Friday, January 20, 2006

Finland's War 1939-45

This was written after some debate in a Finnish forum about the war years. Probably heavy going for any foreigner but these are quite significant issues for Finns: this was the decisive time for the nation and our modern mentality. In my somewhat controversial view it has never been fully realized just how successful and lucky we actually were. At the time it was actually seen as a terrible and unjust loss and for the latter years of Kekkonen we were obliged to think that it all could have been avoided with just trusting, yes, of all people, Stalin.

Never have we really been able to understand the reality of the only realistic alternative for a small country of our geographical location in those awful years: occupation by either the Nazis or the Stalinists or both successively. This is what happened to Estonia: by 1945 it had lost one quarter of its citizenry. More losses, proportionally, than the Soviet Union suffered in the WW2. Unimaginable losses, in fact.

Today there are ca 1 million descendants of the Estonian population of 1939. The Estonian population in 1939 was about the same size. That is a horrible, chilling sentence: in Finland we had ca 3,5 million people in 1939. Today there are 5,2 million. If the same had happened and it easily could (with us having even more deep rooted pluralistic structures and even easier access to Sweden), we would be missing almost 2 million people in this country. That is the fate we avoided. Of course all this is quite beyond imagination now in our high-tech Nordic welfare state.

Against the background of the coming war it really does beggar belief how tragically positive Finland’s position was on the eve of the WW2. We had left behind the divisive, terrible early years of the decade – the Social Democrats and Agrarians were in broad and stable coalition, the economy was growing healthily, in the foreign policy we aimed towards Scandinavian neutrality, had almost no debt and no big investments in the army. Overall the country was quickly developing along Nordic lines. This optimistic, forwardlooking society was brutally shattered by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939. Quite insanely, irrationally we refused to agree to Stalin’s demands and so the nightmarish attack began in November 1939.

In retrospect it is very hard to see any other path that would have kept Finland free of occupation and avoided the destruction of its democracy and Nordic social structures. But what a terrible path it was. We almost collapsed in the desperate Winter War, without allies, largely without any modern heavy weaponry (though with widespread international sympathy and significant Swedish material and voluntary help). We were saved by the Allied intervention plans (as selfish and ineffective as they would have turned out to be), the coming thaw (making the ground impossible for tanks for weeks to come) – and of course due to the heroic fight of the armed forces supported by a united nation.

Such was the naivety of the times that many actually thought that we would win in the end – as we were fighting for a just cause, and just causes always win. Naturally, this did not happen, but we were not occupied by Stalin (with all the unimaginable destruction and horror that the sovietization of our Nordic society would have meant). But the situation was still filled with horrible danger even after the war. Our immediate move was to try ally ourselves with Sweden in the aftermath of the hard peace. But this was immediately torpedoed by both Stalin and Hitler: they both preferred Finland isolated and defenceless.

The Baltic countries were brutally occupied by the Soviets in June 1940 in connection with the collapse of France (as Hitler’s attention was firmly fixed to the West). When the Battle of Britain began, the Soviet Union begun massing troops behind our borders – in early August Mannerheim considered full mobilization (the army had not been fully demobilized after the war). No doubt the last, bitter struggle would have started in the event of the German invasion of England. But Britain held, and there never was the dreaded ultimatum that Paasikivi kept fearing for that long, awful summer of 1940 in Moscow.

As late as in November 1940 Molotov asked in Berlin for free hands in Finland. But this time Hitler refused (our national fate hang in balance in those moments). Barbarossa was already being planned for and Finland could serve him as a useful ally. Ryti and Mannerheim abhorred the Nazis (“cut throats and gangsters” wrote Mannerheim in a private letter), but options were brutally limited in those nightmarish conditions when the liberal-democratic West had been shut out of mainland Europe. It is very likely that any attempt at neutrality had been violated immediately and the vital grain imports cut if Barbarossa would have started without Finnish participation.

Nevertheless it was a controversial decision: the atmosphere was more of cold, cynical realism than the idealistic defence of the nation a year and half below, and many disagreed. But those nightmarish, awful 18 months had been such an education to this country that it has never since been forgotten: just causes don’t prevail, neutrality can be violated, murdereous attacks can come out of the blue. The nation lost its innocence and gained a hardheaded cynicism about great powers and about the need to pragmatically adjust to their moves (that often baffles our more idealistic cousins in Sweden – the happy country that has been at peace for 200 years).

By and large we kept our hands clean in the Continuation War even as allies of Nazi-Germany. No Finnish Jews were given to Gestapo – there was a Finnish field synagogue a couple of kilometres away from the positions of the German 163rd Division, surely something unique in the Eastern Front, something uniquely honorable. But we did deport some Jewish and other anti-Nazi refugees to Germany (at least 8 died in Auschwitz) and among a few thousands of Russian POW:s that we gave over to Germans there were hundreds of Jews.

