Väinö Tanner (1881-1966) was one of the most important figures of the Finnish Social Democratic movement. Hated by many, and admired by countless others, he played a central role in creating the Party’s identity as a political group committed to international and specifically Western co-operation, and the defence of democracy. A reformist, Tanner despised all forms of totalitarianism and worked tirelessly for the liberty of Finland.

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 (Väinö Tannerin Säätiö, n.d.). While working in Germany in his youth, he discovered Socialism. He was fascinated by the idea that Socialism could be achieved by reforming the existing political and economic system (ibid.). Tanner became a Social Democratic MP in 1907, and 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) (Paavolainen, 2016). He held various ministerial positions during both war and peace, even serving as Prime Minister (1926-1927), and as acting President in 1927 (ibid.).

In 1918, the newly independent Finland – having declared its independence from Russia in 1917 – was torn in half by a bloody civil war. The conflict between the Reds – industrial workers, tenant farmers, and Socialists with their self-appointed government – and the Whites – conservatives, the legally elected government, members of the middle and upper classes, and wealthier farmers – did not last for long, but its effects were strongly felt for years (Zetterberg et al., 1987, pp. 608-617). As many Social Democrats had been heavily involved with the Red side, the victorious Whites would for some time remain suspicious of anything resembling Socialism (Mickelsson, 2007, pp. 113-116). Due to the work done by Tanner and others in distancing the Party from radicalism, the Party openly decided to work within the existing political and economic structure (Väinö Tannerin Säätiö, n.d.). He ultimately succeeded in rehabilitating the Party in the eyes of its former opponents, and many on the political right have been willing to co-operate with it ever since.

Despite social reforms and amnesty granted to many prisoners of war, the wounds caused by the civil war were still at least partially open in 1939, when Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union without a declaration of war (Zetterberg et al., 1987, pp. 705-706). 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 (ibid.). During this Winter War, civilian targets in Finnish cities were deliberately bombed (ibid.). 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 13th, 1940, having lasted for 105 days (Zetterberg et al., 1987, pp. 705-710).

The war took a heavy toll on the disastrously organised and purge-crippled Soviet Red Army: it had lost hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of tanks and airplanes (Hobbes, 2003, p. 11). The war united the previously divided elements of the Finnish population, but otherwise, it was costly: Finland was forced to cede approximately 11 % of its territory to the Soviet Union (Zetterberg et al., 1987, pp. 710-712). Finland suffered not only the loss of land and thousands of lives, it also lost a large part of its economy. Hundreds of thousands of people from the lost territories had to be relocated elsewhere in Finland (ibid). After the war, under pressure from the Soviet Union, Tanner was removed as Minister of Foreign Affairs and appointed Minister of Supply (Paavolainen, 2016). In his new office, he was responsible for ensuring the people’s well-being during this difficult period. He also repeatedly criticised the propagandist Finland–Soviet Union Peace and Friendship Society, which was actively supporting the Soviet cause after the war (Zetterberg et al., 1987, p. 714).

The Winter War 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 (Zetterberg et al., 1987, pp. 718-719). 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 (ibid.). It is widely accepted by historians and researchers that there was, however, no alliance between Finland and Germany, and that Finland fought its own, separate war against the Soviet Union while receiving German assistance (Suvioja, 2004).

During the war, Tanner served as the Minister of Trade and Industry, and later as the Minister of Finance. His work was highly important for the war effort (Väinö Tannerin Säätiö, n.d.). At first, the war went well, however, despite the best efforts of the Finnish government, army, and citizens, by 1944 the situation was dire (Zetterberg et al., 1987, pp. 731-734). It was clear that Germany would lose the war, and Finland had to ensure its survival by rapidly ending hostilities with the Soviets. In a number of decisive defensive victories, the Red Army’s advance into Finland was halted, and the Continuation War ended with the Moscow Armistice in September 1944 (Zetterberg et al., 1987, pp. 724; 734; 747). The harsh peace terms were confirmed, and the war formally ended, in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 (Zetterberg et al., 1987, p. 783).

For his work and his 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 was convicted along with seven other politicians, including the war-time right-wing President Risto Ryti (Zetterberg et al., 1987, pp. 771-775).. 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 (Vuori, 2015).

Even while imprisoned, Tanner was the leader of the anti-Communist, pro-Western wing of his Party. He was released after having served half of his his sentence of five-and-a-half years (Väinö Tannerin Säätiö, n.d.). The anti-Soviet, Social Democratic war veterans who considered him a hero quickly turned their attention to creating a system of co-operation with the moderate right wing (Mickelsson, 2007, p. 143). The Brothers in Arms Axis they built together was intended to weaken the influence of Communism in Finland, and they, along with the entire Social Democratic Party, received  financing from the West, even from the CIA (Luukkanen, 2011). They were committed to safeguarding Finland’s place among the Western democracies, and in Communism, they saw both a political disaster, and Soviet intereference in Finnish affairs – indeed, Finnish Communist organisations were heavily supported by Moscow (ibid.).

In 1951, Tanner returned to Parliament, and in 1957, he was once again elected President of the Social Democratic Party (Paavolainen, 2016). In 1962, he left Parliament, and in 1963, he relinquished the leadership of his party (ibid.). He remained active in the co-operative movement until 1964, when the 83-year-old statesman finally retired (Väinö Tannerin Säätiö, n.d.). He died peacefully in April 1966 (ibid.).

Tanner’s political legacy serves as a reminder of our most cherished values. This left-wing statesman saw how political violence and extremist demagogy would not bring about the liberation of humanity, and he consistently opposed the simplistic solutions suggested by radicals, favouring the path of reform and dialogue. The numerous political offices Tanner held during times of national crisis reveal the tremendous respect he was rightly accorded even by his political opponents. 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 (Peltonen, 2015).