** World War II -- Finland Winter War

World War II Finland: The Winter War (November 1939-March 1940)

Figure 1.--This Finnish mother and child are evacuees from the massive Soviet Army invading their small country. Here they have just arrived at a govrnment evacuee camp and have been given name tags. The prss caption read, "Somewnere in Finland: The distress of the Russ-Finish war and the hardship it is working on the people is registered on the face of this peasant mother from Lapland shown on arrival at a Finnish evacuee camp with her child. Note the picturesque attire of the woman and child and the name tag each is wearing. Most homesteads in the far northenr regions hav been evcuated away from the Russian invaders. This picture arrived by clipper today. The photograph was dated January 19, 1940.

It was the Soviet Union not Germany that first struck after the invasion of Poland. Finland is located on the far northern perifery of Europe. Rarely has Finland played a significant role in European history. For a few months, however, it was the Finns who galantly resisted totalitarian resistance. The first effective resistance after a decade of totalitarian successes. Only 2 months after seizing eastern Poland, the Soviet Union invaded Finland (November 30, 1939). This was the beginning of what became known as the Winter War. Stalin's goals are unclear. The Soviets claomed they wanted a security belt to the west. This may have been the first step in regaining old Tsarist borders using the samectactics persued against the Baltic Republics. Finland after Poland was the next step in that process. Soviet planes and naval vessels bombarded Finish cities. The international community was apauled. Roosevelt called it the "rape of Finland". [Freidel, p. 324.] Former Ameican President Herbert Hoover, who had organized American relief efforts for Belgium during World War I, headed voluntary war relief for the Finns. (The President hoped that Hoover would work with Mrs. Roosevelt to assist with Government sponsored civilian war relief for the Allies. Such was Hoover animosity toward Roosevelt, however, that he refused. If he had agreed, he suely would have eventually headed American World War II relief efforts. [Freidel, p.325.] The outnummered and out-gunned Finns inflicted enormous losses on the Red Army, but the weight iof Soviet power eventually forced the Finns back. The Finns and Soviets eventually reached a peace agreement (March 1940). Given the scale of the Soviet victory, historians have decribed the terms of the peace settlement as 'moderate', but Stalin's calculations are still debated. The Soviets got the security belt they wanted around Lenningrad. The Soviet invasion of Finland had significant repercussions. The Allies for a time considered actively aiding Finland, but the Germans offensives in the West soon made that impossible. The Red Army energed victorious from the Winter War (1939-40), but at considerable cost. The poor performance of the Red Army in Finland was a factor in Hitler's decission to attack the Soviet Union before Britain had been defeated.


The border area between southern Finland and the Soviet Union is Karelia. It is the area between the White Sea and the Gulf of Finland. It is an extensive area which includes the two largest lakes in Europe, Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega. What is often referred to as the Karelian Isthmus is located between the Baltic Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga. To the south is Ingria, the land of the closely related Ingrian people. The traditional western boundary was the Neva river itself but was eventually shifted northward into the Karelian isthmus to follow the Sestra River which since Napoleonic times was the Russo-Finnish border.The River Svir on the other side of Lake Lagoda completed the souther border of Karelia. Lake Saimaa marked the Western border while Lake Onega and the White Sea mark the Eastern border. The land to the north was occupied by nomadic Samis (Lapps), but unlike the south there were no natural border onky trackless woods (taiga) and tundra. Karelia became the primary bone of comtention between Finland an the Soviet Union during World War II. This clash was not new. Russian Novograd and the Swedes fought over the area during the medieval era. It was the border area between Swedish controled Finland and the Tsarist Empire. The issue was settled for a time by the Great Northern War in which Russia seized Finland. With Finland part of the Tsarist Empire, Karelia became a dead issue. This changed after the Russian Revolution when Finland managed to achieve its independence and Karelia again became an international border area. Finland had almost all of Karelia and it included because of its southern location, a substantial part of the best aricultural land in Finlnd.

