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 WWII diplomacy experts: your thoughts please
skywarp989  [Team Member]
8/18/2009 11:03:02 AM EDT
I'm working on researching the political and diplomatic background of the Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. I've got what I *think* is a handle on it at this point, based on some reading I've been doing. I'm going to summarize my thoughts here, minus dates and names and many specifics, and I could really use some input on where I am wrong or mistaken or if I'm totally off base. :)

The time: 1938-39

The players:


Stalin anticipated war with Germany. Unique among European powers at the time, Stalin could see Europe and the League of Nations unraveling in front of him as Hitler consolidated his power and got concessions from the Allies, most notably and pointedly with the Munich talks. When the Allies, with Russia conspicuously absent from the table, basically gave Hitler Czechoslovakia (one of the USSR's few friendly border nations), Stalin knew that he couldn't count on them for support against Germany. He was on his own. To that end, first, he managed to secure a non-aggression treaty with Germany (which both parties knew was something of a time-delayed joke). In this treaty Stalin gained the "zone of influence" that the Allies had repeatedly denied him in their earlier talks. Given a new, free-er hand in the region, he took the opportunity to make his borders secure. His method for this was to create a "buffer zone" of nations, specifically the Baltics, that would engage into "mutual assistance" treaties with him for use in case of German aggression. Stalin, importantly, considered Finland a "Baltic" state, thus inside his zone of influence, and one whose border was frighteningly close to Leningrad proper, and one who had a "special" relationship with Germany already.


Germany and Finland had a sort of strange kinship after WWI. It was popular in Finland to look upon Germany as a "big brother" in terms of resisting Soviet encroachment, and this notion was even more popular in the USSR. In any case, Hitler had every intention of invading the USSR. To that end, prompting the Finns with subtle encouragement to antagonize the Reds was useful. I have not found anything to suggest that Germany actively sought the use of Finnish territory for aggression against Russia, but it is understandable that Stalin assumed they would.


In 1938-39 Finland found herself in a state of almost willful ignorance of European international relations, especially when compared to her giant Bear of a neighbor. The Olympics were set to be held in Helsinki in 1940, and a lot of national treasure and time was being devoted to that endeavor. Finland considered herself a "Scandinavian" nation (as starkly opposed to a "Baltic" one) and clung to the traditional ideals of "Scandinavian Neutrality." For this reason, almost alone, the Finnish leaders seemingly ignored the storm clouds rolling over Europe. The Finns believed that in the event of Soviet aggression they would have not only the French and British backing their play, but even possibly Germany, and therefore that Stalin wouldn't dare to press his luck there. Over the course of these two years, all those hopes unraveled and the Finns found themselves facing the USSR more or less alone.

How it went down:

Throughout 1938 there had been low-level talks between a strange Russian minister in Finland and Finnish leaders about certain security issues. Essentially, the USSR wanted a few small islands and a base on Finnish soil, along with an agreement to lend all necessary military aid including Soviet forces, to defend against international aggression. They said they were worried that a belligerent nation would either invade Finland and use her as a base for attack or would topple the Finnish government and replace it with one friendly enough to achieve the same purpose, and that Finland needed Soviet help to prevent this. (Germany was not mentioned in these talks, but it's pretty clear that's who the Russians were worried about.) Of extra concern was the proximity (about 30km) of the Finnish border to Leningrad.

Finland was suspicious of these requests. They were highly sensitive to the idea of Soviet troops on their soil –– they had only been independent of Imperial Russia for a few decades, after all, and had fought a bloody civil war to avoid communist rule. They saw little chance that if Soviet "aid" were rendered it would ever leave their soil, and their sovereignty and independence would be lost. Finland's consistent reply to these Soviet probes was that Finland's Scandinavian neutrality would prevent not only agreement to the proposed terms, but also negate the need for such precautions. The Finns argued that their government enjoyed strong popular support, an outright attack was unlikely because of their neutrality, and that because of their neutrality they could not allow any foreign troops on Finnish territory, especially in peacetime.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed Aug. 1939 and things started to get serious in Finland. Germany was no longer a possibly polarizing force on the Soviet issue. Finland watched as Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania (the "other" Baltic states) accepted terms from the USSR that were almost identical to the ones proposed to Finland (and would later become little more than Soviet satellites with puppet governments). Germany invaded Poland and drew Britain and France into the war. Suddenly, Finland was alone.

Talks between Finland and the USSR began to break down. The Finns began to consider certain concessions, a few small islands in the Bay of Finland, for one, but still wouldn't allow a Soviet base on Finnish territory. Toward the end of the talks, Stalin himself basically pleaded with the Finnish delegates to accept his terms for “mutual assistance.” He and Molotov hinted at “other measures” which could be taken to achieve their goals, but the Finns still didn't believe that they would be invaded. Exactly why they felt this way still isn't clear to me.

They were proved wrong, of course, after a phony border incident involving an artillery barrage that couldn't have come from the Finnish side of the border but that killed several Russian soldiers. (The Finns had removed their artillery to a distance far enough from the Russians to prevent such an event.) The huge columns of Soviet men and mechanized equipment that had been staging on the border for weeks rolled across and into what would become a three-month bloodbath, leading to the Russians gaining little more than they had asked for before the fighting, but the Finns maintaining their sovereignty.

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Rick-OShay  [Team Member]
8/18/2009 1:20:04 PM EDT
You left out the part of Poland invaded by the Soviet Union...
SS109  [Team Member]
8/18/2009 1:47:18 PM EDT
And remember Finland was part of Russia until it split off after WWI during the Russian Red/White war.

So the Soviets did have a claim on the country. Personally I am surprised that Stalin didn't take Finland in 1946. Maybe too worried about the Americans invading. Plus Finland majorly rolled over to the Soviets after WWII.
JAD  [Member]
8/23/2009 9:26:14 PM EDT
Originally Posted By SS109:
And remember Finland was part of Russia until it split off after WWI during the Russian Red/White war.

So the Soviets did have a claim on the country. Personally I am surprised that Stalin didn't take Finland in 1946. Maybe too worried about the Americans invading. Plus Finland majorly rolled over to the Soviets after WWII.

The Soviets actually ended up paying the Finns quite a bit in reperations when all was said and done.
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