1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Åland Islands

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1922 Encyclopædia Britannica
Åland Islands
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ÅLAND ISLANDS (see 1.469). The alarm that had been felt in Sweden for some years at Russia's projected military works in the Åland Is. was intensified in 1915 when Russia openly began the construction of fortifications. Sweden protested against this breach of the Convention of Paris (1856), and Russia's assurance that the fortifications were merely temporary did not allay Swedish hostility towards Russia which at times threatened a crisis. The Russian revolution of 1917 diverted attention from the fortifications to the larger question of the sovereignty of the islands. In Aug. 1917 the Åland islanders took steps to consider reunion with Sweden, and as a plebiscite in Dec. showed 95% of the population in favour of the proposal, a petition to that effect was presented to the King of Sweden in Feb 1918. The King in reply echoed the hope of the deputation that a solution of their desires might be found “in concert with free and independent Finland.” In the same month Sweden sent a military expedition to the islands to protect the population from outrages by the Russian Bolshevik garrison with which a small Finnish White force was unable to cope. The Russians were sent to Åbo and the Finnish troops to northern Finland via Sweden. On the arrival early in March of German troops by invitation of the Finnish Whites, the Swedish force withdrew. The German garrison remained until Oct. 1918. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3 1918) and the subsequent treaty between Germany and Finland (March 7 1918) both stipulated that the fortifications on the islands should be removed and not subsequently rebuilt. But the work of demolition was repeatedly delayed. The Finnish Government opposed the Ålanders' wish for union with Sweden, but proposed to compromise by making the islands into a separate Finnish province. The Diet persisted in this policy, and passed a bill for self-government for Åland in May 1920. Meanwhile the appointment of a Finnish military governor caused resentment, which was aggravated (July 1918) by attempts to call the Ålanders for military service on the mainland. They refused to obey, at the same time expressing their willingness to serve in the islands under Swedish-speaking officers. Many of the inhabitants fled to Sweden in order to escape service. In Nov. 1918 the Ålanders appealed to the United States, Great Britain, France and Italy, relying on the right of self-determination. An appeal to Finland at the same time drew an equivocal reply. In Feb. 1919 the Ålanders submitted their case to the Supreme Council in Paris. Sweden supported their claim. The Peace Conference declined to deal with the matter, which was then referred to the League of Nations. A commission of three jurists appointed by the League reported (Sept. 1920) that the Council of the League was competent to make recommendations since the dispute did not refer to a matter left by international law to the domestic jurisdiction of Finland. The League thereupon appointed a commission to examine the question.

Opinion in Finland among both Finns and Swedes was strongly opposed to the cession of the islands, and it was argued that to yield to the demand for self-determination of a fraction of the Swedish population of Finland (about one-tenth) would be to reduce the doctrine to an absurdity. At the same time the opposition of the Swedes in Finland to the Ålanders' desire might be regarded as biased by unwillingness to lose the weight of their vote and so lessen Swedish influence in Finland. Finland also maintained that her sovereign rights over Åland were not affected by Russian domination in Finland or by subsequent events, and that Finland was not one of the “new” states that arose as a result of the World War; and that in consequence the Åland question was purely a domestic one in which no other state nor the League of Nations was competent to intervene. On the other hand the Ålanders showed themselves virtually unanimous in their desire for union with Sweden, to which they were closely allied in race, language and to a great extent in trade, and they maintained that their islands were sufficiently distinct from Finland geographically to give them the right of self-determination.

The commission, after visiting Stockholm, Helsingfors, and the Åland Is., presented its report to the Council of the League at its session in June 1921. On June 24 the Council announced its decision that the islands were to belong to Finland, but that they were to be neutralized from a military point of view and given full guarantees of unfettered autonomy. M. Branting, on behalf of Sweden, said Sweden would bow to the League's ruling under protest, and M. Hymans was appointed to preside at a committee of Finns and Swedes to discuss details of the guarantees.

For a general account of the islands reference may be made to Handbooks prepared under the direction of the Historical Section of the Foreign Office, No. 48, Åland Islands; also Atlas de Finlande, with text in French (1910). The Finnish side of the present dispute is set forth in The Åland Question and the Rights of Finland (1920). See also Sven Tunberg, Les Îles d'Åland dans l'Histoire (1919), and E. Sjaestedt, La Question des Îles d'Åland (1919).

(R. N. R. B.)