Soviet-Finnish Negotiations (Spring 1938-Summer 1939)

As Hitler chieve one success after another, Stalin became increasingly concerned about Hitler's intensions and the failure of the allies to confront him. Finnland had been a part of the Tsarist Empire and Stalin was interested in recovering territory lost by Russia at the end of the war, even though it was territory ot populated by Russians. It is not clear what his long term intenions were, but he was especially interested in strebgening Soviet defenses. Finnland with a population of only 3.5 million people was not a threat in itself. Finnish territory include land located very near Leningrad which if occupied by the Germans would make the city diffucult to defend. The Soviets initiated talks with the Finns to acquire teritory thought to be esentialy to defending the city (Spring 1938). This was at the same time that Hitler seized Austria. Nothing was accomplished. The Finns were not peepared to hand over territory and did not think that the sovietswould launch an invsion to seize it. The Finns assured the Soviets that they woukd never allow the Germans to violate their neutrality. TheSiviets rejected this as insuffucent. The Soviets wanted more than guarantees. They wanted territory and basing rights. In addition to territory north of Lnningrad, they wanted a base on the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland to prevent hostile (meaning Germn) naval forces from entering the Gulf of Finland leading to Lenningrad. The Finns were convinced that Stalin had more in mind and fiving into these demands would only lead to additional more unreasonable demands. Given what happened in the Baltic, they may have been right.

NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 23, 1939)

NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of the signing, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. Hewas convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discoered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invade Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantaies of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britainand France opposedthe war effort. The Communst Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France

NAZI Invasion of Poland (Sptember 1, 1939)

The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Britain and France declared war September 3. The Germans more than any other military, correctly assessed the lessons of World War II. The War in Europe began on September 1, 1939 when the German blitzkrieg smashed Poland in only a few weeks. The Panzers crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 along with a devestating strike by the Luftwaffe. The Polish Army and Air Force was shattered. Britain and France declared war September 3. Within 6 days Cracow, the center of Polish nationhood, fell. Pincer movements began on September 9 to encirle the major remaining Polish forces. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault. The Blitzkrieg tactics that were to prove so devestaing in the West during 1940 were all on display in 1939. Neither the British or French showed much attention, abscribing Polish defeat to military incompetance. The French had promissed the Poles an offensive in the West. It never came. [Fest, pp. 602-603.] Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east.

Soviet Invasion of Poland (September 17, 1939)

Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East. Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Already shattered by the NAZI invasion, the Polish Army offered little resistance to the Soviets. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Polish soldiers were internened in camps by the Soviets. Soviet actions in eastern Poland were extremely brutal. An estimated 0.1 million Poles were killed by the Soviets (1939-41). The most publicized killings were the Polish officers shot by the NKVD in the Katyn Forrest, but this was only a part of the wide spread executions of Poles by the Soviets. Some estimates suggest that 2.0 million Poles were deported to Siberia and other areas in the Soviet Union.

Soviet Goals

Soviet goals and by this we mean, Stalin's goals, are not known. Here only Stalin knows what his goals were in Filand. Presumably he told Molotov. Neither have left a historical record of what their goals were. The damands they made on Finland were to create a security zone to better protect Lenningrad. It is unclear just who the Soviets were concerned about. At the time the Soviets were a NAZI ally. Thus one might think that the security zone was aimed at the Allies. But the Allies had not way of opening aar against the oviets. Perhaps Stalin was thining about the NAZIs even at this stage of the War. There was no indication in 1939 of a diplomatic or military reltionship between Finland and NAZI Germany. Unlike many European countrids, there was mno appreciazble Fascost movemdent in Finland. If this was Stalin's concern, the Soviet invasion simply drove the Finns into the hands of the NAZIS. It is unclear if the Soviet demands were the limits to the Soviet goals or what seems more likely, the first step in the process they would persue in the Baltic states of actually taking over the country. Once the War began the Soviets sought to replace the Finnish government with a pro-Soviet puppet regime--the "Terijoki government".

