143: Nordic Defiance


After the negotiations with the Baltic nations, the Soviet Union turned its eye northward with the hope of another easy diplomatic victory.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 143 - The Winter War Part 1 - Nordic Defiance. This week a big thank you goes out to Jason and Uli (oo-lee) for the donations and to Sergii, Eugene, Leonid, Justin, Soren, and Gavin for choosing to become members. You can find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Last episode covered the events that led up to and then immediately followed the signing of the mutual assistance pacts between the Soviet Union and three Baltic nations: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. One of the key pieces of those agreements was the provision that allowed the Soviet Union to place troops and aircraft within the boundaries of those nations under the excuse that such actions were required to protect both the security of those nations and the Soviet Union. This, however, had the effect of essentially removing those nation’s independence because it negated any ability they may have had to defend against Soviet aggression. There was another nation that the Soviet Union wanted to sign a similar agreement, Finland. But Finland would react very differently to the Soviet advances. Instead of signing a mutual assistance agreement and allowing Soviet soldiers to entire Finland, Finnish leaders would instead decide to resist, and resist they did. The resulting fighting would last almost 3 and a half months, and over that time the Finnish military would put up stout resistance, and the Red Army would encounter many problems as they attempted to put the Finnish Army in its place. But in the end the sheer size and power of the Red Army would make long term resistance impossible, and a peace treaty would eventually be signed, with the Soviet Union clearly winning the conflict. That simple fact is worth keeping in mind over the next 8 weeks during which the podcast will cover what would come to be called the Winter War. Regardless of the smart moves made by Finnish military leaders, the failures of the Red Army leadership, the unpreparedness of the Soviet military for a war, or the remarkable individual bravery shown by Finnish soldiers, Finland would lose. In such a lopsided conflict, there was no path to a Finnish victory, although they gave it their best shot. This episode will discuss the political preludes to the conflict, including the negotiations that would take place during 1939 before the conflict started, then next episode will discuss the military preparations made by both sides, before episode 3 through 8 cover the conflict itself. Before we will begin, there are a few ways that this conflict ties into the wider Second World War in Europe. Obviously the Soviet Military would learn lessons during the fighting, which would both benefit it in 1941 but also cause some additional problems. The Finnish military would participate in the fighting on the Eastern Front, in collaboration with the Germans. Britain and France would seriously consider sending assistance to Finland, even if it meant starting a war with the Soviet Union. And finally, the performance of the Red Army against the tiny military of Finland would make the nation seem far weaker than previously thought. All of that is in the future though, and to begin discussing the Winter War with should start with its most famous participant: Carl Gustav Mannerheim.

Mannerheim had served in the Russian Imperial Army before the First World War, and had also been a member of the Tsar’s court before the First World War. During the Great War he had gone on to command first a Cavalry Division and then a Cavalry Corps before being relieved of his command during the summer of 1917 by the new Social-Democratic government that had been put in place after the first Russian Revolution. He was relieved due to concerns that he did not support the new government or the revolution, which just so happened to be an entirely accurate evaluation of his beliefs. This removal from the army would mean that he would be back in Finland when it declared its independence from Russia at the beginning of the Russian Civil War. One interesting fact is that while he would go on to be seen as a great, and really the great Finnish statesman of the modern era, before returning to Finland after the First World War he had not really been that involved in local events, being busy with his service in the Imperial Army and in St. Petersburg. But after Finland declared its independence, and worked at least in the same direction as the Russian Whites against the Bolsheviks, Mannerheim would be put in command of Finnish forces. There may have been some concern that Mannerheim held monarchist views, which he did, and would continue to over the next decades, but one things that was never in doubt is that Mannerheim hated the Bolsheviks, and that is what really mattered for the Whites and for Finnish Nationalists during the Civil War years. Eventually Finland would earn its independence from the new Bolshevik government, much like