Finland and the Second World War

Finland was united with Sweden from the early Middle Ages and by the 12th century was largely an autonomous state until 1809 when it became a self-governing Grand Duchy of Russia. At first the Romanov Dynasty respected Finland's autonomy but Alexander III pursued a policy of Russification of national minorities. This included imposing the Russian language and Russian schools on the German, Polish and Finnish peoples living in the Russian Empire.

After the 1905 Revolution in Russia Nicholas II gave permission for the Finns to elect a parliament chosen by universal suffrage of both sexes. A further period of repression after 1910 stimulated growth in Finnish nationalism and taking advantage of the breakdown of authority during the February Revolution, Finland's national assembly proclaimed its independence 29th July 1917.

The Provisional Government responded by devolving the national assembly. New elections resulted in a pro-German, right-wing assembly, and on 6th December it once again declared its independence from Russia. The new Bolshevik government accepted the move but gave its support to the Red Guards that staged a coup in Helsinki on 28th January 1918. Led by General Carl Mannerheim, Finnish forces defeated left-wing forces at the Battle of Viborg on 29th April 1918.

Russia lost all control over Finland after the new Bolshevik Government signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. In July 1919 Finland adopted a democratic and republican constitution. Over the next few years Finland was involved in border disputes with Russia. A dispute with Sweden over the Alandia Islands, was peacefully resolved by the League of Nations.

General Carl Mannerheim retired from the army but in 1931 was recalled as head of the defence council. Afraid of being invaded by the Red Army, he organised the construction of the Mannerheim Line across the Karelian Isthmus.

Lapua, a fascist group, attempted an armed uprising in Finland on 29th March 1932. Although the rebellion was put down after a couple of days, the government agreed to pass anti-communist laws.

In the late 1930s Joseph Stalin became concerned about the Soviet Union being invaded from the West. Stalin argued that Leningrad was only thirty-two kilometres from the Finnish border and its 3.5 million population, were vulnerable to artillery fire from Nazi Germany.

After attempts to negotiate the stationing of Soviet troops in Finland failed, Joseph Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade on 30th November 1939. Adolf Hitler, who also had designs on Finland, had under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, was forced to standby and watch the Soviet Union build up its Baltic defences.

Carl Mannerheim, Adolf Hitler and Risto Ryti on 6th June 1942.
Carl Mannerheim, Adolf Hitler and Risto Ryti on 6th June 1942.

Although the advance of Soviet troops was halted at the Mannheim Line the Finns lost more that 20 per cent of their 200,000 soldiers in three months. In March 1940 the Finnish government signed a peace treaty in Moscow that surrendered 16,000 square miles of territory to the Soviet Union.

In an attempt to recover the lands lost in 1940 Finland agreed to join the German Army in its attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. This resulted in Britain declaring war on Finland later that year.

When Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to invade the Soviet Union on 22nd June 1941, Mannerheim led the Finnish Army that retook the Karelian Isthmus. The following year Carl Mannerheim, now aged 75, became a marshal of Finland.

The Red Army launched a counter-offensive and penetrated the Mannerheim Line taking Viipuri on 20th June 1944. Finnish defences were gradually overwhelmed and on 4th September 1944, Mannerheim, now president of Finland, was forced to sign a peace treaty with Joseph Stalin.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Manchester Guardian (30th November, 1939)

Though according to foreign reports the Red forces this morning launched their promised "help for the Finnish people" against their democratic Government - led by Socialists, the Kremlin's particular detestation - the Russian people remained ignorant until late tonight of the fact that their Government had involved them in actual warfare with their tiny neighbour.

Speculation on the soviet objectives in foreign quarters here turns on the question whether the campaign will be pursued after the seizure of the Karelian Ishmus, the islands in the Gulf of Finland, Hanko, and the northern most peninsulas, which were demanded in the negotiations, or then propose a peace, to be concluded with a new and more compliant Finnish Government.

Certain foreign quarters believe that the hostilities may serve as a justification for the seizure of the Finnish copper and nickel mines, both of which metals are solely needed in the Soviet Union. The production of Finnish copper is largely exported to Germany, which took 12,000 tons in 1938, but the nickel is controlled by a Canadian concession, and is exported only from Petsamo.

(2) Manchester Guardian (1st December, 1939)

Russia invaded Finland early yesterday morning, and at once began to try to enforce submission by air attacks.

