Guide: H6 WWII (2/2)

or the Second Half of Chapter VIII of A Guide to Finland, titled “Finland in the Second World War”

* * *

Continuation War (1941-1944)

Now, those that know the general history of the Second World War (and I’m afraid even the above has been terribly confusing if you don’t) know that initially Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, went well. Invasions of Russia usually do, for a while. So it was for the co-belligerent Finns, too: as the Wehrmacht was quite something for the Soviets to handle, there weren’t so many Reds facing the Finns, and the revenge-hungry, innocent boys of the north marched and fought and with barely an effort reached the old borders and went even a bit beyond them.

Not much, though: the Finn in command of the military operations — Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, who had been a general in the Russian Tsar’s army when there still was such a thing — wanted to be a moderate in some things. Thus Finns stopped short of Leningrad’s walls, and short of the railway that ran south from Murmansk to the Soviet heartland and carried American aid.

There were Germans in Finland, too: as waging an offensive war is a very man-intensive business, the northernmost parts of Finland’s east border (Lapland, that is) were given over to German forces (coming from Nazi-occupied Norway) that waged a rather unsuccessful war there.

Meanwhile Finns, not being such great conquerors, stopped at the river Svir (Syväri in Finnish), dug in, and started to wait and see. Soon things were rather World War I — not the screaming mass attacks bit, but the trenches and endless waiting sort. (Oh, the term Continuation War — Jatkosota in Finnish — was used to indicate that the Winter War hadn’t been all there was, and this was payback. Also, Finns have this knack for really imaginative names.)

Here’s a map of the thing. You can see Leningrad (nowadays Sankt-Petersburg or something like that) there, right? The big lake to the northeast of it, with the red arrow in it, is Ladoga (or Laatokka in Finnish). The big lake to the northeast of that is Onega (Ääninen in Finnish), with the city of Petrozavodsk (Petroskoi) by it; the river Svir (Syväri) flows from Onega to Ladoga, and was where Finnish soldiers sat for the most of 1942 and 1943, wondering what the fuck they should do now; surely no-one thought they were supposed to go to Kamchatka all by themselves? (The modern Finnish-Russian border corresponds roughly to the Interim Peace border. The pre-Winter War border was only a dozen miles from the outskirts of Leningrad on the Isthmus, and halfway to Svir on the north side of Ladoga. Vyborg/Viipuri, lost in both wars but once the second largest city of Finland, is in a bay on the southern coast of the Isthmus, just on the Russian side; you might need to zoom in to see it.)

(Google Maps seems to insist on labeling Helsinki, Finland’s capital, as Helsingfors, which is the Swedish form of the name — ah well.)

The most worrisome thing about this stilled state of affairs was that Finland was occupying lands somewhat beyond its old borders — and the inhabitants there (and the new ones in Karelia) of course mostly weren’t Finns or even distant relations; Finland’s ally/co-belligerent being who it was, the Finnish solution to this was to round up those that seemed likely to be troublesome, and those that were expected to be moved out of the old Finnish lands once the borders were restored; and this rounding-up resulted in concentration camps.

Now, don’t panic yet — a concentration camp is “just” a clutch of people in poor hygiene and with barely adequate food and care; Finns weren’t neurotic and psychotic enough to turn the camps into ones of extermination. What losses there were (admittedly higher than in the civilian population) were mostly due to disease and malnutrition. (Still, this is one more of those things that more perceptive Finns remember, and feel somewhat uneasy about. War corrupts everyone.)

So time passed: Finnish soldiers made cows out of pinecones and sticks (the cone is the body; you need four twigs for the legs), lined their trenches with pretty stones, made constructive use of their knives whittling and making wooden figurines, and occasionally got drunk, got a holiday to go home to do the hay, or then just acted in disrespectful and oafish ways towards their officers. The people evacuated at the end of the Winter War returned to their homes and rebuilt their lives (and occasionally homes) the best they could. Meanwhile, elsewhere, people died, bullets flew and bodies grew colder, and the German invasion of Russia turned to Stalingrad, and then to a rout.

While general-issue Finns aren’t much for geopolitics (I believe I have mentioned this several times already), Finnish generals and politicians were somewhat sharper, and after the debacle of Stalingrad careful feelers of peace were sent eastwards: beggars can’t be choosers, and a tiny nation can’t be too proud in the cruelest of all wars if it wants to survive.