its neighbors to the south, but even after the official fighting ended there would still be some unfortunate events. After the war over 80,000 Bolshevik supporters, including women and children, were placed in concentration camps where almost 10,000 of them would die over the next several months although many thousands would also be released during this time. Along with this, a White Terror would spread throughout Finland with over 8,000 people being killed. Mannerheim would play a role in some of these events while also overseeing the execution of thousands of Red Army prisoners during the war. These events, of course, did not happen in a vacuum and were heavily influenced by the actions of the Reds themselves, with a Red Terror also occurring during the war. Civil Wars are brutal. After the war Mannerheim would participate in the first Finnish presidential election in July 1919 although he would be beaten by his opponent Professor Kaarlo Stahlberg. For the long term stability of Finland this loss was probably really good, because Mannerheim strongly disliked the parliamentary democracy system, and was still a firm monarchist. Mannerheim also at the time supported an invasion of the Soviet Union, instead of signing a peace treaty like Stahlberg wanted to do. During the interwar period, Mannerheim was not really involved with Finnish politics, and had a strong dislike of party politics in general. He would however accept the position of Chairman of the Defense Council in 1931. During the events that will be covered in the rest of this episode, Mannerheim consistently advocated for negotiations with the Soviet Union, which might seem odd given his actions during the Finnish War of Independence. However, by 1939 Mannerheim strongly believed that the Finnish military was not capable of putting up meaningful resistance against the Soviet military forces. He still hated the Soviets, and he always would, but from a military perspective he saw little chance of success. Mannerheim and the Finnish Prime Minister in October 1939, Cajander, were so divergent in their views that Mannerheim was preparing to resign, before the start of the Winter War caused him to instead be appointed as Command-in-Chief of the Finnish Army.

Over the course of 1939 there would be several rounds of discussions between the Soviet Union and Finland, all of which revolved around, in some way, Soviet security. The initial discussions were based on Finland either handing over, or at the very least providing long term leases, on some islands in the Gulf of Finland which would allow the Soviets to better control the approaches towards Leningrad. The defensive importance of this control was obvious, but Finnish leaders were never very receptive to the idea of allowing the Soviet Union to in anyway bolster its military strength near Finnish territory. In March 1939 this idea was again brought up, this time revolving around the specific island of Suursaari and a few smaller islands nearby with the Soviets hoping to obtain a 30 year lease of these areas, in exchange for some areas on the Karelian peninsula being given to Finland. These areas of the Karelian peninsula were disputed between the two nations, but were not greatly important either economically or militarily. But again the Finns were not very receptive to the idea, even with the sweetener of additional territory. The situation between the two nations would begin to change after the invasion of Poland. The quick destruction of Poland, and the inaction of the Western democracies, made it clear to everyone that the nations of Eastern Europe were on their own, a feeling that would fuel both the Soviet aggressive negotiations with the Baltic states, as well as the feeling of helplessness within those states that caused them to sign the treaties of mutual assistance. Soviet leaders hoped that similar agreements could be reached with Finland, and they would become more adamant after the other nations signed their own agreements in September and October 1939. The negotiations would begin once again, his time with an even more involved treaty with greater Soviet demands. Now the Soviet Union wanted not a few small islands but the entire Hanko peninsula, which would be leased for 30 years with a Soviet Naval base to be placed on it, oh and also those islands they previously wanted. The idea is that this would finally completely solve the defense of Leningrad because from the Hanko peninsula the Soviets would place shore artillery that would completely control the approaches the entrance to the Gulf of Finland and therefore Leningrad. In exchange the areas of Karelia were still being offered in recompense, but they were still mostly worthless. Even though the Soviet demands were greater, and the position of Finland seemingly much weaker, the Finnish government was even less inclined to take the new deal which was even worse than before. This would be the final round of what could be considered even moderately reasonable negotiations between the new nations, with the next round being far less a series of negotiations and instead a list of demands.

