Finland's first inhabitants, dating from about 7000 B.C., probably followed the melting ice northward, attracted by a good supply of game. The first Finnish-speaking persons to enter the region, who were mostly nomadic hunters and fishers, migrated into Finland from the south. By the 8th cent. they had displaced the small number of Sami who lived in central and S Finland and who were forced to move to the far north of the country, where they live today. The Finns were organized in small-scale political units, with only loose ties beyond the clan level.
From the 11th cent. Christian missionaries were active in Finland. In the 13th cent. Sweden conquered the country. Under the Swedes, Finland enjoyed considerable independence, its political sophistication grew, commerce increased, and the Swedish language and culture were spread. In the mid-16th cent. Lutheranism was established in Finland, and in 1581 the country was raised to the rank of grand duchy.
Finland suffered severely in the recurring wars between Sweden and Russia. In 1696 famine wiped out almost a third of the population. By the Treaty of Nystad (1721), which ended the Northern War, Peter I of Russia acquired the province of Vyborg (Viipuri), and additional areas were lost to Russia in 1743. During the Napoleonic Wars, Finland was invaded (1808) by Russia, at the time an ally of Napoleon I, in an attempt to pressure Sweden into altering its pro-British stance. Despite considerable Finnish resistance, Russia conquered the country and annexed it in 1809.
In the 19th cent., the czars, who were also grand dukes of Finland, allowed the country wide-ranging autonomy, and as a result Finland was able to develop its own democratic system with little interference from St. Petersburg. In 1811, Russia returned to Finland the territory it had taken in 1721 and 1743. In 1812, Finland's capital was moved from Turku to Helsinki. Government in the country was headed by a Russian governor-general (the personal representative of the czar) in conjunction with the Finnish senate; in addition, there was a Finnish minister of state in St. Petersburg who dealt directly with the czar.
Finnish nationalism became a powerful movement early in the 19th cent.; it was inspired by such leaders as the poet J. L. Runeberg; the statesman and philosopher J. V. Snellman, whose promotion of the Finnish language helped it to achieve official status in 1863; and the philologist Elias Lönnrot, who compiled the monumental epic Kalevala. The intensive Russification campaign (begun in 1899) of Czar Nicholas II brought determined resistance in Finland, including the assassination (1904) of Nikolai Bobrikov, the governor-general, and a general strike (1905). Under terms obtained in 1906, a unicameral parliament (whose members were elected by universal suffrage) was established, but it was given little authority by the czar. Following the Bolshevik success in the Russian Revolution (1917), the parliament proclaimed (Dec. 6, 1917) the independence of Finland.
In the ensuing civil war (Jan.–May, 1918) between the leftist Red Guard (supported by some 40,000 Soviet troops and favoring close ties with the USSR) and the conservative Finnish-nationalist White Guard, led by Marshal Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim and aided by German troops, the White Guard emerged victorious. After brief periods of rule under Pehr Ervind Svinhufvud (1918) and Mannerheim (1918–19), a republic was established and its first president, Kaarlo Juho Stahlberg, elected (1919). By the Treaty of Tartu in 1920, the USSR recognized Finland's independence.
Agrarian and social reforms enacted after 1918 did much to heal the wounds of civil war, but deep scars remained, and they contributed to the rise of extreme rightist and leftist movements. As a result, there was considerable political instability in the 1920s and early 1930s; there were several government crises, and most ministries were based on coalitions. The Communist party, suppressed in 1923, remained active until it was effectively removed from the scene by discriminatory laws in 1930, and the rightist Lapua movement, originating in anti-Communist disturbances in 1929, was itself suppressed after an unsuccessful coup in 1932.
Finland was active in the League of Nations, which it joined in 1920, and it was the only European country to continue to honor its World War I debts to the United States after the advent of the economic depression at the start of the 1930s. During the 1930s, Finland followed a neutralist foreign policy, and in 1932 it signed a nonaggression treaty with the USSR. In late Nov., 1939, shortly after the start of World War II, Finland was attacked by Soviet troops, and despite spirited Finnish resistance organized by Mannerheim, the USSR easily emerged victorious by early 1940 (see Finnish-Russian War). By the treaty of Moscow (Mar. 12, 1940), Finland ceded the Rybachi Peninsula, its part of the Karelian Isthmus (including Vyborg), and land bordering on Lake Ladoga; in addition, the USSR gained a 30-year lease of the port of Hanko. Some 400,000 residents of the ceded territories relocated to Finland.