Well, I believe I have also mentioned this gentleman called Josef Stalin several times, too. He wasn’t inclined to do anything except the old “Stalin smash!” routine. Finns were lucky his bomber-planes couldn’t get up to more than a 5% accuracy, and his soldiers had plenty of other things to do.

In the summer of 1944, around the time American boots hit the ground in Normandy, there was finally land action: a big Soviet offensive against the Finnish positions, guns on guns and tanks after tanks. Against guns you can just hunker down; against tanks there’s not much you can do if you don’t have anti-tank guns, and Finns didn’t. Many tries with guts and petrol canisters (Finns say Finns invented the Molotov cocktail, by the way) showed the new heavy Russian tanks weren’t as easy prey as the Winter War targets, and thus — since to fight a war you need guns — the Finnish president Ryti went to the metaphorical devil, and personally signed a treaty with the German foreign minister, Ribbentrop: Ryti would not lead Finland to seek a separate peace if it only got the Panzerfausts and Panzerschrecks it needed. (Those bazookas translate to Panssarinyrkki and Panssarikauhu in Finnish, and to something like Tankfist and Tankfear in English — the Finnish names sound considerably less silly.)

These weapons stabilised things for a while, but eventually the endless enemy pushed again, attacked with overwhelming force, and Finns retreated, civilians crying their way away from their homes for the second time — away from Onega, away from Ladoga, back to the outskirts of Vyborg-Viipuri. There a battle was fought, called that of Tali-Ihantala: 50 000 Finns against three times as many Soviets, the former again running out of all supplies (except, of course, courage and the perverse unwillingness to die unless your teeth are clenched at the jugular of the world; Finns call it sisu, and it is something between bravery and stubborn stupidity), and eventually the Soviets were halted again. Then Stalin, eager to extricate his troops and press for Berlin, finally agreed to a peace settlement. His generals had whispered to him, depending on how you want to put it, that either doing this again and again until all Finland was occupied would bleed the Soviet Union dry; or then that this much bloody hassle for such a place as Finland simply wasn’t worth it.

Now, you remember president Ryti and his agreement with Ribbentrop? Good. Did you notice that I called it a personal agreement? I did that on purpose, and so did the president: he resigned, the parliament appointed marshal Mannerheim as the president, and dropped to his platter the matter of ending the war, which he performed with due alacrity. On September 4, 1944, the armistice started.

Well, if you were a Finn it did. The Soviets kept on shooting, just for the fun of it, for an additional 24 hours.

The borders went to those decreed at the end of the Winter War, plus a bit more off the northeastern part of Finland, plus a military base from the coast, plus lots and lots of money. Plus the Finnish army had to demobilize, like, yesterday. Oh, and those Germans in the northern parts of Finland? Fourteen days to kick them out or something terrible happens.

And the kicking-out of those Germans is the final part of Finland’s world war.

Lapland War (1944-1945)

Now, Lapland — I hope you know Lapland (or Lappi in Finnish) is the northern part of Finland, almost the northern half of it, beyond the forests and lakes: fells and rolling tundra with nothing much except a Sami here and a reindeer there. That was where German troops had waged a war against the Soviet border there, without much success, not really making much of a fuss of themselves. Now when Finland sent soldiers northwards — all the while shedding them back to the sorry state of being a civilian, too — the Germans retreated quite amicably at first. (“Sheesh! Okay, I know when I’m not wanted. Fine! I’m going — look, I’m going already! No need to wave that bayonet around!”)

Well, as even small good things don’t usually last, there was some haste and a bit of bitterness, and eventually a large portion of the north’s towns and villages went up in flames. (A cad might note it would have been worse had this been a part of Finland that, even on Finland-scale, actually had much anything flammable except an occasional very dry reindeer — but I won’t say such a thing. Scorched earth is no joking matter.)

And where were the Germans going? Well, they retreated to northern Norway, and from there to the shrinking husk of the evil Nazi state. Finns stopped at the Norwegian border, put down their rifles, and waited to see what would happen next.

