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Finland – WW2 – More…

March 24, 2014
Karelian Front In WW2 north of Leningrad

Karelian Front In WW2 north of Leningrad

This is a continuation of some thoughts on Finnish history based on the exchanges I had ten days ago with Ms Tytti concerning Finland’s role in World War 2. The exchange is found in the comments to the blog entry “Finland’s Jews – Some Reflections.’

First let me say that I appreciated her willingness to take the time to enter into a dialogue (of sorts) with me. The dialogue was a spin-off of an entry about Finland’s Jews who fought in the Finnish army in the early stages of the war on the side of Nazi Germany but ended the war in an alliance with the Allies, particularly the Soviet Union, with whom the Finnish government signed a treaty in 1944 that resulted in an end to the Finnish-Nazi alliance.

The history of the small central European countries in World War 2 caught as they were between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union is complex and for the most part completely tragic. In the case of Finland, although it was allied with the Nazis its territory and military retained a certain degree of independence throughout. Nazi troops were stationed in the north of the country from where they launched military offensives into Soviet Karelia although most of Finland remained free of them.

What I would like to probe in more detail is our discussion about the Finnish role in the siege of Leningrad in which our views differed considerably. For 900 days Leningrad was surrounded and besieged with Nazi troops on its western, southern and eastern gates and Finnish troops sealing off the city to the north. Before it was over more than a million people inside the city had died from constant bombing, frost (the winter temperatures were often -40 F or below) and malnutrition. In January of 1943, the Soviet army broke through at Lake Lagoda opening a fragile lifeline to the city but the city itself was not liberated until January 27, 1944.

Concerning the Finnish role in all this, it existed but was more nuanced than I suggested although in no way was it the defensive posture that Ms. Tytti suggests. Finland was indeed trying to regain territories it lost to the USSR in the Winter War (1939-1940) but it was an active ally of the Nazis that included its role in joining the Nazis in the blockade of Leningrad as well as permitting the Nazis accesses to bases in Finnish Lapland from which they Germans attacked the northern reaches of Soviet Karelia in their attempt to cut off the supply route from Murmansk on the Arctic Ocean. That said, the Finnish-Nazi alliance was in many ways an uneasy one filled with tensions. Finland was no Nazi patsy…but it was Hitler’s ally.

A memorial park to the victims of the Leningrad blockade. Under each square of lawn is a mass grave in which all tolled hundreds of thousands of victims lay buried

A memorial park to the victims of the Leningrad blockade. Under each square of lawn is a mass grave in which all tolled hundreds of thousands of victims lay buried

In Finland, World War Two is referred to most of the time as “The Continuation War”, ie a continuation of the Winter War instigated by the Soviet Union against Finland in the winter of 1939-1940, also called `The Winter War.” By using this semantic approach, the Finns imply that World War 2 was for them only a continuation of the Winter War. I never found this expression particularly convincing although the term was widespread. In their effort to regain territories lost to the Soviet Union as a result of the Winter War, Finnish troops launched an offensive into Karelia (north of Leningrad) on July 10, 1941, by which time Nazi armies were approaching the city from the east and south. By early July 1941. Finnish troops had smashed through the old 1939 border just northwest of Leningrad whose outskirts they soon reached before stopping their offensive. By the end of the summer, the city would be completely blockaded.

As Alexander Werth notes in his excellent “Russia At War”:

“One thing was very striking during the Leningrad Blockade; the enemy was Germany and Finland was scarcely mentioned. Yet the Finns were also at war with the Soviet Union, were taking part in the blockade of Leningrad, and their troops were within some twenty miles north and north-west of the city. Further east, they had penetrated deep into Soviet territory, and were holding a line along the Svir River, between Lake Lagoda and Lake Onega. The large Soviet city of Petrozavodsk, capital of the Karelo-Finnish SSR, was under Finnish occupation.”(1)

The passage continues to describe the Nazi-Finnish military alliance at Leningrad as “very unusual”. And indeed it was as Finland retained a considerable degree of independence in the relationship both politically and on the battlefield.