The Finnish Government resigned early this morning. It is reported from Copenhagen that Dr. Tanner, the Finnish Finance Minister, who was one of the Finnish delegates to Moscow, will form a new Government to open negotiations with Russia.

News of the resignation came after the Russian threat, broadcast from Moscow, that unless Finland surrendered by three o'clock this morning Helsinki would be completely destroyed.

A representative of the United States Legation in Helsinki sent the information of the Government's resignation to the American Embassy in Moscow, which is expected to communicate with the Kremlin.

M. Erkko, the Finnish Foreign Minster, in a broadcast to the United States last night, said "We remain ready to work for a solution of the dispute by conciliation."

The Soviet Government yesterday rejected the United States' offer of its good offices in settling the dispute; the Soviet Government did not think they were needed. Finland accepted the offer.

The invasion of Finland without any declaration of war has cause the greatest indignation throughout the world, especially in other Scandinavian countries and in the United States, Italy, and Spain. In the House of Commons yesterday Mr. Chamberlain made a statement on the invasion.

(3) Anthony Eden, speech in Liverpool (29th February, 1940)

Not Russia only but Germany also, bears a terrible responsibility for what is happening in Finland at this hour. Hitler and Ribbentrop, these men and their policies alone made Stalin's aggression possible. Stalin is the aggressor in Finland, Hitler the abettor.

It seems strange to think now how many hours I used to spend listening to the present German Foreign Secretary when he was Ambassador in London, when he used to expound to me, as indeed he did also in public many times, the dangers and horrors of Bolshevism. He was never tired of expatiating on this theme. Soviet Russia, this untouchable with whom Nazi Germany could not sit down at a conference table, this leprous thing, this cancer. Many a time the British people were taken to task because we, it was alleged, did not understand the extent of our peril. We did not appreciate, we were told, the realities of the European situation. Only Hitler could do that. He, alone, we were assured, stood as a bulwark between Britain and Red Russia. But for the Hitlerian St. George the Red Dragon would have swallowed us long since. So ran the German fable with its many variations.

And what has happened now ? The Red Dragon has taken the Hitlerian St. George for a ride. It may be that one day in the not so distant future the German Foreign Minister may have need to recall his own warnings.

(4) Dr. Tomas Ries, Lessons of the Winter War, National Defence College, Finland (2001)

The Winter War erupted on 30 November 1939, when Stalin unleashed his Red Army in an all-out assault against Finland. In August that year Stalin and Hitler had divided eastern Europe between them in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, leaving Finland isolated in the Soviet sphere of influence. During the fall Stalin demanded that Finland cede key parts of the country to the USSR. When Finland refused to meet all his demands Stalin unleashed his armies.

In the winter dawn of 30 November four Soviet Armies with 23 divisions - some 460,000 men with over 2,000 tanks - began advancing across the length of Finland's 1,200 km long eastern border. Their objective was to occupy the entire territory of Finland by the end of the year, installing Moscow's puppet 'Terijoki Government' in Helsinki, and establishing a new 'Democratic Republic of Finland'. Their troops were issued with detailed written warnings not to cross into Sweden once they had reached Finland's western border, and the 7th Army included a military band for the victory parade in Helsinki.

Few at the time expected the tiny Finnish nation of 3.6 million to survive. But despite the odds Finland reacted with desperate determination. On the one hand the country was determined to fight, and the full field army of some 160,000 men had been mobilized and sent eastwards into position along the front during the fall. On the other hand Finland also was grimly prepared for the worst, and began sending her national treasure - her children - to safety in Sweden, to cover the possibility of a Soviet victory and Stalin's national extermination programmes. Leaving at night from blacked out harbours along Finland's western coast, in the gaps between wailing sirens warning of Soviet bombers, none of the thousands of departing children or their parents remaining behind knew whether they would see each other again.

(5) Oleg Rzheshevsky, Europe 1939: Was War Inevitable? (1989)

Finland's war preparations and its anti-Soviet policy at home and abroad were a threat to both the Soviet Union and Finland itself. Britain and France took advantage of Finland's anti-Soviet policy to frustrate Soviet efforts toward establishing a collective security system. During the Anglo-Franco-Soviet talks Britain and France first refused to give guarantees to the Baltic states and Finland and then came out against extending such guarantees to the eventually of indirect aggression against them. This played its role in the Finnish government's decision to seek closer relations with Germany. Therefore, on June 20, 1939, that government declared that it refused all cooperation with the Soviet Union in case of German aggression against Finland and would regard any Soviet assistance as aggression. The Soviet Union's efforts toward providing Finland with a collectiove guarantee against fascist Germany ended in failure. The blame for this lay with the Finnish reactionaries but also with the British and French leaders making common cause with them against the Soviet proposals.