Soviet Demands

The Soviet Government presented demands to the Finnish Government. The Soviets wanted Finnish territory along the south-eastern border with the Soviet Union. The Soviets justified the demand as necessary to build a security belt to the west. Finland was the next step in that process. Lenningrad was only 20 miles from the Finish border. The Soviets wanted to push the border 16 more miles into Finish terrirory. The Finnish Governments rejected to Soviet demands as "unthinkable".

Soviet Attack (November 30, 1939)

It was the Soviet Union not Germany that first struck after the invasion of Poland. Only 2 months after seizing eastern Poland, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, launching the Winter War (November 30, 1939). Soviets estimates were that they would smash the small Finnish Army in 10 days. The fact that they attacked furing tha late-Fll and the bulk of the war was fiught in the Winter shows how confident Red Army commandders were if vittory. The Soviet attacks began at 06.50 AM without any formal declaration of war. The Red Army crossed the border with a force outnumbering the Finns 4 to 1 in men and 200 to 1 in ttanks. [Edwards] The Red Air Force and Navy bombarded Finish cities. The air attacks seem to have been terror raids rather than attacks on military targets. It is unclear why this was. Many Red Air Force commanders were arrested in the Purges. Thus may reflect a lack of competence. Air warfare was very new. Commanders mat have thought that air attacks on cities would convince the Finns to comply with the Soviet demands.

Soviet Pupet Government

Stalin at the same time the Red army invaded established a puppet government for a new Finnish Democratic Republic. It was headed by the Finnish communist Otto Wille Kuusinen. It became known as the Terijoki Government because the village of Terijoki was the first place the Red Army occupied or 'liberated' in Soviet terms. [Chubaryan and Shukman, p. xxi.] Marxiest ideology led the soviets to believe that the Finnish working class would rally to the advance of the Red Army. This did nit occur and Stalin with no fanfare dropped the idea. The Finnish working class remaimed loyal to the legitately elected Government. [Trotter, p.61.]

Finnish Forces

The Finns were totally unprepared for a war. Finland was amall country nor did it have the resources to build a substantial military as was the case of the Soviet Union. The Finns were poorly equipped and after the initial fighting found themselves desperatly short of munitions. The small Finnish Army and volunteers while lsacking virtually everything in terms of military rquipmebt, however, devised a strategy to stop the huge, but poorly trained Red Army. The highly motivated and well-led Finninsh soldiers was an importantv factor in the War.

Red Army Purges

Stalin usung the NKVD launched the Great Terror (1936). It was not long before he targetted the Red Army and other services. The carnage was astoninging. This was rspecially true iof the toop leadership, but it comtinued throuhout the officer corps. Most historians believe that Stalin's purge of the Red Army was a major factor in the poor Red Army performance in the Winter War. The professional core of the Red Army was consumed by Stalin's purges. The most modern, competent officers were targetted--the officers involved in the Rapallo program. They had worked with the Germans. Stalin carried out this massive purge of the Red Army just 2-years before launching the Red Army invasion of Finland. Stalkin had months earlier unvaded Poland (September 1939), but the Germans had already defeated the Polish Army. The purge consumned perhaps 80 percent of the experienced commnders. This surely had a major impact on the Red Army's performance in Finland. [Edwards] The same was true of the other branches, including the Red Air Force and the Red Navy. The Red Armu's pefirmanve in Filand was closely followed jin NAZI Germany. It was a major factor in convincing Hitler and Wehrmacht commanders that the Soviet Union could be easily defeated in another short summer campaign. As Hitler phased, the whole 'Jewish-Bolshevik enterprise' will 'collapse like a House of cards'.