According to Werth, the Nazis were frustrated with the Finnish refusal to storm Leningrad from the north. Had the Finns done so, with Nazi troops moving in from the west and south, it is likely that the city would have fallen into Nazi hands. At least one German historian, Walter Gorlitz, takes issue with the idea that the Finns were not active participants in the Leningrad siege, arguing that had the Nazis actually been able to storm the city that the Finns would have participated in this final onslaught (which however never took place).

One of Finland's many cemeteries honoring its war dead. Note that this soldier died in October, 1941. The cemetery where Robbel is buried in Eastern Finland, near the current Russian-Finnish border.

One of Finland’s many cemeteries honoring its war dead. Note that this soldier died in March, 1940, towards the end of the Winter War. The cemetery where Viinikainen  is buried is in Lahti in Eastern Finland, not far from the current Russian-Finnish border.

In launching their offensive into the Karelian isthmus north of Leningrad, the Finns argued that they were just trying to recoup territories lost to them in the Winter War (1939-1940) which had then been annexed by the Soviets. But as they marched into these regions they soon occupied “considerable stretches of Soviet territory that never belonged to them,” notably east of Lake Lagoda.

Werth points out that the Finns were “less subservient” to the Germans than were either the Hungarians or Romanians. There were rather strict limits to the Finnish participation in the Leningrad blockade. The German troops stationed in Finland were never used against Leningrad from Finnish territory although they were used further north. After the war the Finns were to claim that this restriction on Nazi troop movements probably “saved Leningrad” – something of a stretch to my mind. Further that while their troops were within range, the Finns had not taken part in the bombing or shelling of the city (which different sources suggest to have been the case) or hardly. No doubt had the Finns launched a major offensive from their positions outside the city would have gravely affected the city’s ability to survive the blockade.

There were several factors that came into play in Finnish reluctance to participate more actively in the Leningrad blockade. Military allies perhaps, but the Finns had no great love for the Nazis who had invaded fellow Nordic neighbors of Norway and Denmark. The Finns understood that sometime down the line, had the Nazis been successful in their invasion of the U.S.S.R. that they too could easily be militarily swallowed up. The fact that the Soviets, their sworn enemy was allied with two close allies – Britain and the United States – was also a factor in their military prudence. Finally there was Finnish General Mannerheim’s reluctance to take part in the conquest and destruction of Leningrad.

There is little doubt that had the Finns participated in Leningrad’s sacking that its post-war relations with Stalin and the USSR would have been quite different. The terms of the post war relations with their larger and more powerful neighbor would have more than likely been severe. Their cautious approach was a key element in the post-war reconciliation between the Finns and the Soviets, which was in many ways both a model for a new kind of cooperative relationship that other Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – in no way enjoyed. Unlike the rest of central Europe, post-war Finland did not experience a major occupation of Soviet troops and the general terms of the Soviet-Finnish armistice were much milder than the Finns feared the rest of the world expected.

In this light, it is possible to argue that the Finnish refusal to attack Leningrad from the north outright during the blockade was nothing short of a key element in Finland’s survival as an independent nation in the postwar period. Yes, they did lose territory on the Karelian Peninsula, but they retained their independence in the bargain. And so much of what Ms. Tytti was arguing, on reflection, had validity to it. Of course all this is a diversion, interesting admittedly, to the role of Finland’s Jewish population in World War II where this particular thread began. It was unusual to be sure, but then that community never lost site of its dual identity – that of being Finns and Jews.

______________

1. Alexander Werth, Russia At War: 1941-1945. Carroll and Graf. 1964, p.360-362

7 Comments leave one →
  1. BigE permalink
    July 7, 2014 8:42 pm

    Interesting read, I am a Finnish American and know a lot of this history. Had Finland attacked, no doubt that Leningrad would have fallen. I am proud that the Finnish Jews fought for Finland’s freedom even if it meant fighting along side the nazis. This says slot about the nation of Finland and it’s people, Sisu in it’s best purest form.