This shift would begin on October 5th, after both Estonia and Latvia had signed their mutual assistance agreements. The Finnish government was notified that the Soviet Union wanted to invite a Finnish delegation to travel to Moscow for discussions. These discussions would continue throughout October and November, and the new Soviet demands were even larger than they had been over the previous months. On the Karelian Isthmus the border would be moved west, giving more territory to the Soviet Union. The Finnish fortifications on the Isthmus would be destroyed. A series of islands would be given to the Soviet Union in the Gulf of Finland. The previously discussed lease of Hanko Peninsula, with a Soviet Naval Base to be constructed, was still on the list. In exchange all that the Soviet Union offered was some of that Karelia land that had been on the table since the beginning. Much like with the Baltic nations, these demands went far beyond just the specific concessions because they combined not just to result in Finland losing territory but also losing its ability to defend itself against Soviet aggression. The Russian bases on Finnish territory around the Gulf of Finland would be bad enough, but the lose of territory on the Isthmus and then the forced destruction of the fortifications that had been built there would mean that if the Red Army wanted to attack Finland there would be little that the Finns could do to stop them.


During these negotiations there were really two main viewpoints within Finland’s government. The first was typified by Foreign Minister Erkko who believed that the Soviet leaders were just bluffing, that they were making major demands but they were not in a position or willing to actually follow through if their demands were refused. The Soviet’s had not really been tested by the Baltic nations, who had not refused Soviet demands during their negotiations, and Erkko believed that if Finland were to reject them then the Soviets would be forced to back down. On the other side were men like Mannerheim, who held a far more negative view of Finland’s position. Mannerheim instead believed, at least before the final round of negotiations in October, that Finland should just give the Soviet’s the islands they wanted in the Gulf of Finland, as they were actually worth very little. Then later in the negotiations Mannerheim would explain to leaders of the National Coalition Party that the reason he supported an understanding with the Soviet Union was because of the state of the Finnish military and his belief that the Soviets were able and willing to follow through on their threats. He believed that the Red Army was stronger than other Finnish leaders were assuming, and that the Finnish military was weaker than they were planning for. Mannerheim strongly believed that the Finnish military, while its soldiers did not lack in patriotism or willingness in anyway, was in every major respect ill prepared for a major conflict. But instead of these views swaying the official opinions of the Finnish government, it instead just caused many politicians to lose faith in Mannerheim as a military leader, believing perhaps that he was finally too old to be the leader of a resistance against the Soviet Union. The situation between Mannerheim and the Finnish leaders reached a point where Mannerheim would tender his resignation on November 27. This is one of those situations, in my opinion, where both sides were right in their own ways. The Winter War would show that the Finnish military was too weak to stand up to the Red Army, which was stronger than the Finnish leaders believed, and that the Soviet Union was very capable of following through on its threats. But equally, it seems very unlikely that any amount of acquiescence by the Finnish leaders, as Mannerheim was suggesting, would have been seen as anything but a signal of weakness to the Soviet Union, which likely would have only escalated its demands further, especially if one of the earlier rounds of demands had been met, before the demands for territory on the isthmus and the dismantling of the defenses entered into the conversation. There had been a concerted effort to improve the Finnish Army in the years that preceded the negotiations, with for example anti tank guns being orders from Sweden. But these investments were slow in paying off, a problem partially caused by so many other nations also frantically improving their military readiness which made it more challenging to purchase weapons abroad. Another input into the decision making process of the Finnish leaders was the idea that, if a war did start between their nation and the Soviet Union, they could get help from abroad. Closer to Finland there were the Scandinavian countries of Sweden and Norway, and then further to the west Britain and France. The hopes in both of these groups would not end up being a source of official assistance. For the other Scandinavian nations, they did not feel comfortable officially entering into a war with the Soviet Union without larger nations also entering the conflict, even if a Finnish victory was certainly in their best interests. For Britain and France, well they already had a war to worry about, but they did still discuss entering into the war on Finlands side, even though it would mean war with the Soviet Union. It is of course important to remember these events were occurring before the German invasion of France, which would very clearly outline the military weakness of the two Western nations, in late 1939 the assumption was that the combination of Britain and France were militarily very strong and would be able to match up to even the combined power of Germany and the Soviet Union.

