Finland has always been a small, northern place between the East and the West. Finnish history is a story of trading routes, clashes of cultures and life next to great neighbours.
Finnish prehistory to 1323
People have lived in the region of Finland since the Ice Age, circa 8800 BCE. Habitation first settled along water routes, and since then busy trading traffic has always passed through the region. The name of Finland’s oldest city, Turku, means ‘place of trade’.
The first written sources that mention Finland date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Around that time, crusades brought Finland into the sphere of power of the Roman Pope and the medieval network of Hansa traders.
The Catholic Church spread to the region of Finland from Sweden, while the Orthodox Church did the same from Novgorod, currently Russia, in the East. The struggle for control of the region between Sweden and Novgorod ended with the Treaty of Nöteborg in 1323. With the treaty, the Catholic faith was established in western Finland and the Orthodox faith in eastern Finland. This religious boundary still exists, although the Reformation replaced Catholicism with Lutheranism.
Easternmost part of Sweden 1323–1809
After the Treaty of Nöteborg in 1323, most of Finland was a part of Sweden. For about 500 years, Finnish history is Swedish history. The region of Finland was Sweden’s buffer against the East, and the borders shifted many times in various wars.
Finns consider themselves Western Europeans because the time as a part of the Kingdom of Sweden strongly tied Finns to the Western cultural heritage. For example, Finns fought in the Thirty Years’ War with Swedish troops in Central Europe. At the same time, however, there were also connections to eastern trade centres and the Orthodox Church.
1523 Gustav I becomes King of Sweden and withdraws Sweden from the medieval union of the Nordic countries
1543 The first ABC book written in Finnish is published in Finland
1550 Helsinki is founded to compete with Tallinn for Baltic Sea trade
1640 The first university in Finland is established in Turku
Finland as a part of the Russian Empire 1809–1917
Russia captured the region of Finland from Sweden in 1808–1809. Finland became an autonomic part of Imperial Russia and most of the laws from the time of the Swedish rule remained in force. During the Russian rule, Finland became a special region developed by order of the Emperor. For example, Helsinki city centre was built during Russian rule.
Starting from 1899, Russia tightened its grip on the Grand Duchy of Finland. Finland did not take part in World War I, but nationalism also had an influence on the region of Finland. Finland was granted its own parliament in 1906, and the first elections were held in 1907. Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917, and the Bolshevik government that seized power in the October Revolution in Russia recognised Finnish independence on 31 December 1917.
1812 Helsinki becomes the capital
1827 The old capital Turku is destroyed in a fire, emphasising Helsinki’s standing
1860 Finland adopts its own currency, the markka
1906 Universal and equal right to vote, also for women
6 December 1917 Finland declares independence
Early years of independence 1917–1945
In the early years of independence, Finland’s position was fragile. Soon after independence, a bloody civil war broke out in Finland. The war was fought between the Reds or labour movement and the Whites or government troops. The Whites received support from Germany and the Reds from Russia. The war ended in the Whites’ victory.
Finland was strongly in the German sphere of influence because the Soviet Union became the biggest threat to the security of the state. In the 1930s, many right-wing and far-right movements were popular in Finland, as in other parts of Europe.
In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed that Finland belonged in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. Finland fought the Soviet Union twice during World War II. Finland lost both wars, but the Soviet Union never occupied Finland. The events of World War II continue to stir emotions in Finland.
Because Finland was able to defend its territory in wars soon after gaining independence, Finland’s wars in the 20th century have been considered as a time where the independence of the State of Finland became established.
1918 Civil War between the Reds and Whites
1921 Act on compulsory education makes it mandatory to attend six years of elementary school
1939–1940 Finland is thrust into World War II when the Winter War breaks out between Finland and the Soviet Union
1941–1944 World War II continues as Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union
Rebuilding, industrialisation and the Cold War 1945–1991
As a defeated party, Finland had to pay the Soviet Union heavy war reparations in the form of goods. The war reparations included, for example, trains, ships and raw materials. Finland financed the building of the goods with loans and aid. The production of the war reparations helped Finland evolve from an agrarian country into an industrialised country. The industrialisation started a migration from the countryside into the cities.
In 1948, Finland and the Soviet Union signed an Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, where the countries promised to defend each other against external threats. In practice, Finland was in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence throughout the Cold War, and the country’s foreign and domestic policy were guided by fear of the Soviet Union.
1948 Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between Finland and the Soviet Union
1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki
1968 Finnish comprehensive school institution founded
Part of Europe 1991 onwards
The collapse of the Soviet Union and loan-based economic growth in the 1980s caused a recession in Finland in the 1990s. The worst time of the recession was in the early 1990s, many Finnish people were unemployed, companies went bankrupt and the state had little money.
In about 1995, the Finnish economy started to grow, the most important company being mobile phone company Nokia. Finland joined the EU in 1995 and was one of the first countries to adopt the euro as its currency.
1991 Worst economic crisis in Finnish history
1995 Finland joins the European Union
2000 Finland takes 1st place in children’s literacy in PISA studies
2002 The euro is adopted as the cash currency in Finland
2007 Nokia sells 40% of all mobile phones worldwide
2023 Finland joins NATO