The final peace-terms (Paris, 1947) were much like those of the armistice: a border adjustment (“Finland! Now with 10% off!”), hefty reparations, and a general message that the Soviet bear would really, really like to not be messed with again. The reparations were 300 million US dollars, that is, an immense shitload, all to the Soviets. Paying that, and paying it all, motivated Finland into building some serious industry — the thing about Finns is that they will sweat blood and shit barbed wire paying their punishment, no matter how injust, no matter how great a cretin the receiver, rather than give anyone the chance to say they did not comply. (After the reparations were paid this trucking of paper and metal products eastwards became a rather lucrative trade to the newly-built Finnish industries.)

The curious thing, though, was that unlike all other Axis countries and their allies Finland wasn’t fought all over or occupied: the war stopped at the eastern borders, and excepting bombers and a bit of naval action hadn’t ever been anywhere else. Given what a war can do rolling over a country Finns were very lucky, but at that moment they did not feel like it — should they celebrate what was left, or mourn what they had lost, or fear the future?

Oh, and the losses of this second round? For the Finnish side, with roughly 500 000 Finns and 200 000 Germans in arms (the Germans safely in the relatively unharassed north), the dead and wounded numbered 200 000. Do consider, if you so will, the significance of these numbers for a population of three and a half million: one in seven was in arms, and nearly half of that came back damaged or not at all. Most Finnish villages, no matter how small, have a crowded nook in their churchyards for the victorious dead.

The Soviets deployed over one million men at any one given time, replenished all the time as they were ground down, and 600 000 came back damaged or not at all. These were much stiffer losses than those of the Winter War; but it is that first iteration of these hostilities that shines the brightest in Finnish memories — it’s one thing to fight alone as the great war lies stilled for a while, and quite another to be just another theatre of the greatest military grief of the century, and an ally of the dragon against the leviathan.

Now, one final thing — Finland wasn’t occupied, and Finland didn’t become a communist travesty of a nation, either, like East Germany and Poland and all those other violated puppet-states. Instead — this is the Finnish view and it is largely true — Finland became this little country in between: declining the help of the Marshall Plan because that would have irritated the Soviets, and resisting a membership in the Warsaw Pact because that would have been falling off the other side of the knife. That had some untoward side effects over the years — when you live next to fitfully sleeping bear, you tend to whisper a lot. Finland kept dancing on that knife-edge between east and west for forty-five years, never bowing so deep to the Soviets it would have meant mooning the West, and vice versa.

Then, in around 1990, the Soviet Union disintegrated, no doubt worn down by long years of preparing for a Finnish invasion. (Well, one can hope.)

Before turning to those years after 1945 — long dangerous years full of politics and devoid of exciting action — a word about the lost lands of Karelia, twice lost in the Second World War, needs to be said.

There still are some Finns who yearn for the return of Karelia: Ladoga Karelia (between the current border and lake Ladoga) and the Karelian Isthmus (between Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland), and sing and speak of the sweet lands beyond the border where their grandfathers lived when they were boys. Most are romantics resigned to this loss being for ever; others still wish and plan.

The writer can’t really sympathise with that lost cause: most of the people are here in Finland, as life under Stalin didn’t seem all that enticing to them, and Karelia is settled by people who have lived there for over sixty years: Ukrainians and others brought there by Soviets wishing to make some use of the new, disquietingly empty borderland. They’re not Finns, and no matter the way their ancestors came there, who would have the heart to evict them, even if a giant country could actually stomach giving some of its land to a smaller neighbor? And with them there, what right do Finns have to demand their lands? Maybe it’s true that if you get away with villainy for long enough, it becames so that it would be an equally great crime to set things to how they were.

Not that that has ever stopped dreamers, and Finns have this tendency to always long for things they can’t ever get. That’s yet another part of the Finnish psyche; and one more is the tender, proud way they remember their great romance, a lost war fought against a tyrant, with monsters for allies.

(Oh, one final note. The English Wikipedia has long, fact-rich articles on the Winter War, the Continuation War and the related subjects, with more details and nuances than this writer can or will include — and thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks, the weird names and terms there can be puzzled out rather quickly. Also, the writer seems to recall that William Trotter’s A Frozen Hell was a quite good and very evocative account of the Winter War.)

Prev: WW II (1/2)Contents — Next: Cold war

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