The national awakening

Aaro Harju

After Alexander II (1855–1881) acceded to the throne, a politically more liberal period began in Finland. A strong national awakening followed in the 1860s and 1870s. At the same time societal activities were liberated. In the background were the following factors: the increased value of wood causing the economy to improve, freedom of trade, the development of traffic conditions (railways, canals, roads), the birth of the Finnish-language intelligentsia and its national enthusiasm, the Finnish-language press, elementary schools, libraries and reading societies. The basis for the educational and cultivating national and social activities of civic organizations, political parties and trade unions was created in the 1860s and 1870s.

The first of the big popular movements to come to Finland was the gymnastics and sports movement. The first Finnish athletic club was founded in 1856. Besides bringing together children and youth who were interested in athletics, the clubs’ goal was to bring to them order, discipline, sobriety and education.

The decades of national awakening also gave birth to party activities. The first Finnish political groupings, not parties in the modern sense, were the Finnish Party and the Swedish Party. Their activities began in the 1860s. During the 1880s and the 1890s the Finnish party gradually became a fullyfledged political party which split into conservative and progressive wings. Two parties emerged: the Finnish Party and the Young Finns Party. The liberals, too, became active in the 1860s but their activities faded soon.

Finland has always believed in education. In addition to children’s elementary school (founded in 1866), adult education activities were developed. From 1874 onwards, the KVS Foundation started to organize systematic educational activities. People also organized public festivals which aimed at educating and cultivating the citizens. From the year 1889 onwards, following the Danish example, folk high schools were founded to meet the educational needs of rural youth in particular.Employers and the gentry founded the first lyceums for working people in the years 1866 and 1869. (Huuhka 1990, 23–27)

The first workers’ association was founded in Helsinki in 1884. By the year 1890 there were around twenty such associations in the biggest industrial towns. These educational ambitions of the workers gave rise to the adult education centres. The first adult education centre was founded in 1899, and in the year 1917 there were eleven centres in the biggest towns. At the time, there were 43 folk high schools in operation, mainly in the countryside. (Huuhka 1990, 28–29; Marjomäki 2005, 16)

In Finland the political labour movement and the trade union movement are closely linked and their development was intertwined. The first workers’ association was founded in 1884 in the capital, and the following year the Helsinki printers founded an association, the first trade union. In the 1880s, painters, tailors, metal workers, carpenters, bricklayers and shoemakers set up their own trade union branches which often also had employers as members. The first women’s trade union branches were founded before the turn of the century. Seamstresses, shop assistants and maids were the path breakers in the unionization of women. Foreign trends, disputes with the employers and the political organizational activities of the workers were the catalysts of the trade union movement.

The first national trade union in Finland, the Finnish Printers’ Union, was formed in 1894. By the turn of the century many other occupational groups had founded national organizations.

In the 1880s, alongside the workers’ educational activities and the trade union movement, the civic activities of the rural young adults started to develop. The Finnish Youth Association Movement begun to educate the rural youth and root out alcoholism and other bad habits. Youth societies formed the civic organization with the largest membership before the turn of the century in Finland. In the early twentieth century the memberships of cooperatives and workers’ associations multiplied, exceeding the memberships of youth societies. (Alapuro & Stenius 1989, 50–51)

In the years of national awakening, the co-operative systems began to spread their strong networks in the towns and the countryside. The first co-operative societies were born in the Rochdalean ethos in the 1870s and 1880s. In the following decades a strong network of cooperatives were established in the countryside. The network covered the delivery, processing, trade and financing. In towns people started up co-operative storesespecially.

The women’s movement started to advocate improvements in the woman’s position in the family, education and the administration system. The First Association of Women in Finland was founded in 1884 following the North-American and European examples. During these years of national awakening religious organizations also started to develop into civic organizations of large memberships. (Heikkilä & Seppo 1989, 82) Similarly, home district associations were formed to cherish the culture and environment of people’s own neighbourhoods.

The above-mentioned great Finnish popular movements emerged in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s. Most of these movements are still going strong and they have formed the basis for the numerous Finnish civic organizations. At the time there was a strong call for action: Both the need and the room for different activities existed. The activities of popular movements were laced with a clear view of what needed to be improved. Ethos, commitment, and a burning passion for action were the typical characteristics of the late nineteenth century organizational, party, trade unionist and cooperative activities.

Nationalism was the core of the late nineteenth century civil society in Finland. The Finnish nation, in the societal sense, was created to a large extent by popular movements, civic activity and co-operation. These raised and educated Finns, created national sentiment and taught people how to take care of common issues and interests. Without all this, the nation would not have been intellectually or materially mature enough to declare independence in 1917.


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