Finland started its centenary celebrations on 1 June 2017 with a meating of Nordic heads of state in Helsinki. An historical day, as the Presidents of Finland and Iceland and the Monarchs of Norway, Sweden and Denmark have only gathered in Finland once before since Finland became an independent country. Finland became an independent state on 6 December 1917, after a long struggle. The country became a republic, but if the circumstances only had been a bit different, they might have become a monarchy instead.
For centuries Finland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden. Sweden and the Republic Novgorod in 1323 regulated their borders and divided the area that is now Finland. Eastern Finland (Karelia) became part of Novgorod (later Russia), the western and southern parts became Sweden. After the reformation the interest in the Finnish language and culture became bigger. Mikael Agricola, Bishop of Turku (in Swedish the city is called Åbo), created written Finnish. In the 17th and early 18th century Sweden enlarged its kingdom and managed to extend the borders further east. In 1808-1809 Russia conquered Finland during a war with the Swedes. After joining Russia Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy. The Tsar of Russia was also the Grand Duke of Finland. In 1812 Helsinki became its capital.
However the national movement of the Finns became stronger. The Russian Revolution of October 1917 gave them the opportunity to become independent. On 6 December 1917 the Finnish Parliament approved the declaration of independence. But the new government wasn’t very stable. In May 1918 the Civil War ended. On 25 July 1919 Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg (1865-1952) was elected the first president. But what happened in the time between the Civil War and the election of the first president?
Part of the Finns wished their country to become a monarchy, just like some surrounding countries. The monarchistic Senate that ruled the country since May 1918 had made Pehr Evind Svinhufvud the temporary head of state until a monarch was selected. The Parliament on 8 October 1918 elected the German Prince Friedrich Karl von Hessen (1868-1940) as the new King of Finland. The first choice had been Prince Oscar of Prussia, a son of Emperor Wilhelm II, but the Emperor didn’t want to send his son to an instable country. Friedrich Karl, Wilhelm II’s brother-in-law, accepted and was preparing to travel to Finland to take his throne. He was to reign under the name of King Väinö I and also received the titles of Duke of Åland and Grand Duke of Lapland. It would however never actually happen.
On 11 November 1918 the First World War officially ended and Germany lost the war. Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated and Germany became a republic. Finlands monarchistic senate resigned and the new government was republican and friends with the countries that had won the war. The Finnish regent Svinhufvud resigned in December 1918 in favour of General Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, a republican. It was clear that the new country Finland would less easy be accepted as an independent country with a German on the throne. On 14 December 1918 Friedrich Karl wrote the following letter from his residence in Kronberg, Germany, to the Envoy and Plenipontentiary Extraordinary Minister of Finland Dr. E. Hjelt, Esq. in Berlin.
I request that you would inform your Government in my name of the following, in purpose of making it known to the People of Finland:
The change in the general political situation inevitably affect also Finland, whose people had decided to entrust me the care of her welfare. In my letter of the 4th of November to the President of the Diet I had to withhold the final decision, on grounds that, however, do not exist anymore; instead of these, other difficulties also mentioned then have intensified and have unavoidably stepped between Finland’s duty towards herself and her obligation towards me.
Recognizing this I do not hesitate a moment to set her free from the last one.
When I relieve Finland from her moral obligations towards me, she receives all what I, in these circumstances, can give her. No further words are needed. I know that I am understood.
I forward to this country of steadfast eyes my and my nearest ones’ salutation and gratitude for many friendly manifestations deep from the heart. May its dear people achieve happiness, men, women and the lovely youth where the hope for the future rests on!
The Finnish throne would never be offered to anyone anymore after Friedrich Karls resignation. Friedrich Karl and his wife Margarethe née Princess of Prussia (1872-1954) had six children: Friedrich Wilhelm (1893-1916), Maximilian (1894-1914), Philipp (1896-1980), Wolfgang (1896-1989), Richard (1901-1969) and Christoph (1901-1943). In 1925 Friedrich Karl followed his elder brother Alexander-Friedrich (1863-1945) as Landgrave von Hessen-Kassel. In 1940 Philipp, the eldest surviving son of Friedrich Karl followed his father as head of the family.
But who, if Finland indeed had become a monarchy in 1918, would now have been the King of Finland? According to family documents and correspondence the second surviving son would have been the successor in Finland. That would have been Prince Wolfgang, as it was impossible at the time to get in touch with his elder twin brother Philipp, who was in the army. In 1918 Wolfgang was ready to travel to Finland and even a marriage to a Finnish lady was already being prepared. Wolfgang died without issue. According to Dr. Vesa Vares the eldest son would always succeed to the Hessian title. Whether the second son would really have succeeded to the Finnish kingship in future generations is however the question. Very likely Wolfgang – if he had ever become the King of Finland – would have been succeeded by his nephew Landgrave Moritz (1926-2013), and after him by Moritz’ eldest son Landgrave Heinrich Donatus (* 1966).
It didn’t stop the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat in the Summer of 2002 to invite Landgrave Moritz’ second son Prince Philipp von Hessen to come to Finland. They made a complete special about the visit with an interview and lots of pictures. He was even received by the Finnish president at the time, Tarja Halonen. Philipp made clear that the family doesn’t claim the throne. However they had visited the country on vacation, he admitted.
- Hessen, Rainer Prinz von, König im “Land der ernsten Augen”. Das finnische Thronangebot an Prinz Friedrich Karl von Hessen im Sommer 1918 (article in the book “Kronen, Kriege, Künste. Das Haus Hessen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert) (Frankfurt 2009).
- Hulden, Anders, Kuningasseikkailu Suomessa 1918 (1988). Published into both Swedish and German (1997 as Finnland deutsches Königsabenteuer).
- Leistra, Netty, Finland: Imperial and Royal Surprise, in: European Royal History Journal, Issue XXXV, October 2003.
- Nash, Michael L., The last King of Finland, in: Royalty Digest Quarterly, 1/2012.
- Vares, Vesa, Kuninkaan Tekijät (The Finnish Monarchy 1917-1919 – The Myth and Reality) (1998), in Finnish only.