Soviet Air Raids

Finland had a very small air force when Stalin launched the Winter war and only minimal air defenses. Helsinki was protected by the 1st Anti Aircraft Regiment. They had four heavy anti-aircraft batteries of three to four guns each, one light AA battery and one AA machine gun company. Other cities had minimal air defenses. They Finns faced the largest air force in the world the Soviet or Air Force (VVS). Air wafare was still relatively new. War plans were still largely theoretical. Many Red air Force commanders were coinsumed in Stalin's purges. But even had this not happed, there was no well thoughout Soviet plan as to how to effectively use its air superiority. The Soviet air attacks were mostly conducted by the long-range bombing and reconnaissance group of the Soviet Air Force (VVS), the Aviatsiya Dalnego Deystviya (ADD). This group was under the direct ontrol of the Soviet High Command (Strvka). The Soviet bomber fleet was diverse, in part because Stalin wa obssed with building a massive force and unwilling to retire obsolete types. Three hours after the Red Army attacked along the Finnish border, Red Air Force planes bombed Helsinki. The most intensive bombing raids of the War occurred long the first few days. we are not sure why. One would have expected Soviet air attacks to hve intensifed as the ground war faltered. The Soviets bombed Helsinki only eight times during the Winter War, dropping a mere 350 bombs on the city. Some 97 people were killed and 260 injured. Some 55 buildings were destroyed. In World War II terms this was miniscule. Civilans in other cities were more affected. The Red Air Force carried out 2,075 bombing raids on 516 localities. Nearly 1,000 Finnish civilians were killed. The city of Viipuri, a priority Soviet target , was esentially leveled, hit by nearly 12,000 bombs. The small Finnish Air Force was largely committed to protecting Finnish cities and could not support the Army. The Finns could not stop the Soviet bombers, but did inflict losses. They are believed to have shot down 240 Red Air Force planes. [Trotter, pp. 187-93.] The Soviet air offensive was basically ineffective despite thecsize of the Red ir Firce. Unlike the Luftwaffe, the Red air Force was not skilled at close air force. It was used as more of a strategic bomber force. The trouble with this was thatFinnland was not a highly undustrilized country and there were few targts of importance. The rail system was the main Soviet target. The Soviet pilots went after small village depots of limited importance. They cut the rail lines repeatly, but the damage was easily repaired. Finns would have the trains running again in a a few hours. The Soviet bombings like the land invasion led to sharp ctiticm abroad. President Roosevelt asked the Soviets to refrain from bombing Finnish cities. Soviet Fireign Minister Molotov replied that "Soviet aircraft have not been bombing cities, but airfields, you can't see that from 8,000 kilometers away in America."

International Condemnation

Unlike Poland, however, Finland was not cut off from the outsude world. These air attacks and the land invasion were followed in detail by the international press and the Soviet Union was widely condenned. Germany had received the bulk of the onus for the early invasion of Poland, even though the Soviet Union had invaded from the East. This time the spotlight was on Soviet agression.

Swedish Assistance

After the NAZI-Soviet destruction of Poland (September 1939), Finland was the next country to be invaded. This time the Soviet Union acted alone. Small countries around the world including the Baltic countries had relied on neutrlity and the League of nations for their security. Bordering on NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union meant it was a very dangerous situation. And the League of Nations response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia mean that a defense posture based on the League was chemerical. Finland was not a Scandanavia country, but had historical ties to Sweden. The two counties had discussed defense cooperation, especially over the Gulf of Finland, but no treaty was sighned. Neither country had a military establishmnt to resist a sustaimed attack by their powerful neigbors, even if they signed a mutual defense treaty. And their were political and strategic differences. Both Swedes and Finns differed on bilateral relations. Some Swedes saw Finnish politics as unstable, bordering on recklessmess. nd they differed on the treat. The Swedes tended to see NAZI Germany as the principal threat while the Finns saw the Soviet Union as the major threat. And several issues had mared their bilaterial relations in the inter-War era, including the �land crisis, language strife, and the Lapua Movement. The two countries hoped to play the NAZIs and Soviets off each other given their seemingly implacable hostility. This was undone by the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939). The Swedes as much of the world were sympathetic toward the Finns when the Soviets invaded (November 1939). Sweden publicly spported Finland, but informed Finnish Foreign Minister Elias Erkko that Swedish would not become actively involved in the War. The Swedish Government was divided even over defending the �land Islands. There were some volunteers which fought with the Finns and the Swedes delivered supplies to the embattled Finns. Much of this was done covertly, such as Swedish units losing equipment and material along the border. A factor here was the officers in charge of Swedish supply units converting the Swedish Army Stores at Boden as a Finnish supply base. Sweden refused, however, to openly and directly support te Finns militarily. Sweden refused to allow Britiain and France to send troops across Swedish territory. In retrospect this probably saved the Allies from what would have been a catotrophic mistake. Hitler hoped that Swedish sympathy for the Finns might enduce them to join his crusade against the Soviets.