Most of this episode has focused on the actions of the Finnish leaders, but we should also take a moment to discuss the thought process of the Soviet leaders during these negotiations. After their string of successes the Soviet leaders once again believed that if they pushed on the Finnish leaders hard enough they would eventually give in to what was being demanded, just as the other nations had already done. This viewpoint was confirmed by Khrushchev in later writings, where he stated that the fact that the Finn’s did not quickly give into Soviet demands came as something of a shock, and in fact there had been little serious planning on what to do if an invasion of Finland was required. But once it was clear that they would not give into Soviet demands, things quickly began to change. It started in the Soviet press, which would begin a sustained attack on Finland, blaming the Finnish government for all of the problems between the two nations. Along with this the Red Army would begin to prepare for the next steps, which was an attack across the border. One important parts of the Soviet viewpoints on Finland, which would impact decision making during these early days was the idea that there was an undercurrent of class antagonism within Finland, that would cause series challenges for the Finnish government if a war started with the Soviet Union. Stalin himself would believe that this was the case, which was really all it took to make an impact on Soviet decision making. The most important decisions, which would start the war would be taken throughout the evening of November 22, with Stalin and the Red Army general staff in deep discussions well into the night. The general plan was for the Soviets to begin hostilities, while being very careful to structure their first moves in a way that they could plausibly blame them on Finland. This blame was felt to be important for both international and internal reasons, and would be coupled with talking points given to local party leaders that would emphasize the provocation by the Finns, as well as their violent actions that forced a Soviet military response. But in reality the first shots of the war would be fired by the Soviets on November 26th, when there would be seven artillery rounds fired so that they landed within Soviet territory near the town of Mainila. The Soviet version of events would claim that this was Finnish artillery fire aimed at a Soviet position at precisely 3:45PM on the 26th, and that the seven rounds that had been fired had caused the death of 4 soldiers and the wounding of 9 more. This was followed by an angry letter from Foreign Minister Molotov to the Finnish government, accusing the Finns of launch an attack on Soviet soldiers within Soviet territory. Then later in the evening the Finnish ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin to receive a note stating: “The Soviet government brings this to your attention and considers it necessary to emphasize the fact that during the negotiations recently held with your Messrs. Tanner and Paasikivi the Soviet government remarked upon the danger to which the concentration of numerous forces in the immediate neighbourhood of the frontier close to Leningrad give rise.” It would then continue: “As is well known, attacks by units of the Finnish armed forces against Soviet forces continue not only on the Karelian Isthmus, but also at other points along the Soviet-Finnish frontier. The Soviet Union can no longer tolerate this situation. By reason of the situation which has arisen, for which the Finnish government alone bears responsibility, the Soviet government can no longer maintain normal relations with Finland, and is obliged to recall from Finland its political and economic representatives. A few hours later Helsinki was on fire from Soviet bombs.” There was just one problem, it was all a lie. Due to the risk of an incident occurring, the Finnish artillery had been pulled back from the Soviet border specifically to avoid the possibility that they would be fired across the border, and so when the artillery rounds started falling there were literally no Finnish artillery pieces within range of the coordinates where the rounds hit. The Finnish ambassador would later even comment that it seemed clear that Molotov did not believe that what he was saying was the truth. But as always, the truth was of little importance and the artillery was just an excuse that the Soviet government would use to begin their war against Finland due to their rejection of the Soviet demands. The good news is that the war was going to be an easy steamroll, in fact Zhdanov, the head of Soviet propaganda would even work with Dmitri Shostakovitch to compose a new musical piece to celebrate the Soviet victory, with the demand that it be completed before December 2nd so that it would not be too late. It would be entitled A Suite on Finnish Themes. The war with Finland was going to be so easy, no problem, and so it was important to start preparing for victory. Unfortunately for Zhdanov and the Soviet leaders, those pesky Finns were about to throw a serious wrench in their plans, because all along the Soviet-Finnish border, the great and glorious Red Army was about to get a very rude awakening.