    • July 8, 2014 7:38 am

      First, thank you for your comment…
      I hope to write more about Finland….it is a place that my whole family has a special feeling for. I am fascinated by its history and the situation of a small country caught between great powers trying to survive, to be both principled and practical. My main concerns about Finland today are two fold a. the “Americanization” (as my Finnish friends call it) of the Finnish economy which has led to social and political polarization on a level that did not exist during the Cold War b. the Finnish drift towards NATO, especially the growing cooperation between Finland and NATO in the Baltic area. I understand the Finnish historic distrust of Russia but worry that Finland, like Ukraine, Estonia, Poland is getting roped into military alliances of a dangerous and provocative nature. I was a great admirer of the Kekkonen approach to Finnish foreign policy and watch with a certain amount of trepidation as it seems to weaken…anyhow, cheers, thanks rjp

  2. July 19, 2014 5:04 am

    I just found this and I suppose I should thank you for explaining the situation further. But I didn’t read it carefully enough, so… Also there are books written about the subject so my explanations are very simplified compared to those. I also noticed you didn’t cite any Finnish historians. But anyway…

    “In Finland, World War Two is referred to most of the time as “The Continuation War”, ie a continuation of the Winter War instigated by the Soviet Union against Finland in the winter of 1939-1940, also called `The Winter War.” By using this semantic approach, the Finns imply that World War 2 was for them only a continuation of the Winter War.”

    I suppose you are American(?) and for you the WWII didn’t start until 1941? Well for Finland WWII started in 1939. Finns DON’T refer the WWII as the Continuation War, because it is only ONE of the wars we fought during WWII, though of course it was the longest. The Continuation War was the continuation of the Winter War which was also a part of WWII (even if the Allies prefer to keep it separate and/or forget altogether). Afterwards came the Lapland War and it was also a part of WWII. (Besides, Stalin put on so much pressure on Finland and Finnish politics, interfering with elections, shooting down a civilian plane, making more demands etc. during the “Interim Peace” that most Finns understood that another war was coming, so yes, it was very much a “continuation”.)

    So Finland fought THREE wars during WWII and if a Finn talks about WWII s/he refers to ALL of them. (Although in Finnish we usually talk about “the wars” when talking about only Finland and WWII is “reserved” to the whole conflict around the world. It’s just too long a term to be used unnecessarily.) But when talking about a specific war we of course refer to it by its name. A Finn couldn’t talk about the Continuation War as WWII because another Finn would be thinking about the time between 1939 and 1945 and wondering what the heck the other one is talking about and about which war.

    It’s very simple to understand, really, and I don’t understand why foreigners keep insisting that Finns call WWII as the Continuation War when that is not the case. The only explanation I can see is that for them WWII didn’t start until the Operation Barbarossa… though I would think Poland, France and the rest would disagree with that. But I guess most people then forget the occupations of the Eastern Poland and the Baltic countries by the Soviet Union and don’t consider them as part of WWII, either, even though they were all direct results of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as was the Winter War and the Invasion of Poland, which for some reason IS a part of WWII… Maybe they just don’t want to admit that an Allied country was responsible for invasions and occupations just BEFORE they became allies with it… Keeping the Winter War outside of WWII of course makes that easier, that’s also what the Soviet Union did, by the way.

    • July 19, 2014 7:48 am

      Hello Tytti.
      Thanks for your reply (and reading mine)
      If you can recommend sources in English to read, I would be interested. Unfortunately I cannot read Finnish. But this question of Finnish sources is important.
      My family is now vacationing in Seattle. Today we are going to visit the Nordic Museum. I am hoping that collection includes some interesting materials on Finland, Finnish immigrants
      Best,
      Rob P.

      • John Simon permalink
        June 28, 2015 11:42 pm

        You might be interested in finding a copy of “The German Northern Theater of Operations 1940-1945” by Earl F. Zemke, prepared for the Office of the Chief of Military History of the U.S. Department of the Army and published in 1959. It corroborates many of Tytti’s arguments.

        • June 29, 2015 5:36 am

          Thank you John Simon…in fact I will order that volume and read it. best RP

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