Soviet Attack Stalls

Soviet troops at first advanced with some success, except in Karelia where there was a well organized defensive system. This became known as the "Mannerheim line". After the initial success, the Soviet offensive stalled. The Soviets used World War I tactics of frontal attacks on fixed defenses. Red Army tactics were often just massed frontal attacks on prepared positions. Whole battaloins were desimated. The Red Army was defeated in major engagements such as the Battle of Suomussalmi. The Soviets in the north advanced primarily on the roads. There were very few roads and the ones that existed were poorly developed. This left the Soviet columns exposed. The Finns effectively developed small-unit tactics. Ski troops in white camouflage proved highly effetive in hitting Soviet supply lines and dark-uniformed Red army soldiers huddled around camp fires. Field kitchens were another favorite target. [Edwards] Moving on skis in the back country the Finns were able to encircle and cut off Soviet units. Generally these were small units, but whole divisions were eventually surrounded and destroyed. The Soviet 44th infabtry Division (25,000 men) was virtually destroyed by an attacking Finnish force 0f 6,300 men. [Edwards] This was an important source of equipment as the Finns began the War with a small, poorly equipped army.


Finland carried out a series of evacuations during World War II beginning with the Soviet invsion launching the Winter War. The Finns evacuated the population away from the front lines early in the War. They also evcuated children from the cities to Scandinavin countries (Sweden, Norway and Denmark). Here the fear was both air raids as well as the danger that the whole country would be overrun by the Soviet colosus. As the Soviet weight of numbers began to overwealm the Finnish defenders, more evacuations followed. The Soviets escalated their teritorial demands presenting the Finnish delegtion at Moscow with substantial new demands. Once the Moscoe Peace Treaty was finally signed ending the war (March 1940), the Finns began evacuating the territory to be turned over to the Soviets. This was whole families. They were not mandatory evacuations. But few Finns wanted to remain in Soviet territory even though it meant leaving land tended by families for centuries. Many were urprised because the Soviets escalated the territirial demands during the neogitaions. The Finns in Karelia took what they could carry and their livestock and headed for what was to become the new Finnish border with only few days notice. They were allowed to keep their posswssions undr the terms of the treaty, but the builfings and machinery had to be left intact. This was no small matter for the Finns. Some 410,000 Finns streamed out of Karelia, over 10 percent of the country's population. This did not end the evacuations. There would also be evacuations associated with the Continuation War.

Allied Assistance

Finland is located on the far northern perifery of Europe. Rarely has Finland played a significant role in European history. For a few months, however, it was the Finns who galantly resisted totalitarian resistance. The first effective resistance after a decade of totalitarian successes. The Finns fought the Red Army while the Allies offered only moral support. The Allies (Britain and France) at the time were at war with Germany. Even so, the Allies for a time considered actively aiding Finland. Reaching Finland was, however, virtually impossivle. Finish ports were on the Baltic. The Germans controlled the Baltic. Allied convoys would also face Red Army and Navy attacks. Part of the reason for the planned Allied operation in Norway was to open supply lines to Finland. The negotiated peace and the NAZI attacks in Norway (April 1940) and the West (May 1940) made such aid moot.

