We tend to think of the Second World War as a battle between good and evil. For Finland (and even for Finnish Jews) things weren’t that simple.
I wrote a post a few weeks ago about Simo Häyhä AKA ‘the White Death’, a Finnish sniper who killed more than 500 Soviet soldiers during the Winter War. As this was a topic people seemed keen to read about I thought I would look a bit more at the history surrounding his career.
The Winter War
Häyhä’s war seems pretty straightforwardly just. The Nazi-Soviet pact placed Finland within the Soviet sphere, and in 1939 Stalin sent the Red Army to try and conquer the Nordic country. This lead to what was known as the Winter War. It was not the Red Army’s finest hour. Its officer class had been decimated by Stalin’s purges and the invasion force was mainly composed of troops from subtropical parts of the Ukraine. It was thus horridly unprepared for fighting in the Arctic winter. As a result tiny Finland held off the massive Soviet Union for months and inflicted huge losses on them. Häyhä was thus part of the army of a small democratic nation trying to avoid being swallowed by a totalitarian state that had killed more people than any other in history.
It was thus natural that democratic nations would look to come to Finland’s aid. Britain and France planned to send their own troops to help the Finns. However, Finland and Sweden did not want those soldiers passing through territory, lest this provoke Soviet or German retaliation. With no way to get the troops there the plan was shelved before finally abandoned when in March 1941 the Finns and Soviets made a peace treaty.
For all the Red Army’s travails in Finland, its formidable manpower allowed it to wear the Finns down and force them to relinquish territory to the USSR.
Nonetheless, before the Second World War was over the British military would see action in Finland. But it would not be there not to defend but to attack Finland.
The Continuation War
In 1941, the Finns got their revenge. Hitler had resolved to attack the USSR and the Germans wanted Finnish assistance. Still stung by their defeat and suspicious of the Soviet’s future intentions, the Finns agreed not only that their troops would participate in Operation Barbarossa but that German units could be based in the country.
These attacks, like the rest of German invasion, were initially highly successful. Finland recaptured its lost territory and indeed even went beyond its old borders. The Finnish Army formed part of the forces encircling Leningrad.
This lead to Britain declaring war on Finland and launching airstrikes on the Finnish navy. Which is one of the clearest refutations there is of the notion that became inexplicably popular in the 1990s and 2000s that ‘no two democracies have ever gone to war’.
This would not, however, be the strangest alignment to emerge out of what became known as ‘the Continuation War’. There were about 300 Jewish soldiers in the Finnish armed forces. So with Finland’s entry into the war these men found themselves fighting alongside the soldiers of the most Anti-Semitic state ever to exist.
While this fact seems to have been pretty uncomfortable for all involved, Finnish help was sufficiently important to the Nazis that they were prepared to overlook this obvious contradiction. If a German soldier encountered a Finn of a higher rank then they were expected to salute them even if they were Jewish. Indeed, one of the 300 actually won an Iron Cross almost certainly the only Jew to receive that award during World War II.
However, the momentum on the eastern front eventually shifted against the Axis. As a result, Finland found itself on the defensive. By this stage the Finns desperately needed weapons to defend themselves against the Soviet advances into their territory. The Finnish president Risto Ryti offered Hitler a personal guarantee that if Germany resupplied his country, they would not seek peace with the Soviets. After the weapons were delivered, he resigned and his successor negotiated an armistice.
This wasn’t to be the end of Finland’s conflict. The terms of the peace with Soviet Union required the Finns to eject the remaining German forces from their country. This became known by probably the most charming name of any conflict ever: the Lapland War.
Even once they had been taken care of that, there was still to be unpleasantness. The Soviets demanded that Ryti and nine other senior members of the government and military be prosecuted for having caused the war. These prosecutions were of such dubious legality that a constitutional amendment was required to bring them. Nonetheless, the still popular Ryti spent a decade in prison and during this time his health failed.
The dubious legality of this aside the question remains of the moral culpability of Ryti, his government and indeed the Finnish nation.
Apparently Finns emphatically state that they were not allies with Germany but ‘co-belligerents’. The implication is that they fought not for Germany but against their mutual enemy the Soviets.
It is also true that when Himmler asked the Finnish PM about the country’s Jewish community, he was told “Finland has no Jewish problem”.
It also managed to preserve its independence (though not its territorial integrity) and in so doing was able to avoid succumbing to communist rule like its Baltic neighbours did. That allowed it to become the prosperous, peaceful social democracy we know today.
That, however, came at a price. Finland’s actions probably allowed German forces to reach further into the USSR than they would otherwise have been and then to hold out against defeat for longer. As the Eastern Front saw the most brutal fighting and was home to the gas chambers this is likely to have resulted in a substantial body count.
We are used to thinking of the morality of WWII as fairly black and white. Finland’s experience shows that it was not. Finland had nothing but wretched choices open to it. This is worth bearing in mind when one hears commentators prognosticating about the complexity of the current global system or the loss of the simple binaries of past ages. The world has always been complicated and in every age people are confronted with lousy choices. It is only obvious in hindsight that Britain should carry have carried on fighting after the fall of France. And even with hindsight it is difficult to judge Finland’s choices.