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Caught in the Middle - The Continuation War

During the Winter War of 1939 Finland enjoyed the moral support, if not the material support, of the majority of the world. So, how did it find itself caught between the USSR, Germany, and the Allies during what would be known as the Continuation War?

Article from GlobalSecurity.org.

The sudden admission of defeat by the Finnish government shocked the Finnish people, who had been misled by overly optimistic government reports on the military situation; however, the resilience of democratic society helped the people to absorb defeat without undergoing radical change. Instead, the Finns threw themselves into two major tasks: absorbing the 400,000 refugees from the ceded territories, and rearming.

In the succeeding months, Soviet meddling in Finnish affairs and other overbearing actions indicated to the Finns a continuing Soviet desire to subjugate Finland. Among other actions, the Soviets demanded the demilitarization of the Aland Islands (not called for by the Peace of Moscow), control of the Petsamo nickel mines, and the expulsion of Vainö Tanner from the Finnish government. More ominously, the Soviets demanded to send an unlimited number of troop trains through Finnish territory to the Soviet base at Hanko.

Occurring at about the same time that the Soviets annexed the Baltic states in June and July 1940, the Finns began to fear that they would be next. When Soviet foreign minister Viacheslav Molotov visited Berlin later that year, he admitted privately to his German hosts that the Soviets intended to crush Finland. The Finnish-Soviet Peace and Friendship Society (Suomen-Neuvostoliiton rauhan ja ystavyyden seura–SNS), a communist-front organization that quickly gained 35,000 Finnish members, conducted subversive activities in open defiance of the Finnish government. The SNS was banned in August, thus preserving public order, but on other matters of concern to the Soviets the Finnish government was forced to make concessions. Unknown to the Soviets, however, the Finns had made an agreement with Germany in August 1940 that had stiffened their resolve.

Hitler soon saw the value of Finland as a staging base for his forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. The informal German-Finnish agreement of August 1940 was formalized in September, and it allowed Germany the right to send its troops by railroad through Finland, ostensibly to facilitate Germany’s reinforcement of its forces in northern Norway. A further GermanFinnish agreement in December 1940 led to the stationing of German troops in Finland, and in the coming months they arrived in increasing numbers. Although the Finnish people knew only the barest details of the agreements with Germany, they approved generally of the pro-German policy, and they were virtually unanimous in wanting to recover the ceded territories.

By the spring of 1941, the Finnish military had joined the German military in planning for the invasion of Russia. In midJune the Finnish armed forces were mobilized. It was not politically expedient for the Finnish government to appear as the aggressor, however, so Finland at first took no part in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22. Three days later, Soviet aerial attacks against Finland gave the Finnish government the pretext needed to open hostilities, and war was declared on June 26. Finland thus appeared to be defending itself against an act of Soviet aggression, a posture that helped unite the Finnish people for the war effort.

The Finns called this conflict the Continuation War, because it was seen as a continuation of events that began with the Winter War. What began as a defensive strategy, designed to provide a German counterweight to Soviet pressure, ended as an offensive strategy, aimed at invading the Soviet Union. The Finns had been lured by the prospects of regaining their lost territories and ridding themselves of the Soviet threat. In July 1941, the Finnish army began a major offensive on the Karelian Isthmus and north of Lake Ladoga, and by the end of August 1941, Finnish troops had reached the prewar boundaries. By December 1941, the Finnish advance had reached the outskirts of Leningrad and the Svir River (which connects the southern ends of Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega). By the end of 1941, the front became stabilized, and the Finns did not conduct major offensive operations for the following two and one-half years.

Finland’s participation in the war brought major benefits to Germany. First, the Soviet fleet was blockaded in the Gulf of Finland, so that the Baltic was freed for training German submarine crews as well as for German shipping activities, especially the shipping of vital iron ore from northern Sweden and nickel from the Petsamo area. Second, the sixteen Finnish divisions tied down Soviet troops, put pressure on Leningrad, and cut one branch of the Murmansk Railroad. Third, Sweden was further isolated and was forced to comply with German wishes.

Despite Finland’s contributions to the German cause, the Western Allies had ambivalent feelings, torn between their residual goodwill for Finland and the need to support their vital ally, the Soviet Union. As a result, Britain declared war against Finland, but the United States did not; there were no hostilities between these countries and Finland. In the United States, Finland was highly regarded, because it had continued to make payments on its World War I debt faithfully throughout the interwar period. Finland also earned respect in the West for its refusal to allow the extension of Nazi anti-Semitic practices in Finland. Jews were not only tolerated in Finland, but Jewish refugees also were allowed asylum there. In a strange paradox, Finnish Jews fought in the Finnish army on the side of Hitler.

Finland began to seek a way out of the war after the disastrous German defeat at Stalingrad in January-February 1943. Negotiations were conducted intermittently between Finland on the one side and the Western Allies and the Soviet Union on the other, from 1943 to 1944, but no agreement was reached. As a result, in June 1944 the Soviets opened a powerful offensive against Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus and in the Lake Ladoga area. On the second day of the offensive, the Soviet forces broke through Finnish lines, and in the succeeding days they made advances that appeared to threaten the survival of Finland. The Finns were equal to the crisis, however, and with some German assistance, halted the Russians in early July, after a retreat of about one hundred kilometers that brought them to approximately the 1940 boundary. Finland had been a sideshow for the Soviets, however, and they then turned their attention to Poland and to the Balkans. Although the Finnish front was once again stabilized, the Finns were exhausted, and they needed desperately to get out of the war. Finland’s military leader and national hero, Gustaf Mannerheim, became president, and he accepted responsibility for ending the war.

In September 1944, a preliminary peace agreement was signed in Moscow between the Soviet Union and Finland. Its major terms severely limited Finish sovereignty. The borders of 1940 were reestablished, except for the Petsamo area, which was ceded to the Soviet Union. Finland was forced to expel all German troops from its territory. The Porkkala Peninsula (southwest of Helsinki) was leased to the Soviets for fifty years, and the Soviets were given transit rights to it. Various rightist organizations were abolished, including the Civil Guard, Lotta Svard, the Patriotic People’s Movement, and the Academic Karelia Society. The Communist Party of Finland (Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue–SKP) was allowed legal status. The size of the Finnish armed forces was restricted. Finland agreed to pay reparations to the Soviet Union. Finland agreed to hold war crimes trials. Finally, an Allied Control Commission, which was dominated by the Soviets, was established to check Finland’s adherence to the terms of the preliminary peace. This preliminary peace treaty remained in effect until 1947, when the final Soviet-Finnish peace treaty was signed. Although Finland had been defeated for a second time, it had managed to avoid occupation by the Soviets.

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