The Hundred Day Winter War
ALTHOUGH IT WOULD take me three decades to decide to write a book about it, I have been intrigued with the subject of the Winter War ever since I first learned about it in detail—as well as heard about it—during my initial eye-opening visit to Finland in 1977, when my relationship with Finland, including my fascination with Finnish history, now extending the better part of my life, first really began.
How could I not be fascinated? In addition to obviously being a pivotal event in Finland’s history—as well as that of the Baltic region, which would become one of my main areas of specialization as a freelance foreign correspondent in the decades to come—I was enthralled by the extraordinary story of this exotic war-within-a-war in and of itself. Does any chapter of World War II—or any episode in recent history for that matter—contain as many ingredients of a Greek epic or an old Nordic saga as the one hundred and five day war that raged between Finland and Russia from November 30th, 1939 to March 13th, 1940?
A nation of 3.7 million attacked by another one fifty times its size…fighting the towering, flat-footed Soviet invader to a standstill amidst the swirling snows of the Finnish fells…even besting him for the better part of two months, armed with little more than Suomi submachine guns, homemade “Molotov cocktails” and a large supply of sisu…led into battle by its aristocratic septuageniarian commander-in-chief, Gustaf Mannerheim, also known as “The Last Knight of Europe,” a graduate of the court of tsar Nikolai, who had returned to his native land during the Russian Revolution to lead the White forces against the Reds during the fratricidal Finnish Civil War whence modern Finland was born….hoping against hope that her sister democracies, particularly the Allies, as well as Sweden and the United States, would hasten to her aid—not with rhetoric and “ice shows,” as the sympathetic but still steadfastly neutral U.S. did—but with the planes, tanks, and ammunition the Finns really needed, as the Swedes and the Allies ultimately did to varying degrees, before the infuriated Soviets mounted their final, overwhelming drive on the Mannerheim Line and time ran out…a nation whose cause was so compelling as to inspire thousands of young men from around the world to sail, fly, ski or walk to Suomi to fight for her. Quite a tale indeed.
One can understand why one of America’s most famous playwrights, Robert Sherwood, author of such celebrated entertainments as Petrified Forest and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, was so electrified by the elemental drama then raging in the far northeast corner of Europe—as well as frustrated that his own country was not doing more to help Finland—that, once the Finns disproved the early predictions of a Soviet walkover and the invasion really became a war, he decided to write a play about it.
There Shall Be No Night Sherwood called his stirring political allegory, after a passage in the Book of Revelation (22:5): “There shall be no night there: they need no lamp nor light of the sun, for Lord God gives them light…”
Sherwood feared that the war would not last long enough for his pro-Finnish vehicle to see the light of the day. He was right: his play, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, debuted sixteen days after the overwhelmed Finns were forced to put down their arms. Still, he wrote on, galvanized as he was by the Finns’ essential cause. As he put it:
I wrote this play in January and February, 1940 under constant pressure of the knowledge that it might be rendered hopelessly out of date. As it happened the war in Finland ended while the play was still in rehearsal. But the story of the Finns’ three months of resistance continued to be the story of all decent, civilized people who choose to stand up and fight for their freedom against the forces of atavistic depotism.
Is it any wonder that the Russian-Finnish conflict—or Talvisota as it is known in Finland—has been called the “last glorious war” or that seventy years later Finns consider it their finest hour?
Is there any doubt that it was?
As then keenly pro-Finnish Winston Churchill, who made that phrase, “their finest hour,” famous when he became British prime minister in May, 1940 had said five months earlier, at the height of the Winter War, when the world’s attention was focused on the unequal fight then taking place above the 60th parallel, “Only Finland, superb nay sublime in the jaws of peril..Finland shows what free men can do.”
IN ADDITION to its inspirational or totemic dimension, the Talvisota had considerable strategic and political ramifications for the rest of the Second World War. The Russians’ abysmal initial performance following its invasion of its small neighbor was a major factor in Adolf Hitler’s fateful, and ultimately fatal, decision to set the wheels in motion for Operation Barbarossa. If the Red Army had such difficulty in putting down the vastly outnumbered Finns, der Fuhrer figured, then the vast land and air armada he had assembled for the invasion and conquest of his erstwhile ally ought not to have too much difficulty putting down that palpably depleted force either, even when fighting on its own home ground.
Hitler was wrong, of course, but not by much: the Wehrmacht was indeed stopped, but not before it had reached the gates of Moscow; Stalingrad was a near thing. One of the major reasons why the Red Army ultimately gained the upper hand and defeated Hitler, many believe, was because of the changes and reforms it enacted following the April, 1940 postmortem Stalin ordered—which, needless to say, overlooked his own responsibility for the fiasco following the Winter War.
The Talvisota also had serious consequences for some of the players on the Allied side, especially Edouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain, the French and British president and prime minister, respectively, and the chief co-sponsors of Operation Avon Head, the dotty plan—also known as “the Finnish wild goose enterprise,” as Alan Brooke, who later became British chief of staff, aptly called it—by which the French and British intended to intervene in the Soviet-Fenno fight with a corps-sized expeditionary force, while magically securing the Swedish iron ore Berlin coveted along the way.