American War Relief

President Roosevelt called the Soviet invasion the "rape of Finland". [Freidel, p. 324.] Former Ameican President Herbert Hoover, who had organized American relief efforts for Belgium during World War I, headed voluntary war relief for the Finns. (The President hoped that Hoover would work with Mrs. Roosevelt to work on Government sponsored civilian war relief for the Allies. Such was Hoover animosity toward Roosevelt that he refused. If he had agreed, he suely would haave eventually headed American World War II relief efforts. [Freidel, p.325.]

Renewed Soviet Attacks

Stlalin after the reverses in Finland appointed new commanders. Marshall Timichenko was put in chrge of the offensive. Timichenko during the Great Patriotic War was go prove one of the more competent Red Army Commanders. Red Army losses were heavy, but the Soviets could replace those losses. The Red Army adjusted tactics. And against the much smaller Finnish Army were able to make considerable progress, albeit at considerable cost. It was the vast disparity in military force, however, that decided the issue. The Soviets had the advantage of strong artillery support. The Soviets gradually ground down Finnish resistance. The Soviets not only had a massive air force and army, but were well equipped with artillery and armor. The Finns had very limited equipment and could not import the needed equipment. The Finns soon ran low on both munitions and men to sustain the front. Soviet tactics were simple and increasingly effective. Advances were preceeded by powerful artillery bombardments. The red Army had a string artiller component, the Finns next to nothing. The Artillery pinding was followed by massed frontal assaults, using tanks and infantry. The Finns were gradually worn down by the continuing attacks, In addition they had to deal with aerial bombardments, the frigid weath, and theeir in bility to reinforce and adquately supply the soldiers at the front. The Soviets breeched the Mannerheim Line, the main Finnish defence line on the Karelian isthmus (February 11, 1940). The Finns had to fall back to secondary defence lines. A series of Finnish retreats followed. The Finnish Army was on he brink of cllapse (early-March 1940).

Peace Treaty: The Peace of Moscow (March 13, 1940)

The intense military phase of the Winter War ended with major Soviet advances (late-February 1940). Fighting dragged on at a low-level while the two countries conducted peace negotiations. Finnish forces were able to hold the front, but it was obvious that it was just a matter of time before the Soviets with their vast military capacity achieved a complete victory. Also the Finnish Government saw that foreign aid was not arriving. It is unclear why Stalin did not pursue the war to total victory. One factor may have been the huge losses sustained by the Red Army. The tarnashing of the Soviet image in the world press may have been a factor. We suspect that NAZI diplomats may have also intervened, but Hitler until he had succeeded in the West, did not want trouble with Stalin. Here we do not yet have details. We do know that Hitler was disturbed about the Soviet invasion. The two countries agreed to a cease fire (Match 13, 1940). The Soviets received very substantial concessions from the Finns. The Soviets obtained their security belt and more. The terms have been described as "remarkably moderate terms". [Hart] The territorial concessions focused on positions helpful in defending Leningrad in any future war. [Axell, p. 55.] On the whole, however, the Winter War had been embarassment to the Soviets. One Red Army General commented that just enough ground was won 'to bury our dead'. But this meant only that the Soviets did not occupy the entire country, as they had dome their share of Poland. Finland ceded substantial territories, land along the southeastern border approximately to the line drawn by the Peace of Uusikaupunki in 1721. This included Finland's second-largest city, Viipuri; the islands in the Gulf of Finland (the object of the 1938-39 negotiations), land in the Salla sector in northeastern Finland (near the Murmansk Railroad), Finland's portion of the Rybachiy Peninsula in the Petsamo area, and the naval base at Hanko on the Gulf of Finland for which the Soviets were given 30 year lease. This amounted to 10 percent of Finnish territory, including some of the country's most productive farmland. More importantly over 10 percent of Finland's population lived in the ceeded territories. The Treaty provided time for the population to move out of the territory to be turned over to the Soviets. Nearly all of the residents, about 0.4 million Finns, moved out of the ceded territory back to Finland leaving behind their homes, shops, and farms rather than live under Soviet rule. It is unclear to what extent this represented an historic fear of the Russians or fear of Soviet Communism. Finland managed, however, to salvage its independence. Historians debate why Stalin did not continue the War to its completion, the conquest of Finland. One historian writes, "Stalin was anxious to settle with Finland so he could turn his attention to Poland and the Baltic countries, which the Red Army would soon occupy and the NKVD would 'pacify' using terror, deportations, and executions." [Fischer]


