Finland in WWII: The Democratic Axis Power

World War II was the largest, bloodiest conflict in human history. The war either directly or indirectly affected almost every country on Earth, with 62 countries officially declaring war and even most neutral countries impacted by the war in some way. Yet most of what we hear about the war in the history books, documentaries on TV, Hollywood movies and video games is centered around the conflicts between the biggest players: Germany, Italy, and Japan on the one side and the United States, Britain, and the USSR on the other. Many of the smaller countries tend to get left out of the story.

Today, we are going to talk about one of those smaller countries: Finland. A country of about five million people living on the eastern edge of Scandinavia, between Sweden on the west and Russia on the east, Finland has been a stable and prosperous democracy since it won its independence in 1918. Yet during World War II, this modern, democratic society joined forces with Nazi Germany, the most evil and ruthless totalitarian dictatorship in history. What could possibly have made Finland’s leaders decide to ally their nation with such a monster?

Common enemies. Namely, the Soviet Union.

First, a little background on Finnish history. The Finns are a unique people of somewhat mysterious origin. During the Middle Ages, Sweden gradually conquered and colonized Finland, spreading Christianity and Scandinavian culture. Swedish rule in Finland lasted for centuries until coming to a rather abrupt end in 1809, when Russia conquered the country. Under Russian rule, the Tsar added the title “Grand Duke of Finland” to his list of titles, but otherwise mostly left Finland alone and let the Finns handle their own affairs. However, later tsars like Alexander III and Nicholas II decided to impose much more direct control over the country and tried to “Russianize” the Finnish people, a plan that met plenty of resistance among the Finns.

This leads me to 1917 and the Russian Revolution. When the Bolsheviks seized power, Finnish society was divided between Communist “Reds” backed by the Russian Bolsheviks and pro-democracy, pro-independence “Whites” aided by Germany. In a brief civil war, the Whites won decisively, securing Finland’s independence and adopting a democratic constitution.

Now, let’s fast-forward a bit to 1939, and the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Publicly, the agreement was one of peace and establishing trade links, but it secretly included a clause whereby the Soviets and Germans would carve Poland up between each other. The German invasion of Poland just nine days later sparked the outbreak of WWII in Europe, and it was swiftly followed by the Soviet invasion of Poland.

Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, the USSR had mostly kept to itself in the 1930’s, pursuing a policy of “Socialism in One Country” as it industrialized and modernized. However, by 1939, Stalin was confident enough in his country’s strength that he wanted to flex its muscle. Soviet forces took over Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the Red Army invaded Finland on November 30, 1939.

Stalin almost certainly was supremely confident in success. The mighty Red Army would surely steamroll the puny Finnish militia, and surely he would have the support of those who had backed the Reds in Finland’s civil war just two decades prior. He even had a puppet Communist government all set up and ready to take over once the war was won.

That’s when the mighty Red Army found itself being picked off one by one by Finnish snipers on skis.

You thought I was joking, didn’t you? Nope, not joking.

Yeah, it turns out that Stalin was his own worst enemy. Paranoid and obsessive, Stalin systematically killed or imprisoned anyone he thought had even the remotest chance of being a threat to his rule, and by some estimates he actually killed more people than Hitler had. As a result, the leadership of the Red Army was based more on political loyalty and ideological purity than basic competence. One would think that Russia, of all countries, would know how to fight a war in winter, but instead the Finns humiliated the Soviet forces with the ferocity of their resistance.

Stalin had underestimated just how much the memory of Russianization motivated Finns to refuse to accept a return to Russian rule, and overestimated how much support there was for Communism in the Finnish working class. After their victory, it turns out, the Whites decided to pursue moderate political and economic reforms that helped the poor in order to weaken public support for Communism, and these political strategies had worked. Stalin was seen as a conqueror, not a liberator.

The humiliation led to an immediate shake-up at the top of the Red Army’s command structure. Within months, the Soviet forces had their act together and were pushing towards the Finnish capital of Helsinki. To avoid a disaster, Finland asked for peace negotiations. The resulting Moscow Peace Treaty adopted in March 1940 allowed Finland to keep its independence, but forced it to cede some territory to the Soviets, including some economically valuable lands that were rich in natural resources.

This was not the end of the story, however. In 1941, Hitler was scheming to betray Stalin and launch an invasion of the Soviet Union. However, since the Soviet Union was just such a large country with a massive military, Hitler knew he needed allies. He also wanted to justify the invasion in his regime’s propaganda as a pan-European “crusade” against Communism, not just a plot to gain Germany more territory (though it was certainly that, too). So, he approached Finland and basically said, “You want in on this?”

Now, think of this from Finland’s point of view. Hitler and Stalin were both absolute monsters, but Hitler wasn’t an immediate threat, while Stalin had already invaded their country. Not only that, but many Finns were angry at losing some of their land to the Soviet Union and wanted to reclaim it. Finland agreed, and joined forces with the Nazis against the USSR.

Adolf Hitler meets with Finnish commander Carl Mannerheim and president Risto Ryti.

About half a million Finnish troops participated in the war, waging a series of campaigns in the northeastern part of Russia, reclaiming their lost territory and attempting to capture the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk.

It should be noted, though, that Finland never fully committed to the Axis cause. They never declared war on the United States, United Kingdom, or any other Allied power, only the USSR. They never signed the Tripartite Pact, the treaty between Germany, Italy, and Japan that had formalized the Axis alliance. Most notably, Finland took in Jewish refugees from Europe, and many Finnish Jews fought in Finland’s army.

So, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Finland was quick to jump ship from its alliance with the Nazis when the war turned against them. In 1944, with the Axis forces falling back on all fronts, Finland reached out to Stalin and again agreed to peace terms. Finland was again forced to accept the territorial losses they had suffered the first time around, and this time was forced to make war reparations payments to the Soviet Union. Most notably, Finland was given a deadline of September 14, 1944 to expel all German troops on Finnish soil.

Of course, the Germans were not going to just pack up their bags and leave. German forces resisted their former ally’s demand to go home, and as a result Finnish and German troops clashed for several months, fighting a number of battles before the last German troops left in April, just days before the final German surrender.

Finland was the only country fighting alongside the Axis powers to be a democracy, and the only country on the European mainland to maintain its democratic government except for Sweden and Switzerland, both of which were neutral in the war. This made peace negotiations after the war a bit awkward; the Soviets wanted to treat them no differently than Germany, Italy, or Japan, but the Americans and British saw the value in preserving a western democracy that lay along the border with a Communist regime that was soon to be their Cold War enemy. In the end, the Allies went easy on Finland. The country was forced to limit the size of its military, and allow the Soviets to maintain a naval base on their soil. They were forced to recognize the civil rights of ethnic and religious minority groups, something Finland’s constitution already protected. They were forced to put several of their wartime leaders on trial for war crimes, but Finland was allowed to conduct the trail themselves, in their own courts, under their own laws.

With Finland firmly in the “neutral” camp of the Cold War, even the Soviets relented, voluntarily reducing the debt Finland had to pay and giving the country its naval base back. In 1955, Finland officially joined the United Nations, welcomed into the postwar world as an equal among the nations of the world.

Of course, this is just one of many bizarre and fascinating stories from the smaller countries that fought in World War II. Let me know if you would like for me to cover more stories like these in future blog posts!