The scrubbing of that daft operation, following the Finns’ refusal to “officially” ask for the Allies’ aid and the unfortunate but wise decision to accept the Kremlin’s draconian terms of peace, led immediately to Daladier’s downfall, and paved the way for Chamberlain’s resignation and his replacement by Churchill (who ironically had been the minister most responsible for the instigating the peripheral Nordic strategy, if it can be called that, that led to the bonkers Avon Head).
Sideshow? Hardly. Beyond its own intrinsic fascination, the Winter War was a key event of the Second World War.
AND YET, remarkably, outside of Finland the Winter War has virtually been forgotten. Indeed if the Second World War, about which so many volumes have been written, still has what can justifiably called an unsung or misunderstood chapter, it is the Talvisota.
There are a number of reasons for this, I believe.
Firstly, and most importantly, there was the Finns’ controversial—and still dimly understood—decision to join the Germans when they invaded Russia in June, 1941, in order to retrieve the lands they had lost to the Kremlin as a result of the Peace of Moscow, including their second biggest city, Viipuri and most of Finnish Karelia, as well as to exact final revenge on the hereditary foe.
The Finns, whose principal contribution to Barbarossa was to help maintain the siege of Leningrad, joined the Germans not as full allies, but as co-belligerents, i.e., the Finns did not share or agree with many, if not most, of the Third Reich’s aims or policies. Thus, perhaps most significantly, the Finns refused (except for several “grey cases” which still haunt them) to give up their Jews to the SS for liquidation, even after Heinrich Himmler showed up in person in Helsinki to demand them.
Nevertheless, the distinction between full ally and co-belligerent was a fine one, morally—too fine for most in the West to understand or countenance, particularly in the midst of the cataclysmic conflagration the Second World War had become by the end of 1941. If Finland was a “near ally” of the Allies, then consequently she was also their “near enemy.” Almost overnight, Finland went from being “Brave Little Finland” and “America’s Sweetheart Number One” (as Christopher Isherwood put it), to Hitler’s handmaiden.
The British actually wound up declaring war on Suomi. America came very close. In any event, the undeniable glory and honor that the Finns won during the Winter War was obscured or eclipsed, and with it so was the whole story of the war, including the many and significant consequences the Talvisota had for the rest of World War II, including the newly demonized Finns.
And so it is, by and large, today.
Except, of course, in Finland, where the fifteen week war continues to have mythic status, while engendering a new mound of monographs every November.
ANOTHER REASON why the Winter War has been largely forgotten or scanted outside of Finland, in my estimation, is the absence of a reliable, comprehensive, as well as interesting one-volume book, in either English or Finnish, about the war.
It struck me, upon reviewing the considerable literature about the Talvisota in both languages, that what was lacking was a book that did full justice to what was in effect a war-within-a-war in all of its aspects—military, diplomatic, cultural and human—while weaving all of the threads of the tale into a coherent“real time” narrative, rather than a topically arranged one, as well as one that incorporated both the Finnish and Russian perspectives, as well as those of the other leading characters in the complex drama, including those of the Allies, the Germans, the neutrals, and the press.
Even the best book on the war thus far (in my opinion), The Diplomacy of the Winter War by my friend and mentor Max Jakobson, a book which helped inspire me to write this tome (and whose author encouraged me to write this one) only purports to treat of one of those dimensions—or rather, two actually, the political and the diplomatic.
The Diplomacy of the Winter War was also written nearly half a century ago, while Finland still hovered in that military-politico “twilight zone” known as “Finlandization.” The fact that it stands up as well as it does today is a testament to Jakobson’s sagacity, as well as his literary prowess. However, we’ve learned a few things about the Talvisota since then. And Jakobson, while taking the Russian view point into account, would have had a very difficult time interviewing some of the Soviet veterans of a war which, in 1961, the Kremlin still very much wanted to forget as well, or to visit the old Karelian battle site.
Too, there have been actually many outstanding books by Finland’s many outstanding military historians about specific battles or divisions of the two armed forces. Raatteen Tie, Mika Kulju’s excellent work about the battles of Suomussalmi and Raate Road, which I drew on for my book, is one. Carl-Fredrik Geust’s tomes about the air war are also excellent, as are Lasse Laaksonen’s writings about Mannerheim’s relations with his generals. I could go on.
Additionally, the British or English writers and scholars who have taken on the subject of the Talvisota have, either by omission or intention, scanted one aspect or another of the war. There have been some splendid books about the war by non-Finns, most notably Allen Chew’s The White Death: The Epic of the Soviet-Finnish Winter War, and William Trotter’s A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940; however, these were published in 1971 and 1991 respectively, and they concentrate on the military dimension of the war.
Indeed the best general interest book about the Winter War that I could find was The Red Army Moves, the gripping memoir by Geoffrey Cox, one of the best of the three hundred some odd foreign correspondents who descended on Helsinki following the Russian invasion, and a book that was a major resource for this one. Still, inevitably, Cox’s book is riddled with mistakes stemming from his over-romanticized view of the war, as well as the impossibility of obtaining the Soviet side of the story.
The Red Army Moves also happened to be published in 1941.
All in all, it seemed a good time for an update.
Too, I also thought, in a day and age when that overused word, freedom, has become debased, it might be well to remember that epochal moment during the long ago winter of 1940 when Finland truly showed what a nation of free men and women can do.
Ithaca, New York