Historians have debated the Soviet Union's relatively correct behavior in Finland to the massive attrocities underway in Finland. A factor here is that the Soviets never occupied areas with large civilian population. Funnish civiliand fled the territory transferred to the Soviets. The treatment of POWs seensxti have been relatively correct. There was an exchange of POWs. The principal attrocity committed as a result of the War occured after the peace settlement. Soviets POWs repatriated by the Finns were encarcerated in NKVD prison camps. About 5,000 of these men then disappeared. It is believed that the NKVD executed them.


The Soviet invasion of Finland had significant repercussions. The Red Army energed victorious from the Winter War (1939-40), but at considerable cost. The Soviets at the time minimized the losses. Soviet estimates released during the Khrushev thaw estimated that as many as 1 million Red Army soldiers were killed. Some observers contend that sounds unrealistically high. We know that Red Army losses were very large. The precise number may never be known. Historians contend that the poor performance of the Red Army in Finland was a factor in Hitler's decission to attack the Soviet Union before Britain had been defeated. Of course Hitler's war aims from the beginning was on the East. The poor performance of the Red Army in the Winter War may have enduced him to minimize the dangers. [Edwards] The precise importance of the Winter War in Hitler's thinking will probably never be known. Another impact was on the battle readiness of the Red Army. The Winter War meant that some Red Army units had battle experiene. This is another factor that is difficult to assess, but There is no doubt that the War and subsequent demands on Finland pushed the Finn's into the aems of the NAZIs, giving them a valuably ally in Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, had it not been for the Winter War, the Red Army may have been even less prepared than proved to be the case when the NAZIs attacked (June 1941). On the other hand, the Soviet losses in the Winter War had been very sizeable.

Soviet Aggressions

The Soviet attack on Finland was followed by a series of other aggressions. Although it is the NAZI aggressions that are most commonly addressed in World War II histories, the Soviet Union compiled nearly as long a list of aggressions as the NAZIs. Operating within secret protocols to the Non-agression Pact, Hitler and Stalin were in fact close partners in the waging of aggressive war. The Great Patriotic War fought against the NAZIs after the 1941 German invsion came to be an icon in Soviet history. Left unsaid was the fact that Hitler and Stalin were partners in the virtul partition of Europe.

Finnish Political Situation

The Finnish Government had to make major territorial concessions to the Sivits so as to end the WSiunter War. There was a great desire to reclaim those lands, but they fulky understood tht they had no way of confrontging the immense military power of the Soviet Union. They also had substantial grounds to feare a renewed attack by the Soviet Union. They watched the Soviet Union turn concessions in the Baltic states into occupation and eventually annexation (July 1940). Despote major gains, Stalin was not satisfied. The Soviet Embassy in Helsinki ordered the Finnish Comminist Part to wage seditious actions. [Upton] The Finns were aware that because of the territorial concessions, Helsinki was now within artillery range of the Soviet base at Hanko. The Finns were also aware thagt Red army troop transit trains could be used to conduct a coup de main. The powrful pre-war defence lines in the Karelian Isthmus had been lost. Finland now had an indefensible border with the Siviet Union. The Red Army could now attack on a broad front directly into Finland's heartland and the small Finnish Army had no way of resisting a broad-front attack. And this was exactly what Stalin was planning. We know that because at the NAZI-Soviet summit in Berlin, Foreign Minister Molotov proposed that the Soviet Union should 'settle the Finnish question' (November 1940). That invasion would have occurred hd hitler givn his assent.