The refugee deportations ended when the Helsinki Synagogue contacted Social Democrat cabinet ministers and the Social Democratic and Liberal press made an outcry, but we should never forget this crime, nor the likely concequences of a possible German victory in the war: I’m afraid heavy atrocities would have been committed against the Russian population in the occupied territories in any New Europe dominated by Hitler, and some already were committed during the fighting and the brief wartime occupation.

But we had not the luxury of the long views in the desperate and immediate struggle to stay free, and we also - in the end, luckily - escaped the temptations created by a victory. Mannerheim was justly received in October 1944 in the Helsinki Synagogue as an honourable - and much honoured - soldier and statesman. We had stopped the overpowering Soviet attack in the nick of time in the previous July and concluded a harsh peace but with our army intact and the front holding. Soon Paasikivi took over and basing on the successful armed struggle and our firm Nordic social structures, his skillful diplomacy achieved a working relationship with Stalin who by now was finally ready to negotiate reasonably with Finland.

In retrospect it was an amazing survival against all odds – we managed to avoid occupation by either of the terror states, and that was the crux of it all: they were such traumatic, awful years that held us back for long decades and contributed to our insularity and certain, deepseated suspicion of all outside influences, but we did keep to our Nordic, democratic course, stubbornly, heroically.

8 comments:

helsinkian said...

I agree with your vision about the heroic struggle in a situation where there were no alternatives. Finland was so lucky in that the Soviets didn't occupy the country and the Nazis didn't win the war.

How much was it thanks to the Finnish leadership, Ryti and Mannerheim, that the Soviets survived the Nazi onslaught? Yes, Finland was fighting on the other side but didn't participate on the terms that Hitler would have preferred. The Finns were allied to the Nazis but the Finnish leaders knew the Nazis mustn't win. So Finnish troops didn't go for Leningrad or the Murmansk railway when the Nazis would have needed it.

Finns did occupy Soviet territory in the Continuation War but in the grand scheme of things even that can be explained with the theory that it was vital that the Nazis thought the Finns were doing all they could to help them win the war. Going to Svir gave the Finns a favorable position in the war and in the map it looked like something significant was being done. It would be really interesting to know what Ryti and Mannerheim were thinking about that occupied territory in Eastern Karelia. Were they thinking it perfectly natural that Finland should annex that territory or were they aware that if their hope of a Europe that is not ruled by the Nazis would be realized, Finland would have to retreat?

Whatever the private thoughts of Ryti and Mannerheim were, what they chose to do and what they didn't choose to do was very important for how it all ended for Finland. Maybe it isn't so but I think other leaders would have acted differently. Somebody else might have given in to Stalin or done everything the Nazis asked the Finns to do; either way our Nordic open society wouldn't have been spared.

stockholm slender said...

Yes, it is a good point: there was no real Finnish attempt to attack Leningrad or close the Murmansk railroad. Mannerheim and Ryti halted the forces, and this was no doubt noticed by Stalin. This has largely eluded the international historians, though in Finland it has been well known for decades. I wonder though if the fundamental reason was to sabotage the German war effort. I think it was more to hedge bets and save the small Finnish reserves for defence. Though it is true that Ryti and Mannerheim had little love towards Germany and hoped for the Allies to win and both Russian and Germany to collapse, just like in the First World War.

Anonymous said...

In a strange way comrade Stalin might have done us a great favour by purging, among the other things, the most of his capable officer core.

stockholm slender said...

Yes, didn't Tuhatsevski "objectively" spy for England or France? (And subjectively been one of the greatest potential threats for continued terror?) Those were dark times indeed in the Baltic region, being surrounded by two giant states in the midlle of bloody hysteria and insanity...

Toronto1 said...

I have been reading a book called "Frozen Hell". It gives a very good descripton on what happened between the Finnish and Russian forces at that time.
The Finns fought very bravely and smart because they did not have much of a standing army. I find it incredible that they fought the Red Army for 90 days and still lived to tell about it.

stockholm slender said...

It is quite a story, of course it was awful and brutal, but still one of the very few wars that could be called justified. The stakes were genuine: our national existence and culture really were in balance. It was not rational to resist, but it proved to be the only way to survival. Much of the innocense was lost in the bitter peace and our revenge in the more ambiguous Continuation War, but fundamentally it was a just fight, from end to beginning.

Matterhorn said...

As an admirer of Finland and Mannerheim, I really appreciated this realistic and balanced article.

stockholm slender said...

Thank you! I think we were well served with our leaders during those fateful years. Of course, they would not have amounted to anything without a largely unified nation behind then. During the Winter War, I think the nation was, miraculously, practically almost completely as one. Too bad that idealism wasn't rewarded, or only rewarded in a limited fashion, but even that fully qualifies as something almost totally exceptional during those grim years.