In the 1990s Finland has become a prosperous country with a very high standard of living, yet in the second World War that was almost denied of it on numerous occasions. Finland was in quite a delicate position in European affairs and was wanted by both the Soviet and German forces. So, what was it that enabled Finland to survive the harsh period of war to go on and prosper following the war? While Germany and Russia were able to simply flex their muscles whenever they wanted something, Finland had no such luxury, instead it had to change with the times, to be prepared to change allegiances as the tides of war changed. It was this ability of Finland's to compromise that enabled her to live through the war and come out almost unscathed.
In April 1938, one month after Hitler took Austria, Boris Yartsev, Stalin's representative, presented Finland with the question of how could the Soviet Union obtain guarantees that Finland would not let her territory be used as a base for an attack on the Soviet Union?
At the times the Finns did not take him seriously and broke negotiations in December 1938. He tried and failed a second time. Since Stalin was unable to guarantee Western intervention in the event of an attack by Hitler, he signed a non-aggression treaty with him in August 1939. Throughout the 1930s, Finnish foreign policy was based on the assumption that the ideological balance of terror between Communism and National Socialism would prevent major upheavals, yet this treaty between the ideological archenemies made all past guesses invalid.
The treaty was hardly signed when Hitler launched his blitzkrieg against Poland, thinking Britain and France would meekly submit as they had done when Hitler attacked Austria and Czechoslovakia. However, instead they declared war on Germany following their treaty with Poland, and so Germany was involved in a war on two fronts, although the West was unable to stop Hitler's invasion of Poland. Due to the war, Soviet demands on Finland were tightened, demanding mutual assistance, a base on the Finnish mainland and that the border in the Western part of the Karelian Isthmus be pushed back by seventy kilometres. Finland rejected most of these and agreed to only minor concessions, leading to the Winter War on 30 November 1939.
The first wonder of the Winter War was a political one. The Finnish communists took up arms, opposing the Soviet Union. Nationalism overcame international ideology, although there had been less than a generation since the bitter defeat of the Reds. The second wonder was a military one: Finland held out. Great numbers of Soviet troops moved along all negotiable roads to Finland's interior so, since the Finns had little power and even that was heavily dispersed, a radical new tactic had to emerge. Ill-equipped and weak in numbers, it seemed as though Finland stood no chance against the Soviet forces yet they did have on advantage: the youth and endurance of the Finnish officers. Turning the war into one of mobility, the Finnish forces ambushed the heavily motorised enemy divisions jammed on forest roads, destroying the enormous force with surprise attacks, harassment and attrition by small but fast troops, proving that a bureaucratised great military power can be defeated by a younger, more mobile, force.
During the Winter War France and Britain send troops to Scandinavia, making an attempt to appear to be assisting them. However, their real interests were no different to Moscow's previous negotiation. The Western Powers, Germany and Russia desired Sweden's mineral deposits and all the powers were in a race to get there first; it seemed that the only choice Sweden could make was who would occupy her territory and bum her towns. By ending the Winter War the Western Powers would no longer have an excuse to send military 'aid' to Scandinavia, so it was that on 13 March 1940 Finland signed a peace treaty with Moscow. On the basis of material loss it seemed as though Finland lost the war, yet her most important goal had been achieved: independence.
Germany occupied Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 and on May IO a German tank and air force attacked France across the Maginot Line, quickly forcing Belgium and Holland to surrender and ensuring Britain was unable to withdraw her troops to home turf. Two great allied powers now ruled Europe and to Finland the prospects did not look good. In addition to this Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had become Soviet states by July and the Soviet Union began tearing Finland apart, although by summer the Soviet Union's actions towards Finland were geared around her own security.
Germany's decision to attack the Soviet Union in July 1940 required Germany's collaboration with Finland, but it also offered a subtle flicker of light at the end of the Finnish tunnel. In mid-August 1940 Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Veltjens flew to Finland and contacted Marshal Mannerheim and Prime Minister Ryti. He proposed that, in exchange for permission to transport German troops via Finnish territory to northern Norway, Germany would sell arms to Finland. During wartime many troops move on foreign soil, including states uninvolved in the war, and Finland was also desperate for arms, so permission was almost self-evident.
