By Henrik Meinander

Contrafactual analyses in historical research have always been questionable. Some historians even argue that true scholars should not be involved in such a speculative and diffuse mind game. Still, an historical contrafact -- a possible alternative to a certain turn in the past -- can be useful when we want to assess the inevitability of what actually happened.

Let us take as an example the predictability of Finnish independence of 1917 and the Finnish Civil War of 1918. Our irresponsible play with historical facts could begin from spring 1914. What if the First World War had not broken out? Most Finnish historians today admit that the early 1910s were a flourishing time for Finland both in cultural and economic sense. Finland was a Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. It had lost much of its political autonomy since the turn of the century, but this loss had no visible effect on the welfare of ordinary people. In addition, the resistance movement was weak and had no strong backing from abroad. Bearing this in mind and assuming that the First World War had not broken out, Finland would probably have been integrated with Russia and not become independent. Also, we can claim that the Civil War would not have broken out in Finland, had it not been for "the Great War" and all its disastrous consequences.

But the war did break out. Now, what if Russia had reached a separate peace treaty with Germany in time? This scenario is more difficult to follow up. First, because large-scale wars either tend to continue to the bitter end or start again after the parties have filled their arsenals, and secondly because the imagined development would have caused unpredictable societal chain reactions within the empire. Most of them would probably have resulted in more severe problems for the imperial regime. As such, Russia would presumably have faced problems similar to those of today. It would have begun to fall in pieces in one way or another and the outcome could have been revolutions and civil wars. To be more precise, we can argue that a Finnish Civil War could have broken out even if Russia had left the Entente to continue the battle against the Germans alone.

In fact, Bolshevik Russia would in fact reach a separate peace treaty in early March 1918, one month after the Finnish Civil War had already begun. We can therefore ask if Finland would have lost her independence and avoided a Civil War if the October Revolution of 1917 had failed. This question is not mere academic speculation. Most contemporaries kept agonising over the question and at least three generations of Finnish historians have tried to come up with a plausible answer.

Those who argue that the Finnish war was a direct consequence of the October Revolution never fail to remind us of the close contacts between the Russian and Finnish revolutionaries. Lenin and Stalin demanded that their Finnish comrades take the chance and supplied them with arms. Those opposing this chain reaction theory point out that Finland had its own structural problems. The war was rooted in the deep class conflicts and was caused by the power vacuum in the former Grand Duchy.

Both explanations are crucial, but neither of them is convincing without the other. A societal chain reaction is possible only if there exists a receptive counterpart. In conclusion, it is safe to claim that the outbreak of the Finnish Civil War was one of the consequences of the October Revolution. The Civil War could have broken out later, but this would have required the same kind of turmoil in Russia as in the autumn of 1917. And Finland's independence? If the Tsar had regained power, or if the provisional government had stayed in power, or if the White Army had won in Russia, the chances are that Finland would not have become or stayed independent.

Our contrafactual experiment must stop there. But if nothing else, this exercise ought to remind us of the unpredictability of an alternative development in history. Things could have gone differently, and if they had, the subsequent course of events might have been rather different. By the way, have you ever thought about Gorbachev and the Berlin Wall. What if ?!

Dr Henrik Meinander is Assistant Lecturer in the History Department of the University of Helsinki. He spoke at the Finnish Institute Study Day on Finnish History in October.

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