Where Hannibal once took his elephant for a walk, now the highways are crossing the Alps.
Where the Romans no longer felt like expanding and built a wall to keep the neighbors out, today the Scots and the English or the Flemish and the Walloons are quarrelling precisely along these arbitrary lines.
The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, established – among other things – the demarcation line between Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd that is still valid today.
World War II led to the division of Germany and Europe, a division whose impact lasts until today.
For me, history is most interesting where it affects the here and now. And that’s why, in this little series “One Hundred Years Ago …”, I like to take a look at the time after World War I. Because, as important as the events mentioned above all were: The map of Europe and the Middle East as we know it today was drawn for the most part after the First World War. A few states that came into existence during that time: Ireland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and, crucially for this episode, Finland.
That’s way too much for a small blog, so we’ll focus – as we often do – on a side episode: For centuries, Vikings, Swedes, Finns, Danes, Russians, French and Germans had fought over the Åland Islands. They are situated between Sweden and Finland, and if you’ve never heard of them, that’s okay. Shining a light on overlooked chapters of world history is, after all, the goal of this series.
Why it was necessary to wage wars over a few small islands with pine trees and moose, I don’t know. After all, tourism had not yet been invented at the time, so the 6757 rocky islands were useless.
The starting position in World War I was that the Åland Islands – like all of Finland – belonged to Russia. On 6 December 1917, the Finns were so disappointed to find nothing in their Santa Claus stockings that they declared independence. (Which was a misunderstanding because Russia uses the Julian calendar, which has a two-week delay.)
But Finland being Finland, it couldn’t just become independent in a peaceful way. No, it took a complicated civil war in 1918, which you can read about if you want to get a headache similar to the one you get from drinking a gallon of Finnish vodka in a Finnish sauna, with the Finnish attendant beating you with Finnish birch twigs while blaring Finnish heavy metal.
The hullabaloo – a Finnish word, by the way, as you can easily see – spilled over to the Åland Islands, and with it the various civil war parties. But the greatest danger came from Sweden, which, after the positive experience of the Thirty Years’ War, did not want the First World War to be over after only four measly years. On 20 February 1918, Swedish warships occupied the Åland Islands, ostensibly to protect the population there, who allegedly spoke Swedish. Since no one ever visited the islands, this could not be independently verified.
Finland, or rather one of the civil war parties, had wondered “Who is even more keen on war than the Swedes?” and asked the Germans for help. Germany, which in 1918 was not fully occupied with the World War anymore, immediately agreed. Already on 5 March 1918, German troops landed on Åland and drove out the Swedes.
But – that’s what happens when you invite the Germans – the islands were too small and too little for the Teutonic knights. They preferred to occupy the whole of Finland and wanted to install Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse-Kassel-Rumpenheim as King of Finland. However, until the end of 1918, he did not manage to learn the Finnish oath of office by heart (it is a difficult language, admittedly) and finally abdicated the throne on 14 December 1918, annoyed at this weirdest of languages. Thus the Finns became a republic and have been living happily ever after.
After the revolution in Germany in November 1918, the German troops withdrew from Finland and the Åland Islands.
You can guess what came next. Exactly: the Swedes. They just didn’t give up. Sweden supported separatists in Åland, flooded Finland with plywood furniture that collapsed at the first contact with a drunkard, and tried to get the Åland Islands awarded at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. To no avail. Sweden rearmed heavily and was ready to go to war.
The nuclear war was prevented at the last minute by a beneficial institution founded only the year before: the League of Nations, something like the forerunner of the UN. On 24 June 1921 – and this finally brings us to the centenary – the League of Nations decided that the Åland Islands should remain part of Finland, but that they should be given autonomous and special status because of their predominantly Swedish-speaking population. Since then, Åland has somehow been part of Finland, but with Swedish as the only official language, with its own parliament and stamps, without a Finnish military presence, with limited rights for non-Ålandic Finnish citizens (e.g. when buying land or starting a business) and tax exemption for alcohol.
The last point was the real reason why Finland accepted the League of Nations’ drastic conditions. It is true that Finland practically gave up control over the islands, but in exchange even Finns can drink tax-free on the ferry ride to Åland. And with 6757 islands, you can spend your whole vacation like that.
The Åland episode was supposed to be a travel-based episode of the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”. But based on current planning, I will not be in Stockholm until the fall. From October, I would then have time to explore these autonomous islands. So, if anyone from there is reading this, let me know! I would like to put my report about the Åland Islands on a more solid footing. And for that purpose, your traveling historian takes on even the most arduous journeys.
- All articles of the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”.
- More history.
- From fall on, there will be more reports from Sweden.
- Meanwhile, if you are interested in islands in the Baltic Sea, you might enjoy my report from Hiiumaa.
- The Germans liked Åland so much that they tried to invade again in World War II (Operation “Tanne West”). Fortunately, nothing came of it.
- Tourism information about Åland. You don’t need to wage a war in order to visit, it turns out.