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Part 1. Winter War, the background

Finland’s Two Wars with the Soviet Union in the 1940s
Why did they start, why did they end in the way they did?
Could they have been avoided?

These extensive articles were written by Jan-Christian Lupander and represent his views on the background and politics of the Winter War and the Continuation War. Mr. Lupander is a frequent contributor to the Nordic Boards Forum and has graciously allowed us to reprint his articles here.  Each section is extensive and very well written and we want to thank Mr. Lupander for allowing us to use them on this website. - mkregel (webmaster)

Sub Menu:

Part 1. Winter War, the background    (you are here)

Part 2. Negotiations and War starts

Part 3, The Rescue Plan

Part 4, International military aid

Part 5. End of the Winter War

Part 6. Could it have been avoided?

Part 7. The road to war again...

Part 8. Enter the Germans...

Part 9. Conquest, Re-conquest or both?

Part 10. Peace Feelers and the Big Battle

Part 11. Remarkable results for the Finnish Army

Part 12. End of Hostilities

Part 13. Was the Continuation War Unavoidable?


Finland was at war with the Soviet Union from November 30 1939 to March 13 1940 (The Winter War) and then again from June 25 1941 to September 4 1944 (The Continuation War).
During the past 65 years there has been an ongoing debate in Finland about the reasons for these wars, who was responsible, and above all, could they have been avoided. The search for “Those Guilty” was even done through a War Responsibility Trial where a number of leading Finnish politicians were sentenced to long prison terms using a retroactive law.

A far less lively discussion has been going on about the reasons why both wars ended with for Finland, relatively seen, astonishingly advantageous conditions.

In internal Finnish history the two wars are intimately connected, even if they have been given separate names but on closer study one easily recognizes that although the interval was only 15 months the relationship between them is of the same type as that between the First and the Second World Wars, even if those were separated by more than 20 years. That is, in both cases we have two wars where the peace terms and political actions by the victors of the first laid the ground for the second, or put it more strongly, made the second war almost inevitable.

Finland’s two wars have consequently to be studied as two separate entities.

The background of the Winter War.

The Winter War was mainly an outcome of the major political events taking place in Europe during the 1930s. Germany was fast rearming and Hitler didn’t hide that he considered the Soviet Union his “Arch Enemy”. It is only natural that Russia felt itself threatened and started to look around for support while at the same time rebuilding its rather neglected military that recently in addition had been hard hit by Stalin’s political purges. Defenswise Russia felt itself naked. For more than a hundred years up to 1917 the western border of the Tsars Empire had run from close to the North Cape down along the Torne River to the Gulf of Bothnia, through the Aland Sea, over the Baltic to Memel on the south-eastern shore, then in a large bend around East Prussia to Warsaw and from there south-eastwards to the Black Sea.

But now after the First World War the border suddenly ran from the Fisherman Peninsula on the Arctic cost southwards to Lake Ladoga,, bisected that great lake, then almost touching the suburbs of Leningrad, skipped over the innermost part of the Finnish Golf to the River Narva and from there more or less southwards until reaching the Black Sea at the Dnester estuary close to Odessa. The border was in many places 500 km closer to the heartland of Russia than before!

The Russian defence tactic had always been to trade land and lives in order to wear out the attacker. But now there was no land to trade and nor were there enough trained soldiers available. The latter problem was addressed by starting a feverish training program whereas the first problem had to be solved by political means, which meant effectively changing the borders, one way or another.

It is here important to realize the fact that up to 1917 Finland and the Baltic States had been part of Russia for more than four human generations and, regardless off what the population in those states felt or thought, for all decision-makers in Russia in the 1930s it was only natural to view those territories as really being parts of Russia. The fact that they had become independent after the First World War, just 15 years ago, was considered a parenthesis in history, forced upon Russia by the capitalistic victors in that war and their eventual re-unification with Russia was a natural and trivial issue, more like an internal Russian matter than something of international significance. Trying to judge Russian plans and intentions without accepting this “fact of life” is going to severely handicap any analyst.

Finland was contacted, secretly, already in the mid thirties with proposals for different forms of military co-operation and minor (?!) border adjustments. Russia’s main concern was due to the present borders it was unable to protect Leningrad against a German attack made over Finnish or Baltic territory. In addition Stalin had an almost paranoid expectation of a British attack on the Soviet Union as soon as they found that the conditions were right. The Russian did not see Finland as a reliable neighbour if either of these attacks should be made through the Baltic Sea or over Finnish territory. In fact they mistrusted both Finland’s will and capability to resist such an attack.

Finland considered all the Russian proposals unacceptable as they on one hand meant actions contrary to the official neutrality policy of the country and on the other hand forced Finland to cede areas containing parts of the fortified defence line constructed specifically to protect the country against Russian aggression. The mistrust between the two countries was great!

Here it is proper to mention those right-wing movements in Finland that since independence in 1917 had been pushing the idea of a “Greater Finland” which should include all areas where Finnish or with Finnish related languages were spoken and which would have covered an area stretching from the Lule River in the west to the White Sea in the east, from the Arctic Ocean in the north to Finnish Golf in the south, or preferably, included Estonia on the southern shore of that bight. No small visions those people had, happily claiming territories from four neighbouring states! The political extreme left has always preferred to depict Finland as governed by those “warmongering fascist” and tried to lay the whole responsibility for the wars on Finland and in particular in the lap of its “fascist-capitalistic political establishment”

Fact is, however, that the above mentioned right-wing movements since the mid-thirties were a spent force already in a state decline and that they never had made up a decisive part of Finnish political life, even if they certainly were one of its loudest and most visible fractions. But certainly they did not help in instilling any confidence with Finland in the Russians! What Stalin really thought and new about the political situation in Finland is unclear. Dictators tend to become surrounded by a court that feed them with filtered information, selected to fit in with the dictators own opinions and there is a high probability that Stalin was mostly informed through rather one-sided reports produced by the then illegal Finnish communist party and certainly very much edited to be “politically correct”.

In addition it is only fair to note that Russia was not alone in its pessimistic evaluation of Finland’s will and defence capabilities. The question about political will will remain unanswered for all time and the source of endless speculations leading nowhere but as to the military capabilities a more meaningful analysis can be made. If one excludes a pure surprise attack, like the one by Germany on Norway in 1940, Finland would probably have been able to resist, or at least severely delay, a German attack through Finland against Russia. This should have been obvious to any competent observer already in 1939. (Note that we are not here speaking about a stand-alone German attack to occupy Finland but about a German movement through Finland as part of a larger Russo-German conflict).

When then during the Winter War Finland could resist the Soviet attack for three months Stalin, and the rest of the world, had to realize that they had grossly underestimated Finland’s will and capability. But by then it was too late to change the flow of history.
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