Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Between a rock and a hard place -- Finland in World War II

World War II is full of amazing stories, but one that gets relatively little attention in the U.S. is Finland's odyssey between 1939 and 1945.

I think it's astounding that Finland escaped World War II basically intact. It's like being in a plane wreck and getting away with just a broke arm.

It's always tough for a small country to be located near a powerful one. A Mexican politician once lamented that Mexico was fated to "be so far from God and so near the United States." I expect that there are similar sayings in the lore of countries like Vietnam and Portugal. How much harder, still, for those small countries caught between two antagonists, like Belgium or Korea.

So the fact that Finland was able to escape the maw of the biggest war in history without being chewed up and spat out is a testament to their fortitude and good sense.

And interestingly enough, they managed this feat while being on the wrong side, to boot.

Most people sympathize with the Finns about the Winter War, their unsuccessful defense against the Soviets over the winter of 1939-1940. There have been a fair number of games covering that conflict, from the classic SPI game Winter War to newer titles such as A Frozen Hell. It's not uncommon to see scenarios from the Winter War in scenario wargames like ASL. In my collection there are scenarios from the 39-40 fighting in Axis & Allies: Miniatures, Down in Flames (shown above) and Check Your 6!

What's usually passed over with little comment is the Continuation War, where the Finns joined the Germans in Barbarossa. My first exposure to the Finns was in the old Avalon Hill game Stalingrad, where they were one of the Axis minor allies. At the time there was little to set them apart from the other Axis minors other than the fact they're units were a little better and the fact that they were dangerously isolated from the rest of the front. In the games we played in our little circle Soviet players usually wiped out the Finns to eliminate a threat to Leningrad. I remember wondering back then, as a teen, why the Finns would take the chance.

Of course the Finns were a lot tougher than that game reflected, and the Soviets had enough on their plate that they couldn't spare the resources needed to crush Finland. But eventually, as the tide turned, the Finns could see the inevitable result and made their arrangements with the Soviets to exit the war. What amazes me is that the Soviets let them.

One wonders if the indomitable spirit the Finns demonstrated had something to do with this. Perhaps the Finns earned the respect of the Russian elites. And the restraint Finland showed during the Continuation War may also have had something to do with it. Despite a lot of pressure from the Germans, the Finns refused to go beyond the limits of the territory they lost to the Russians in the Winter War. And they refused to join actively in the siege of Leningrad.

So unlike all the other Axis minor allies, the Finns avoided being overrun by the Soviets and were allowed to retain their independence during the Cold War (and sensibly, they didn't push their luck, remaining reliably neutral).

Still, the Continuation War gets a lot less attention than the Winter War in western histories. There's the uncomfortable fact that Finland was a co-belligerent with Nazi Germany. But that co-belligerence was an important distinction. Finland and Germany were not allies. Finland did not ship its Jews off to German death camps. And that distinction was noticed in an era that seemed able to recognize subtle distinctions. The United States never even actually declared war on Finland, for example.

Also reducing interest, I think, is that the Continuation War was not particularly fierce. The Finns reined themselves in, and one gathers that the Soviets did little to provoke them. What serious fighting did occur tended to be between those German forces the Finns allowed to operate and the Soviets near Murmansk. Operating at the very far end of the logistical capabilities, the Germans were not able to succeed against the Soviet defenders at Murmansk, which was honored as a hero city.

Many Eastern Front wargames leave the Finnish front out entirely, or just include the portion near Leningrad. Usually there are special rules that prevent the Germans from making the Finns into the sort of potential threat that caused Stalingrad players to sweep the Finns off the board.

I've had a soft spot for Finland's story in World War II. I think they were truly between the rock and the hard place, yet managed to navigate throught treacherous waters to emerge with polity and integrity intact, if not a little battered.


  1. "Finnish Front, 1941-42", a recent magazine game (W@W #5) from Decision Games, covers the Continuation War. It's an exciting game and a great design by Joseph Miranda.

  2. I actually did some reading about this yesterday. I was reading a biography of Sir Winston Churchill and it mentioned Finland. 1940 was around the darkest time of WWII. It was all still Germany and no one was putting up much of a fight. The Soviet-German pact meant that Britain was basically alone.

  3. Greetings from Finland, nice to read about your thoughts. Keep it up!