During December-January 1940-1 the Soviet Union seemed gravely threatening, so Finland embarked on a security policy linking her fate with Germany. Nowadays, with what history and personal experiences have told us about Hitler, it seems that Finland paid a moral and political price for security, however to use that mentality would be most inappropriate, because security policy has always been of the utmost importance during times of war and the decision made by the Finnish foreign policy leadership were made neither on moral nor ideological grounds. Finland's decision did bind Finland to Hitler, yet it was neither good nor bad, rather a question of whether or not it would improve Finland's political position. Paasikivi had always believed that Finland must adapt her security policies to the prevailing situation in Europe at the time, to be ready to change as the winds of Europe changed.
From May 1941 Finland began attempting to present a neutral facade, yet she saw a great opportunity in the making. In June 1941 Finland sent a message to Germany saying they did not want to attack, however they knew that had they withdrawn they would have had to give up all hopes concerning Karelia so they behaved differently to the way they spoke, continuing to affirm their neutrality while simultaneously acting like comrades-inarms. The result of this was that Finland slid into the wake of the aggressor, being in a position where she did not have to make the decisive move, yet could reap all the benefits when Hitler made his move. Finland had her army mobilised on 17 June 194 1, four days before Germany's official announcement of attack. Even though Finland tried to seem neutral, it did not stop her from laying mines in the Gulf of Finland or allowing Germany to use Finnish airfields to refuel German bombers.
In the initial stages of the war the goal for Finland was simply to regain lost territory, however from mid-summer 1941 the goal became the conquering of foreign territory. Officially the Soviet Union treated Finland as any of Hitler's allies, but Stalin understood that Finland was waging a separate war and in August 1941 announced that he aimed for a separate peace with Finland, all to no avail. This vain attempt at peace is significant because it shows not only the desperation of the Soviet situation, but also that Stalin recognised Finland's military might.
While the offensive of the Continuation War looked splendid initially, the price paid in human blood was far from splendid. In five months Finland lost over 250,000 men, the loss being heavily felt in every strata of Finnish society and essential work was left undone. What began in a spirit of enthusiasm soon fizzled when, once Finland had recaptured lost territory from the Winter War, troops were pushed further east across the old Eastern border and disciplinary issues began to arise. However, insubordination was not so great as to destroy the army; in an army 500,000 strong there were only 500 deserters and most of them returned when reprimands and Court-martials began to be meted out.
By autumn 1941 Mannerheim, who had received military training in tsarist Russia, saw that Hitler's blitzkrieg was no longer the brilliant show it had been during Germany's occupation of France and Mannerheim began to seriously doubt the prospect of Hitler's victory. It is for this reason that Mannerheim began applying the brakes on the war. While Mannerheim always gave positive replies to Hitler's requests, he also gave the condition that the Germans achieve something visible in Leningrad, giving Mannerheim the upper hand in this dance of theirs.
Boris Yartsev, a Legation Secretary in Stockholm during the Continuation War, told the Social Democratic journalist Richard Lindstrom in 1942 that the Soviet Union could negotiate a separate peace with Finland and that the Western Powers might guarantee Finland's borders using the 1939 borders as the basis for starting explorations of peace. Lindstrom immediately relayed the message to Helsinki but the government decided that the negotiations could not be made merely on that basis. In addition there had been recent reports of Stalin's intentions concerning Finland which strongly challenged Yartsev's claims. However, soon things looked like changing when the great German war hero, General Erwin Rommel, suffered a shattering defeat at El Alamein in November 1942, the Allies landed in North Africa on 8 November 1942 and Germany's attack on Stalingrad in December 1942 slowed down to a crawl.
By September 1942 Germany had captured much of Stalingrad, yet by the end of November the Soviet Union ordered a massive counter-attack, surrounding Stalingrad and the occupying Germans and forcing them to surrender by February 1943 forcing Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, twenty-four generals and I 00,000 German soldiers to become prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. This coupled with other great military successes by the Allied forces dispelled the myth of German indomitability and, after a summit meeting in January 1943 with Roosevelt and Churchill, Roosevelt demanded unconditional surrender of the Axle states. To Finland it seemed that the Allies would make no distinction between Germany and her allies, so Finland had to make a separate peace quickly, but not if that peace meant sacrificing everything.
The Soviet Union did not appear to apply the principle of unconditional surrender to Finland, Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Ambassador, explained that while the Baltic States were considered to naturally belong to the Soviet Union, the Kremlin wanted to see Finland as 'a healthy, independent state' and that peace negotiations could be concluded on the basis of the situation that existed prior to the Winter War. This delighted the United States' leadership who immediately offered its services as mediator for peace negotiations between Finland and the Soviet Union.