German Policy

The Winter War occurred just after NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union jointly launched World War II and crushed Poland. When we talk about 'Germam polikcy' of course we are taking about Hitler's thinking and orders. His decisions were based on the thinking clearly articulted in Mein Kampf. And after the victory in Pland, his thoughts were clearly focused on the West and a major offensive against France nd Britin. For this he need to maintain the NAZI-Soviet Pact with Stalin, not only so he could wage a single front war in the West, but so the Soviet Union as agreed would supply him with vast quantities of oil and other critical materials. Asault as far as we can tell, Hitler scrupiously adhered to the terms of the Pact after the Siobiet Union invaded Funland (November 1939). Not only did the NAZIs not aid Finland, but refused to permit any tansport of arms abd supplies ti the Funnsd iver their territory. We do not have much information on German diplomatic contacts with the Finns. We do know that Reich Marshal Göring told the Finnish ambassador in Berlin, T.M. Kivimäki, "You have to make peace at any cost... After a short while we'll go to war with Soviet Union and you'll get your land back" (February 22, 1940). We do not know if Hutler authorized or apprived of such advise to the Finns. We do know that after crushing France anbd desroying the French Army that the Finns beganb to ebnter his mind. At the NAZI-Soviet summit in Berlin, Hitler refused to acquiese with Stalin's desire presented by Molotov to invase Finland (Novenber 1940). By this time the invasion of the Soviet Union wsas paramount on his mind. And continued British resisdancd meant that the Royal Navy blockade of German ports denied German war ecomomy dud not have the needed access to a wide range of vital resources, esoecially oil. (it is often ignord how importnt this was to the outcome of the Ostkrieg.) Thus Germany was dependent on the shipments from the Soviet Union. And Hitler did not want to increase that depedence by allowing Stalin to gain control of Finland, an importnt souce of lumber and nickle. It is at this time that German diplomats began important contacts thar would eventully lead to participation in Barbaossa. Finninish particiption is known as the Continuation War.

The Continuation War (1941-44)

The NAZI's launched Operation Barbarossa (June 22, 1941). Finland joined the Germans only 3 days later (June 25). Actually the Finns claim that the Soviets initiated hostilities with air attacks on Finnish cities. Prime minister Rangell then declared in a sppech to Parliament that Finland was at war with Soviet Union. I'm not sure if any historian has fully accessed the motives of the Finnish Government. Surely the desire to recover the lost territory was the primary factor. There may have been other factors such as the view at the time that the Stalin and the Skviet Union was a mortal threat to Finnland. Finland joined the Germans as a co-beligerent but not an ally or member of the Axis. The Finns refer to this as the Coninuation War. The Finnish Army innitiated an offensive om the cease-fire line (June 30). The Finns refused, however, to go significantly beyond the lost territory, much to Hitler's despleasure. This was a major reason that the NAZIs failed to capture Lenningrad.


Axell, Albert. Stalin's War Through the Eyes of His Commanders (London: Arms and Armour, 1997).

Bayer, James and Orvik, Nils. The Scandinavian Flank as History, 1939-1940 (Kingston Ont: Queen's University, 1984).

Chubaryan, Alexander O. and Harold Shukman. Stalin and the Soviet-Finnish war 1939-40 (London: Frank Cass. 2002).

Edwards, Robert. The Winter War: Russia's Invasion of Finland, 1939-40 (2008).

Fischer. Benjamin B. "The Katyn Controversy: Stalin's Killing Field".

Fridel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

Hart, Liddell.

Trotter, William R. The Winter war: The Russo-Finno War of 1939-40 (London: 1991). The Trotter book was first published in the United states as A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40.

Upton, A.F. Finland in Crisis: 1940-41.


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Created: 10:24 PM 11/3/2005
Last updated: 4:52 AM 6/26/2020