Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Finland, Role in War

Title: Finnish ski patrol mans Pensamo front in 1940 during Finnish-Soviet War
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Finland numbered some 3.6 million people in September 1939. The country had secured its independence from Russia in 1917, but the Finns had to fight to maintain it. Concerned about the growth of German military power, in the late 1930s Soviet dictator Josef Stalin applied pressure on Finland for territory in the Karelian Isthmus and for the naval base of Hango on the Gulf of Finland to provide protection for Leningrad, the Soviet Union's second-largest city. In return, Stalin was prepared to yield more territory than he sought, but it was far to the north. The Finnish leadership, believing the Soviets were bluffing, rejected the demands. The Soviet Union invaded Finland in November 1939, and the first Soviet-Finnish War (known as the Winter War) lasted until March 1940. The governments of both Great Britain and France discussed the possibility of military intervention, in large part to cut Germany off from Swedish iron ore, but both Norway and Sweden denied transit rights to the Allies. Commander of Finnish armed forces Marshal Carl Mannerheim led a spirited Finnish defense. However, the Finns were overwhelmed by sheer weight of Russian numbers and military hardware. On 12 March 1940, the Finns signed the Treaty of Moscow. By the terms of the treaty, which went into effect at noon the next day, Finland lost one-tenth of its territory, including the entire Karelian Isthmus. The country then had to absorb 400,000 refugees, as virtually all the Finns moved out of the surrendered territory rather than live under Soviet rule.

New Soviet pressure angered the Finns, who signed a secret transit agreement with Germany in August 1940 allowing German troops to pass through Finland to northern Norway. Discussions began between the German and Finnish staffs regarding Operation barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, but the Germans never told the Finns details of the plan until the invasion was about to commence. The Germans began arms shipments to Finland in 1941, particularly artillery and antitank weapons. By June 1941, the Finnish government of President Risto Ryti committed to the plan but resisted a formal alliance with Germany, maintaining that the Finns were merely fighting a defensive war against Soviet aggression and were a cobelligerent. Indeed, the Finns managed to evade every request for such an alliance throughout the war.

Finland never defined war aims for this second Soviet-Finnish War, the Continuation War. Halting offensive military operations 50 to 90 miles beyond the 1939 borders (the additional territory taken for defensive reasons) was the clearest statement of its aims. Carl Mannerheim, commander of Finnish armed forces, hoped that by limiting its advance into Soviet territory, Finland might retain its friendship with the United States and Great Britain. The Finnish government endeavored to convey the impression that Finland had been drawn into the conflict, although this was hard to accomplish with German troops in Finland before the commencement of barbarossa, with naval cooperation between Finland and Germany, and with the German air force flying in Finnish air space and refueling at Finnish airfields. Britain warned Finland at the end of September to advance only to the 1939 frontiers and declared war on Finland on 6 December 1941, the same day Finland halted its advance into Soviet territory.

The front with the Soviet Union was stable from May 1942 until June 1944, when the Soviets launched a powerful offensive with vastly superior manpower and firepower. The Ribbentrop-Ryti agreement between the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Ryti was signed in late June 1944, promising that Finland would not seek a separate peace in exchange for weapons. Finland had earlier in the year rejected peace terms from the Soviet Union because of their harshness and because Finland hoped that an Allied invasion of Germany would cause the Red Army to race to Berlin. By July, the Red Army was doing exactly that; President Ryti resigned, and Mannerheim assumed office. Mannerheim repudiated Ryti's agreement and negotiated a cease-fire with the Soviet Union. As part of the cease-fire, concluded on 19 September 1944, Finland had to expel or intern all German troops on its soil. This went peacefully until the Germans tried to seize Suursaari Island, which led to bitter fighting there and in Lapland in northern Finland. Although the campaign was virtually over at the end of November 1944 (the date established by the cease-fire agreement for Finnish demobilization), the last German troops did not depart Finland until April 1945.

The cease-fire and later armistice with the Soviet Union reaffirmed the 1940 borders, accepted Soviet reparations demands for raw materials and machinery, and limited the Finnish military in numbers and types of weapons. Finland lost in the nearly 92,000 dead (including 2,700 civilians) during World War II. The Soviet Union did not occupy Finland, and Finland's political institutions were left intact—the only eastern enemy of the Soviet Union so treated.

Britton W. MacDonald


Further Reading
Erfurth, Waldemar. The Last Finnish War. Washington, DC: University Publications of America, 1979.; Kirby, D. G. Finland in the Twentieth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.; Mannerheim, Carl. The Memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim. London: Cassell, 1953.; Tillotson, H. M. Finland at Peace and War, 1918–1993. Wilby, UK: Michael Russell, 1993.; Warner, Oliver. Marshal Mannerheim and the Finns. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1967.
 

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