(6) Konstantin Tarnovsky, Illustrated History of the USSR (1982)

Faced with the threat of war, the Soviet government proposed that the USSR and Finland sign a mutual assistance pact and the border between the two countries on the Karelian isthmus be moved westwards as a compensation for which the USSR would cede to Finland a far larger territory of South Karelia. But prompted by Germany on the one hand and by Britain and France on the other and relying on the strong defence belt on the Karelian isthmus - the Mannerheim line, the Finnish government rejected the Soviet offer. On November 26, 1939, Finnish troops attacked. Soviet territory with artillery fire. Red Army troops crossed the border and broke through the Mannerheim line. In March 1940 the Soviet border was moved 150 km from Leningrad to Vyborg under an agreement signed at the Finnish government's request.

(7) Christian Waselius, student, department of History, University of Helsinki, Finland (14th January, 2002)

In the article written by Mr. Tarnovsky it is said that "Finnish troops attacked Soviet territory with artillery fire" on November 26th 1939. This incident that happened in the small village Mainila, was made by Soviet troops and put up as a reason for the Red Army to attack Finland. Finnish frontier guards also recognized the explosions on the Soviet

side of the border. For that time being, the closest Finnish artillery guns were placed so far away from Mainila that it would have been impossible to reach the place with artillery gun fire. Finland´s government wanted to negotiate and asked for a withdrawal of the troops on both sides of the border. The soviet Foreign Minister Mr. Molotov cut off all diplomatic connections with Finland and the Red Army attacked Finland on November 30th 1939. The Soviet Union officially apologized for the provocative artillery act in 1990.

(8) Colonel Maltitsky of the Red Army took part in the fighting in Finland in 1941.

It is significant that even in the wooded terrain, where close fighting predominates, the Germans avoid hand-to-hand encounters and strive to dislodge the Soviet sub-divisions from their positions solely with the aid of fire. They have never been known to accept a bayonet charge of the Soviet infantry. When launching an offensive the Fascist units usually sustain heavy losses in manpower. Whenever successful, they completely refrain from pursuit.

The Finns practise different methods of warfare. They rarely attack the well-organized defence and prefer cautiously to advance where resistance is weaker. The Finnish offensive on an organized defence is easily routed with heavy losses to them. In defence, however, the Finnish forces are superior to the Germans.

In general, the methods of offensive operations of the Finns consist in advancing slowly but securing their positions. Usually, after occupying a district, the Finns immediately try to fortify it. A scouting party then seeks a new terrain and the units try to occupy the next district.

(9) Manchester Guardian (2nd August, 1944)

It is officially announced from Helsinki that President Ryti has resigned and that he has been succeeded by Marshal Mannerheim.

Mannerheim was appointed by decree and not elected, as is customary. Linkomies, the Premier, moved in Parliament that Marshal Mannerheim should be decreed as Finnish President. This decree also provided that what was called "a great burden of functions on the shoulder of the President" (Mannerheim is 77) should be transferred to the Premier.

A delegation from the "peace opposition" asked Mannerheim to assume leadership of the peace movement, according to a usually reliable Swedish source. They said that a move towards peace would faithfully represent the views of the majority of the country. The delegation reminded him that the recent pact with Germany was made on the personal initiative of Ryti, and that if he resigned it would not be incompatible with Finland's honour to denounce the pact.

Mannerheim held no office in the administration and thus had no responsibility for the treaty keeping Finland in the war which Ribbentrop negotiated with Ryti two months ago. The treaty was never submitted to Parliament.

(10) Joseph Goebbels, diary entry (20th March, 1945)

The result of the Finnish elections looks as if it had given the Social-democrats 52 seats and the communists 51. This means that the communists are almost holding the balance. A left-wing government of Social-democrats and Communists is now in the realm of possibility, giving the Soviets a stepping-stone to the assumption of total power inside Finland. They will certainly not hesitate to exert pressure to bring this left-wing cabinet into existence as soon as possible. Paasiviki is already offering himself as head of this left-wing government. His speech on the day before the

election had such a depressing effect on bourgeois circles that - extraordinarily typical of them once more - they largely abstained. This explains the great left-wing victory. Paasiviki will not long enjoy his reputation as the Finnish Kerensky, however. A shot in the nape of the neck awaits him in the background.