100th anniversary of Finland’s first president

KJ Stålberg had a life of service to the country - and was involved in a kidnap crisis with his wife and some right wing nationalists!

File picture showing a statue of Finland's first president Ståhlberg outside parliament, summer 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Finland got its first president exactly 100 years ago today.

The Republic of Finland was born on 17th July 1919 and the first president Karlo Juho Ståhlberg was elected a few days later on 25th July.

Members of the new Finnish parliament gave Ståhlberg 143 votes while his rival for the job CGE Mannerheim got just 50 votes.

Life of service to the country

Ståhlberg was born in Kainuu, and went to school in Oulu. Later, he studied law at Helsinki University, graduating in 1893.

Before becoming a politician, Ståhlberg worked as an academic and a civil servant and in 1901 became a member of Helsinki City Council.

Although he initially was a proponent of Finland becoming a constitutional monarchy, he later changed his mind and advocated for a presidential system, with the president chosen by a popular vote of the people. This wasn’t to happen though until 1988.

A member of the liberal National Progressive Party, history remembers President Ståhlberg as a principled man, and the chief architect of the Finnish constitution. He supported social and economic reforms although adopted a very cautious foreign policy especially towards Sweden and Germany.

Ståhlberg pardoned most of the Red prisoners from the Civil War, and championed laws that gave trade unions the same power as employers’ organisations to negotiate labour contracts – a system still largely the same today.

However, plagued by shyness and the stresses of the job he only served a single six year term as president until 1925, and although he later stood again twice for the presidency he narrowly missed out both times.

Kidnapping drama 

In 1930 Ståhlberg and his second wife were kidnapped from their home in Helsinki by a right wing nationalist group called the Lapua Movement who wanted to see a change in government policies.

The nationalists drove the Ståhlbergs to Joensuu, and threatened to execute them. However the couple were released unharmed the following day.

KJ Ståhlberg died in 1952 aged 87. He is depicted in a large statue outside parliament in Helsinki.

Detail from statue of President Ståhlberg outside parliament in Helsinki / Credit: News Now Finland