When Germany attacked the USSR in June, 1941, Finland allied itself with Germany, hoping thereby to regain territory from the USSR. Great Britain, but not the United States, declared war on Finland. After some initial Finnish successes, Soviet troops mounted a strong offensive in 1944 and forced Finland to sign an armistice in Sept., 1944. This agreement confirmed the cessions of territory Finland had made in 1940; however, instead of Hanko, the USSR was given a lease on the Porkkala peninsula near Helsinki. In addition, Finland was required to pay an indemnity to the USSR and to force the Germans to evacuate the country. In the ensuing warfare with Germany, N Finland was devastated.
After the war, by a peace treaty signed in Paris in 1947, the 1944 armistice was largely confirmed; Finland was obliged to pay the USSR $300 million in reparations and to cede the Karelian Isthmus (with Vyborg), Pechenga (Petsamo) in the far north, and additional border districts in the east. The USSR was given a 50-year lease to the Porkkala region. About 420,000 Finns left the territory ceded to the USSR and were resettled in Finland. Despite great difficulties, Finland completed its reparations payments by 1952; in 1948, the USSR had reduced the amount by about $74 million. In 1956 Porkkala was returned to Finland.
In the immediate postwar period, Communists (working through the Finnish People's Democratic League) won a substantial number of seats in parliament and held several high-level cabinet posts, including for a short time that of prime minister. However, beginning in 1948, the Communists' power began to wane, and the Social Democrats and the Agrarian Union (in 1965 renamed the Center party) dominated politics from then on. These parties almost invariably had to form coalition governments either with each other or with other, smaller, parties. In 1955, Finland joined the United Nations.
Although during the late 1950s and early 1960s the USSR exercised some influence over internal Finnish politics (forcing, for example, the withdrawal of a candidate for president in 1962), during this period Finland began to follow a more neutral course in relation to the Soviets. In 1966, Communists were included in a coalition cabinet for the first time since 1948. In 1973 parliament passed an extraordinary law extending Urho Kekkonen's third term as president (he had been elected in 1956 and reelected in 1962 and 1968) for four years to 1978. He remained in office until 1981, when he was replaced by Mauno Koivisto.
The Finnish Communist party gradually lost influence throughout the 1970s, and finally split in 1985 along nationalistic and pro-Moscow lines. In the 1987 elections, the Conservatives filled the gap left by the Communists, and Conservative Prime Minister Harri Holkeri took office in 1987, heading a coalition government that included the Social Democrats. This left the Center party as the opposition for the first time since independence. The economic collapse of the USSR in 1991 caused a severe recession in Finland, as the country had traded extensively with the Soviets. Soviet disintegration also led to the scrapping of a 1948 Finnish-Soviet defense treaty and to a pledge by Russia to treat its Finnish neighbor as an equal.
In 1991, Esko Aho became prime minister, heading a center-right government, but his party suffered heavy losses in 1995 elections, and a left-right coalition government headed by Social Democrat Paavo Lipponen came into office. In 1994, Martti Ahtisaari, a Social Democrat and diplomat, became Finland's first president elected by direct popular vote (election was previously by an electoral college). Throughout the 1990s, Finland focused on reducing unemployment and increasing its integration with Western Europe; it became a member of the European Union in 1995. Tarja Halonen, the foreign minister, was elected president in 2000 and reelected in 2006; she was the first woman to hold the office.
Parliamentary elections in Mar., 2003, gave a narrow plurality to the opposition Center party, and party leader Anneli Jäätteenmäki became prime minister, heading a center-left government. The use of leaked government documents during the campaign by Jäätteenmäki, who had become the first female prime minister of Finland, led to her resignation in June, and Matti Vanhanen, also of the Center party, succeeded her. Jäätteenmäki, however, was subsequently acquitted on charges relating to the incident.
The parliamentary elections of Mar., 2007, again gave the Center party a narrow plurality; Vanhanen remained in office at the head of a reconstituted, center-right coalition. Vanhanen stepped down as Center party leader in June, 2010, and Mari Kiviniemi, the new leader, then also succeeded him as prime minister. In the Apr., 2011, parliamentary elections all the major parties lost seats, but the Eurosceptic and nationalist True Finns party, which had previously held a handful of seats, placed third with almost one fifth of the vote and won 39 seats. The conservative National Coalition party, which won a plurality, secured 44 seats. In June a mulitparty government led by the National Coalition party and with Jyrki Katainen as prime minister was formed. Sauli Niinistö, the National Coalition candidate, won the presidency in Feb., 2012; he became the first conservative to be elected to the office in half a century.