When All the Options Are Bad:  Finland in World War II   [1939 CE – 1945 CE]

Over the centuries the history of the Finnish people has often been characterized by geographical contraction, political subjugation, and population dispersal.  Originating in Central Russia, they seem to have begun to migrate to what is currently Finland approximately 10,000 years ago.  Swedes started to move there some 800 years ago, and after about 200 years they took over, making Finland part of Sweden.

After a long history of conflict, Russia took Finland away from Sweden in 1809 CE.  Technically living in an autonomous region, the Finns became increasingly restive as Russia attempted to impose stricter rule. They finally declared independence in December of 1917.  A short civil war between Finnish Red and White factions broke out in the spring of 1918.  By May the Whites were victorious, confirming the break with Russia.

In the early 1930s it was clear that Finland would not be able to avoid involvement in the coming hostilities.  It was not necessary to know of the secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [August 1939] ceding Finland to Russia to understand that Stalin had designs on Finland.  His apologists claim his November 1939 ultimatum offering Finland territory north of Lake Lagoda in exchange for lands on the Karelian isthmus near Leningrad and a base situated at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland was reasonable.  Perhaps in comparison with the U.S.S.R.’s annexation of the Baltic States it was.

Finland was caught between two monstrous evils:  Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.  In 1939, Stalin had a clear lead over Hitler when it came to atrocities, including the Gulag, purges during the 1930s of the Communist Party and Red Army, and the man-made famine in the Ukraine, which alone probably resulted in over 7 million deaths [1932 – 1933].  The German accomplishments in crimes against humanity at the time paled by comparison, though they began to catch up quickly after they invaded Poland in September of 1939, even if the Soviet atrocity at Katyn is weighed in the balance.

The Soviets shelled their own village of Mainila in November of 1939, claiming the Finns were responsible.  Using this as a pretext, the U.S.S.R. invaded Finland on November 30th, starting the Winter War [1939 -1940].  They eventually committed about 450,000 troops.  The League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union for its transparent aggression.

The Soviet forces outnumbered the Finnish by approximately 3 to 1 in manpower, 30 to 1 in terms of aircraft, and 100 to 1 in terms of tanks.  Observers predicted a very short war.

They underestimated the Finns and the damage Stalin had inflicted on the Soviet armies.  Adroitly using lines of fortification, trenches, and highly mobile ski troops, the Finns demonstrated that they could inflict enormous casualties on the Soviet invaders.  One preferred way of doing so was skiing through the forest to attack the front and the rear of a Russian column on the road, immobilizing the soldiers in between, and then eliminating the Russian food transports and kitchens.  Exposure and starvation killed the invaders as effectively as bullets.

The Russian dead or missing numbered about 127,000 troops, with casualties exceeding 320,000.  The Finns suffered roughly 70,000 total casualties, with approximately 26,000 dead.

The Soviets paused, reorganized and, using improved tactics, occupied the territory Stalin had demanded and a bit more.  The Finns sued for peace.  A treaty was signed in March of 1940, ceding roughly 11% of Finland, representing about 30% of its economy, to the Soviet Union.  In return for their soldiers’ heroic resistance and Stalin’s disinclination to suffer further losses on this front, the Finns remained independent.

The English and French governments, though grossly ineffective and oblivious to any number of realities on the ground, called off plans to support the Finns and engage the Soviets once they heard of the peace treaty.

The Germans had observed with grim glee the ineptitude of the Red Army and the obtuseness of its command.   The Winter War encouraged the Nazis contemplating their drive to the East.  They attacked the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

Because of its border with the U.S.S.R., Finland could not emulate Sweden’s neutrality.  Alliance with the Nazis was profoundly distasteful and dangerous, but the Russians represented an immediate existential threat.  Fighting between the Finns and Russians restarted June 22nd 1941, the day the Germans began their invasion of the Soviet Union.  The Finns declared war on the U.S.S.R. three days later.  It was the only representative democracy to ally itself with the Axis during World War II.

The Finns called this second stage of their participation in World War II the Continuation War.  They retook the lands they had lost to the Russians in the Winter War, carefully halting operations on the line of the pre-World War II border between the Soviet Union and Finland, or the first defensible position beyond it.  The Germans were furious at Finland’s unwillingness to progress further, especially as the Finns were only 30 km from Leningrad [19 miles].   The Finns also appeared to have the capability to cut the Murmansk railway, by which roughly a quarter of Allied aid was delivered to Russia, but stalled when Germany asked them to do so.  The Finns were playing a long game.

Russia appeared to appreciate this fact.  When it became increasingly clear that Nazi Germany was losing the war, the Russians reconquered the territory Finland had retaken in the Continuation War.  But the Finnish Army stopped this Soviet offensive by July of 1944, possibly with the agreement of the Russian high command.  A ceasefire was announced on September 5th, and an armistice signed on September 19th.

Peace with the U.S.S.R. cost the Finns the territories they had lost in the Winter War, resulting in the flight of about 400,000 refugees from the lands taken over by the Soviets.

Approximately 214,000 German troops remained in northern Finland to protect access to the nickel mines near Petsamo.   Between September 1944 and April of 1945 the Finns expedited German withdrawal from their country.  The Germans adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying much of the northern half of the country.  Roughly up to 1,000 died on the Finnish side.  The Germans suffered losses of a similar magnitude in this Lapland War.

The Finnish experience during World War II was even more peculiar than it appears to be at first glance. Not only was it the only democracy allied with the Axis powers, it also maintained its military independence despite repeated attempts by the German High Command to integrate the Finnish army into the German chain of command.  Finland managed this despite being heavily dependent on Germany for food, fuel, and weapons.

Finland was also unique among European states bordering Russia in 1939 in that it was not occupied by 1945.  Only 3 European countries fighting in World War II did not have their capitals occupied at one time or another:  the United Kingdom, the U.S.S.R, and Finland.

Finnish Jews were not systematically persecuted, though 8 Jewish refugees were at one point handed over to the Nazis, an aberration for which a Finnish Prime Minister offered an official apology after the war.  Finnish Jews fought as members of the Finnish Army, which provided them with a field synagogue.

Against the odds, Finland maintained its independence.  Astonishingly, they paid off their renegotiated war reparations.

So what does the Finnish experience in World War II demonstrate?  Possibly that:

  • Neutrality is a luxury dependent on a degree of removal from the problem.
  • Hard fighting within strict limits can be more successful than suicidal idealistic courage.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to forge an alliance with the Devil.
  • Just because you are at war with somebody doesn’t mean you have to stop talking with them.


Further Reading: 

  • Allen Chew’s The White Death and Richard Condon’s The Winter War provide overviews of the Russo-Finnish conflicts in World War II.
  • The magnitude of Stalin’s atrocities still astonishes. Ann Applebaum’s Gulag provides a useful  summary, and her Gulag Voices collects testimony of Gulag prisonersVarlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales give a personal and artistic perspective to complement the essential but prolix Gulag Archipelago of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.


  • Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands usefully summarizes the problems and experiences of European states and peoples caught between Stalin and Hitler.

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