My friend and his platoon skied through the forest, invisible in their white camouflage uniforms, to within firing range of a Soviet column. They then climbed nearby trees while carrying their rifles, waited until they could identify the Soviet officers in the light of the bonfire, shot and killed the officers, and then skied off, leaving the Soviets frightened, demoralised and leaderless.

Why did the Finnish army prevail for so long? One reason was motivation: the soldiers understood that they were fighting for their families, their country and their independence, and they were willing to die for those goals. Finally, the Finnish army, like the Israeli army today, was effective far out of proportion to its numbers, because of its informality that emphasised soldiers taking initiative and making their own decisions rather than blindly obeying orders.

But the tenacity and temporary successes of the Finnish army were just buying time. With the expected melting of the winter ice and snow in the spring, the Soviet Union could finally put its numerical and equipment superiority to use in advancing across the Karelian Isthmus and across the Gulf of Finland. Finland’s hopes depended on receiving assistance of volunteers, equipment and army units from other countries. What was happening on that diplomatic front? Widespread sympathy for little Finland bravely fighting the big Soviet aggressor inspired 12,000 foreign volunteers, mostly from Sweden, to come to Finland to fight. But most of those volunteers had not yet completed their military training by the time the war ended.

Realistically, the only countries from which Finland had any hopes of receiving many troops and/or supplies were Sweden, Germany, Britain, France and the US. Neighbouring Sweden, although closely connected to Finland through long-shared history and shared culture, refused to send troops out of fear of becoming embroiled in war with the Soviet Union. Although Germany had sent troops to support Finnish independence and had long-standing ties of culture and friendship with Finland, Hitler was unwilling to violate the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by helping. The US was far away, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s hands were tied by US neutrality rules resulting from decades of US isolationist policies.

A Finnish family fleeing the fighting. Photo/Getty Images

That left only Britain and France as realistic sources of help. Britain and France did eventually offer to send troops. But both were already at war with Germany, and that war was the overwhelming preoccupation of the British and French governments, which could not permit anything else to interfere.

In January 1940, the Soviet Union finally began to digest the lessons of its horrifying troop losses and military defeats in December. It assembled huge concentrations of troops and artillery and tanks on the Karelian Isthmus, where the open terrain favoured the Soviets. Finnish soldiers had been fighting continually at the fronts for two months and were exhausted. Early in February, Soviet attacks finally broke through the Mannerheim Line.

The conditions that the Soviet Union imposed in March 1940 were much harsher than the ones that the Finns had rejected in October 1939. The Soviets now demanded the entire province of Karelia, other territory farther north along the Finland/Soviet border, and use of the Finnish port of Hanko near Helsinki as a Soviet naval base.

But why, in March 1940, did Stalin not order the Soviet army to keep advancing and to occupy all of Finland? One reason was that the fierce Finnish resistance had made clear that a further advance would continue to be slow, painful and costly. The poor performance of the huge Soviet army against the tiny Finnish army had been a big embarrassment: about eight Soviet soldiers killed for every Finn killed.

After the March 1940 armistice, the Soviet Union reorganised its army and annexed the three Baltic Republics. Germany occupied Norway and Denmark in April 1940 and then defeated France in June 1940, so that Finland was now cut off from any possible outside help – except from Germany.

Bomb damage in Helsinki. Photo/Getty Images

Hitler decided to attack the Soviet Union the following year. While Finland had no sympathy with Hitler and Nazism, the Finns understood the cruel reality that it would be impossible for them to avoid choosing sides and to preserve their neutrality in a war between Germany and the Soviet Union: otherwise, one or both of those countries would seek to occupy Finland. Finland’s bitter experience of having to fight the Soviet Union alone in the Winter War made the prospect of repeating that experience worse than the alternative of an alliance of expedience with Nazi Germany. Finland declared it would remain neutral, but on June 25, Soviet planes bombed Finnish cities, giving the Government the excuse that night to declare that Finland was once again at war with the Soviet Union.

With the Soviet army preoccupied in defending itself against the German attack, the Finns quickly reoccupied Finnish Karelia. But Finland’s war aims remained strictly limited, and the Finns described themselves not as “allies” but just as “co-belligerents” with Nazi Germany. In particular, Finland adamantly refused German pleas to do two things: to round up Finland’s Jews (although Finland did turn over a small group of non-Finnish Jews to the Gestapo); and to attack Leningrad from the north while Germans were attacking it from the south.

Nevertheless, the fact remained that Finland was fighting alongside Nazi Germany. The distinction between “ally” and “co-belligerent” was lost on outsiders who did not understand Finland’s situation.

Finally, after the Soviet Union had made sufficient progress in pushing German troops out of the Soviet Union that it felt able to divert attention to Finland, in June 1944, it launched a big offensive against the Karelian Isthmus. Soviet troops quickly broke through the Mannerheim Line, though (just as in February 1941) the Finns succeeded in stabilising the front.

A 1939 cartoon depicting Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin sharing the world. Image/Getty Images

This time, Soviet territorial demands were almost the same as they had been in 1941. The Soviets took back Finnish Karelia and a naval base on the south coast of Finland. The Soviet Union’s only additional territorial acquisition was to annex Finland’s port and nickel mines on the Arctic Ocean. Finland did have to agree to drive out the 200,000 German troops stationed in northern Finland, in order to avoid having to admit Soviet troops into Finland to do that.

The peace treaty required Finland to pay heavy reparations to the Soviet Union: $300 million, to be paid within six years. Even after the Soviet Union extended the term to eight years and reduced the amount to $226 million that was still a huge burden for the small and unindustrialised Finnish economy. Paradoxically, though, those reparations proved to be an economic stimulus, by forcing Finland to develop heavy industries such as building ships and factories-for-export. That industrialisation contributed to the economic growth of Finland after the war, to the point where Finland became a modern industrial country (and now a high-tech country) rather than (as formerly) a poor agricultural country. In addition to paying those reparations, Finland had to agree to carry out much trade with the Soviet Union, amounting to 20% of total Finnish trade.

In those years of danger, Finland devised a new post-war policy for averting a Soviet takeover. It became known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line, after the two presidents who formulated, symbolised and rigorously implemented it for 35 years (Juho Paasikivi, 1946-1956; Urho Kekkonen, 1956-1981). The Paasikivi-Kekkonen line reversed the disastrous 1930s policy of ignoring Russia. Paasikivi and Kekkonen learnt from those mistakes. To them, the painful realities were that Finland was a small and weak country; it could expect no help from Western allies; it had to understand and constantly keep in mind the Soviet Union’s point of view. Maintaining the Soviet Union’s trust would require bending over backwards by sacrificing some of the economic independence, and some of the freedom to speak out, that strong unthreatened democracies consider inalienable national rights.

Here is Kekkonen’s explanation of the policy: “The basic task of Finnish foreign policy is to reconcile the existence of our nation with the interests which dominate Finland’s geopolitical environment … [Finnish foreign policy is] preventive diplomacy. The task of this diplomacy is to sense approaching danger before it is too close and take measures which help to avoid this danger – preferably in such a way that as few as possible notice that it has been done … A nation should rely only on itself.”

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