Pehr Evind Svinhufvud

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Pehr Evind Svinhufvud : biography

December 15, 1861 – February 29, 1944

Family background and early life

Pehr Evind Svinhufvud af Qvalstad was born in Sääksmäki. He was the son of Pehr Gustaf Svinhufvud af Qvalstad, a sea captain, and Olga von Becker. His father drowned at sea off Greece in 1863, when Pehr Evind was only two years old. He spent his early childhood at the home of his paternal grandfather, Pehr Gustaf Svinhufvud af Qvalstad (a provincial treasurer of Häme), at Rapola, where the family had lived for five generations. The Svinhufvuds were a Swedophone noble family tracing their history back to Dalarna, Sweden. Pehr Gustaf Svinhufvud af Qvalstad, an army lieutenant in the reign of Karl XII, had moved from there to Rapola after the Great Northern War. The family had been ennobled in Sweden in 1574, and it was also introduced to the Finnish House of Nobility in 1818. Rapola was sold when his grandfather shot himself in 1866, and Svinhufvud moved to Helsinki with his mother and his sister.

He attended the Swedish-language high school in Helsinki. In 1878, at the age of 16, he enrolled at the Imperial Alexander University of Helsinki. There he gained a Bachelor’s degree in 1881, and then completed a Master of Arts degree in 1882; his main subjects being Finnish, Russian and Scandinavian History. After this, he took a Master of Laws degree, graduating in 1886. In 1889, Svinhufvud married Alma (Ellen) Timgren (1869–1953). They had six children, Yngve (1890–1991), Ilmo Gretel (1892–1969), Aino Mary (1893–1980), Eino (1896–1938), Arne (1904–1942), and Eivind (1908–1969).

Independence and the Civil War

Svinhufvud was appointed as Chairman of the Senate on November 27, 1917, and was a key figure in the announcement of Finland’s declaration of independence on December 6, 1917. He also personally went to Saint Petersburg to meet Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who somewhat hesitatingly gave his official recognition of Finnish independence. Svinhufvud’s Senate also authorized General Mannerheim to form a new Finnish army on the basis on White Guard, the (chiefly Rightist) volunteer militia called the Suojeluskunta, an act simultaneously coinciding with the beginning of the Civil War in Finland.

During the Civil War, Svinhufvud went underground in Helsinki and sent pleas for intervention to Germany and Sweden. The conflict also turned him into an active monarchist, though not a royalist. In March 1918 he managed to escape via Berlin-Stockholm to the Senate, now located in Vaasa, where he resumed his function as Head of Government. In this role he pardoned 36,000 Red prisoners in the autumn of 1918. On May 18, Svinhufvud became Protector of State or Regent, retaining this post as Head of State after he stood down as Chairman of the Senate on May 27.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I, and the failed attempt to make Finland a Monarchy under the King of Finland (Frederick Charles of Hesse was elected), Svinhufvud withdrew from public life and was active only in the Rightist Suojeluskunta-militia.

Prime Minister and President

In 1925 he was the Presidential candidate for the conservative Kokoomus party, but was not elected. After the emergence of the anti-communist Lapua Movement, President Relander appointed him as Prime Minister of Finland on the Lapua Movement’s insistence. Svinhufvud was elected President in 1931, and appointed Mannerheim as Chairman of the Defence Council, not least of all as an answer to the Lapua Movement’s fear of having fought the Civil War in vain.

He resisted both communist agitation and the Lapua Movement’s exploits. All Communist members of parliament were arrested. In February 1932 there was a so-called Mäntsälä Rebellion, when the Suojeluskunta-Militia and the Lapua Movement demanded the Cabinet’s resignation. The turning point came with the President’s broadcast radio speech, in which he called on the rebels to surrender and ordered all Civil Guard members who were heading for Mäntsälä to return to their homes:

"Throughout my long life, I have struggled for the maintenance of law and justice, and I cannot permit the law to now be trampled underfoot and citizens to be led into armed conflict with one another…. Since I am now acting on my own responsibility, beholden to no-one, and have taken it upon myself to restore peace to the country, from now on every secret undertaking is aimed not only at the legal order but at me personally as well – at me, who have myself marched in the ranks of the Civil Guards as an upholder of social peace…. Peace must be established in the country as swiftly as possible, and the defects that exist in our national life must thereafter be eliminated within the framework of the legal order." His speech stopped the rebellion before anything serious happened.