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Finland’s Independence Day and the Finnish Constitution of 1919

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Today marks Finland’s Independence Day, a day that was celebrated for the first time exactly one hundred years ago today, on December 6, 1919. Although the date marks the signing of Finland’s Declaration of Independence in 1917, the day was not established as a national holiday until November 20, 1919, through a government decision (No. 138 of 1919).

Statsrådets beslut därom, att den 6 december årligen skall firas såsom årsdag av Finlands självständighetsförklaring [Government decision that December 6 shall be celebrated annually as the anniversary of Finland’s Declaration of Independence] (Finlands författningssamling [FFS] 1919:138). Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez.
The year 1919 is an important year in the history of Finland. Following its independence from Russia in 1917, the Finns set out to decide whether they wanted to become a constitutional republic or a constitutional monarchy. It proved to be a difficult decision. The conflict sparked the Finnish Civil War of 1918, which appears to still divide the Finns, some 100 years later.

The original draft of the Finnish Constitution did indeed designate Finland a constitutional monarchy, and the German-born Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse was even chosen as King of Finland. He later declined the throne, prior to his coronation in December of 1918, following the complete defeat of Germany in the First World War, which led to the abdication of Kaiser Willhelm II. Thus, in July 1919, a constitutional republic was formed through the adoption of the Finnish Constitution of 1919. Then- regent Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who was known for being a monarchist, signed the constitution.

Suomen Hallitusuoto [Instrument of Government for Finland] [Finnish Constitution](Suomen Asetuskokoelma 1919:94) (in Finnish). Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez.
Regeringsform för Finland [Instrument of Government for Finland] (FFS 1919:94) [Finnish Constitution of 1919] (in Swedish). Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez.

Carl Gustaf Emil von Mannerheim, two head-and-shoulders portraits, facing left. , None. [Between 1910 and 1930] .Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.
The Constitution of 1919 contained a number of important provisions, including:

  • That Finland be an Independent and Sovereign Republic. (1 §.)
  • That the Head of State be the President. (2 § 2 st.)
  • How a president is elected. (23 §.)
  • That the People be represented through Parliament. (2 §.)
  • That there be a Prime Minister.
  • That Finnish Citizens are equal before the law. (5 §.)
  • Abolishment of Nobility. (15§.)
  • Freedom of the Press (originally obtained as the first country in the world, while part of Sweden in 1766).
  • That there be two supreme courts, one for civil and criminal cases (the Supreme Court), and one for public administrative cases (the Supreme Administrative Court). (2 § 4 st.)
  • Establishment of a right to belong or not to belong to a religion. (8-9 § §.)
  • That Finnish and Swedish be the official languages in Finland and that citizens have a right to communicate with the state and receive documents from the state in these languages. (14 §.) All military training was also to be conducted in the recruit’s language, although the military commando language was determined as Finnish (75 § ).

The “Language Question” was one of the more difficult questions to agree on. Swedish had been the language of the educated classes, but a nationalistic spirit, especially in the wake of the Civil War, led to an increase in support for a Finnish-only provision.

The Instrument of Government of 1919 also made clear that the text was only one of several constitutional texts, which together formed the Finnish Constitution. (1 §.) Other constitutional texts were the Diet Order of 1906 (which gave women the right to vote), The Riksdag Act of 1928, Minister Liability Act and the Law on Impeachment from 1922. The constitutional texts were replaced by one single Constitution in March of 2000 after being adopted in 1999, available in Finnish and Swedish. An English unofficial translation has also been made available by the Finnish Ministry for Justice.

As provided for in the Constitution of 1919, the lantdagen (Diet of Finland) elected the first president (94§). Thus, on July 25, 1919, Dr. Karrlo Juho Ståhlberg was elected the first President of Finland, defeating Gustaf Mannerheim with 143 to 50 votes. Mannerheim would later become the sixth President of Finland in 1944, during the Second World War.

Dr. K.J. Ståhlberg [Oct. 19, 1925 (date created or published later by Bain)]. Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division.

Additional resources available at the Library of Congress:

Finnish Independence and Civil War:

Law Library Online Resources on Finland:

If you have a question regarding Finnish law, you can submit it using the Ask a Librarian form on our website.

Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!

Glad självständighetsdag!

Happy Independence Day!

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