Foreign Minister Ramsay was sent to Berlin to break up with Hitler without hurting his feelings that much, which turned out to be a nightmare. Simultaneously the government asked Washington for the particulars of the Soviet peace conditions but, when Molotov presented the conditions, the US Ambassador balked at the harshness of the demands, deciding that it would be pointless to continue mediating on that basis. Finland felt that Moscow failed to present a reasonable agenda for negotiations and decided there was nothing to negotiate about.
Finland was in quite a precarious position now since until then she had been receiving oil and grain from Germany, making ties with Germany important, but now Germany was beginning to lose the war and the Allied Forces were putting pressure on Finland to break away. Finland would have to play a waiting game for now and then strike swiftly when the time was right, but the question was how much time would Finland have?
In order for the Soviet Union to enter peace negotiations with Finland they demanded that Finland would have to fulfil two conditions; break all ties with Germany and bring into fore their 1940 Peace Treaty. Finland was now in quite a delicate situation because they had no guarantees that Stalin's demands would be fair once they had done as requested. Shortly after Russian bombers were ordered to bomb Helsinki and, even despite Finland having sophisticated German radar equipment and advanced air defences at their disposal, the goal of the bombers was accomplished; not to break the Finns but to make it abundantly clear that Finland's position had changed.
Despite the bombings, Finland rejected the conditions dictated by Moscow for two reasons. The first was the strength of Germany; Hungary tried to detach herself from Germany, resulting in the German takeover of Budapest. Finland wanted to avoid this fate if at all possible. The second was of public opinion, especially the Karelians, who just returned home in the wake of the Finnish army. In May 1944, however, the Great Powers gave Bulgaria, Finland, Romania and Hungary a declaration urging them to break away from Germany. The Allies promised that the post-war situation would be more beneficial the sooner they broke away and began supporting the Allied war effort. While Finland could not be sure what the result would be, if she let the situation slip from her grasp, then the alternatives would be much harsher- surrender without conditions.
The attack of the Karelian Isthmus on 9th June 1944 by the Soviet Union was a considerable turning point for Finland. The initial attack was terrible and greatly demoralised and shocked the troops, forcing them to fall back some twenty to thirty kilometres. It was this shock that had such a big impact. While the Finnish troops were forced to withdraw, the main forces were still fit for combat and once they had gotten over the initial shock, and realised they were fighting for their very survival, their reaction was incredible. Efficient and fast moving fire, plus massive combined artillery fire and the Finn's resoluteness bogged down the massive Soviet force and the Finns withdrew by only five to ten kilometres each week. Eventually the Soviet troops were needed elsewhere and Stalin had them pulled out.
Gradually the fighting became less intense and the front was stabilised and by mid-July the Soviet Union ceased her offensive and announced that peace could again be discussed provided Finland took the initiative. At this point the Allied landing force on Normandy had converted their beachhead position into a real front, German troops had been forced to withdraw three- to four-hundred kilometres from the Eastern front and the German forces in the Baltic States were about to be encircled. Overall, Hitler's victory seemed impossible. So it was that in the morning of September 5 1944 Finland had broken relations with Germany and silence prevailed on the fronts.
Finland was now caught up in a nerve-wracking waiting game as the Allied Forces discussed what to do regarding the Soviet Union's terms. Molotov harassed the Finns viciously, claiming they had not broken off relations with the Germans satisfactorily but, due to poor communication, the Finns could not properly respond to this accusation. Unknowingly, Hitler solved this problem for Finland when German troops tried to occupy Suursaari in the middle of the Gulf of Finland. The ferocity of the Finns was such that it proved the Finns really intended to oppose Germany militarily, so Stalin sent his terms to Finland, much harsher than the previously rejected demands. However, once it was clear that Finland was earnestly trying to redeem herself of her part in the war and not simply a German thrall, these conditions were lessened.
Finland was in a very dangerous position during the second World War, with both Russia and Germany pulling at it from both sides. Both countries had quite large and powerful armies at their disposal, yet Finland did not, so instead she had to adapt to the times. She had to adopt something of a 'blowing in the wind' mentality just for mere survival, there's no point in maintaining loyalties to a country that is being destroyed in wartime. It is, after all, a war and, by its very nature, is a time where moralities go out the window, the primary interest during wartime is survival. Finland, however, did more than just survive, Finland flourished.