fact that the main characters are on the Red side — at least young readers today who do not have a clear and personal opinion about the social division, because they were born decades after the Finnish Civil War. For them the novel is about people, not politics. But Finland was White when the book was published, and political issues became the reason for the wide publicity and discussion surrounding the book. However, Linna says that his intentions were purely human.

Under the North Star is situated in a small village, but it tells about the Finnish Civil War on a larger scale. Although it is fiction, all the things related to the war have been thoroughly investigated and could have happened for real. There were in fact terrorist actions, such as murders, executions and robberies, taking place in 1918. The range of those actions in Under the North Star portrays how huge an effect the war must have had on the actual people living at that time, says Paavolainen (188-189).

The most touching emotions in Under the North Star are the ones that precede a certain death. It is unnatural to know when you are going to die; in the book it seems to cause both paralyzing fear and unbelievable courage. That crystallizes all the terror of war, and Linna knew how to portray it accordingly.

There must have been bitterness and a desire for revenge among the Finnish people after the war. Many on both sides had lost family-members, and the Reds also had to adjust to the will of the Whites. Being on the losing side may have caused shame and scorn from others. It was not easy for the Whites either. Finland had to be brought together and a new, stronger nation formed.

Linna has been accused of idealizing war in Under the North Star. He admits that he describes soldiers in a way that shows compassion and a kind of admiration. "In my book I show sympathy towards the men and the actions, which refers to some kind of a hero-thought. That is right. I can not help it. But it is important to pay attention to the motives of these actions. The men had no choice," says Linna (in Stormbom 158).

Väinö Linna shows his understanding of war in the following extract:

The cruelty of war becomes evident as light-hearted killing ... Light-heartedness is caused by the fact that the society, to which the soldier belongs, takes away his individual moral responsibility. As a private person he could never have discharged such duties ... I tried not to preach and just let the picture tell the story. I did not want to portray much of the torn bodies, though, because it did not matter anymore. I always stopped when the man died, because the most important thing had happened. Life had ended. (in Stormbom 159)

Linna is not only distinguished as an opinion leader, but also as an artist. "It is true, of course, that Under the North Star has had a huge impact as national therapy, like The Unknown Soldier before" (Stormbom 281). "Linna has shown artistic power and understanding that raise his central works high above the bonds of time and place. It is an undisputed fact that he is the most skilled epic writer in post World War Two Finland" (Stormbom 279).

Väinö Linna has been a unique writer for the Finns:

More than any other single author in Finland he has affected the general opinion and played a part in rooting out class hatred, patriotic fervor and authoritarian views, and rooting values of the welfare state, values such as social justice, equality and sufficient income, democracy, freedom of speech and the right to criticize, discuss and take a stance freely. (Stormbom 279)

Under the North Star as a Part of Finnish Culture

Väinö Linna's Under the North Star serves many purposes; it is written very skillfully from the artistic, social and historical viewpoints. It offers a glimpse of an almost truthful past for today's readers and at the same time still creates discussion about its political standpoints. Under the North Star was the first novel to deal with the Finnish Civil War from the perspective of the Reds. Thus, it had a major role in forming the opinions of generations of Finns about the Civil War. Under the North Star has helped Finns understand that prejudices and hostility do not disappear unless their causes are discussed openly.


  1. There have been many translations of Väinö Linna's trilogy Täällä Pohjantähden alla. It is also known as Here Under the Northern Star and Under the Northern Star. This paper uses the title of the most recent translation, Under the North Star 1-3 (part two, The Uprising, translated in 2002 by Richard Impola, published by Aspasia Books, Beaverton, Ontario).

  2. Many of the Reds were crofters, which means that they did not own the land they were cultivating. They only rented it from a land-owner.

  3. Read more about this subject in The Victims of the Finnish Civil War by Sini Sylvelin, 2004.

  4. Ostrobothnia is an area in Western Finland.

  5. For example in the Tamperelainen newspaper on 26 January 2005 Sisällissodan osapuolia muistetaan [The Sides of the Civil War Are Remembered], on 9 February 2005 Väinö Linnalle oma museo? [A Museum for Väinö Linna?], and on 6 April 2005 Uutta tietoa kapinasta [New Information about the Uprising].

  6. Tampere is the third largest city in Finland, with 200,000 inhabitants. It is situated in South Central Finland. Tampere was also Väinö Linna's home town.

  7. In the fall of 2004, Yleisradio, The Finnish Broadcasting Company, organized a contest where people could vote for who they felt had been the greatest Finn of all time. Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was chosen the greatest Finn, with 104,244 votes out of a total of 363,731 votes. (Source: Suuret suomalaiset.)

  8. 'Lahtari' is Finnish for "a killer," here especially someone on the White side.

  9. An interview of Väinö Linna was published in Dagens Nyheter on 13 November 1960. The title of the interview was Väinö Linna Suomen valkoisesta valheesta [Väinö Linna tells about Finland's white lie] and it was conducted by Mauritz Edström.

Works cited:

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Last Updated 22 April 2006