Saturday, August 6, 2011

Finland's War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II by Henrik O. Lunde

Over half a century after the conclusion of the Second World War there are still areas that are simply begging for more research. Henrik Lunde has discovered one such area and has gone through great lengths to provide a highly detailed operational history of Finland's Continuation War from the point of view of the Axis powers. The initial chapter discusses the position Finland assumed after gaining her independence from Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution. The Winter War is then discussed, including Finland's stand against the Soviet Union. The eventual defeat suffered at the hands of the Red Army created an environment where Finland found itself succumbing to German pressure and needs and moving further away from her independent/democratic stance to a more reliant alliance with and on Germany.

Up to this point there is a variety of literature available, especially on the Winter War. What Lunde seems to gloss over is the Soviet aspect of the political and diplomatic maneuverings that he covers, for which there is also plenty of literature available (in English). The author could have added much more detail to his narrative if he bothered to consult a few more secondary sources that are readily available in detailing the position of the Soviet Union on the eve of both the Second World War and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Lunde's text is regularly marred by the lack of attention he pays to the Soviet side. Granted, this is not a book that aims to retell the story of the Continuation War from the Soviet point of view, but adding in relevant context and detail that's available in English would not have hurt the overall narrative.

This book can readily be divided into two sections after the invasion of the Soviet Union commences. The operations undertaken in 1941 and early 1942, and those undertaken in 1944. The initial operations feature the Finns taking back the territory they lost in the Winter War, with German help, and then holding back from taking additional territory (aside from a few pieces here and there to help in terms of defensive lines). What follows for the rest of the 1942 and 1943 is a stagnation of the frontlines with limited combat activity as the Germans lack the forces necessary to do anything on their own and the Finns refuse to budge and help with the taking of Leningrad or cutting off Murmansk. Lunde also goes into great detail discussing how the Finns really have no excuse in terms of their guilt in starting this 'War of Choice'. They had planned for it and they cannot simply get out the position they dug themselves into by saying that the Soviets began the war. Lunde shows quite well that German divisions were already stationed in Finland, German planes were operating out of Finnish airstrips and both the Finns and Germans participated in the mining of the Baltic. While it is true that Finnish forces did not begin combat operations until after Soviet forces began bombing Finland, according to Lunde, this was mainly done to garner public support in believing in the myth that Finland was undertaking a defensive war rather than an offensive one.

The second section of the book deals with 1944 and the various attempts by the Finns to get out of the war, while the Germans were attempting to keep them in and eventually had to withdraw/evacuate their units after Finland signed a treaty with the Soviets. Here the majority of combat activity belonged to the Soviets, who initiated numerous offensives and pushed back the Finns and Germans and demonstrated that combined arms operations were a possibility even in the arctic conditions found in the far north of Lapland. Lunde praises the German ability to evacuate the majority of their forces but also admits that many Soviet forces were withdrawn after their initial successful operations to other areas of the Eastern Front and so could not commence or continue operations that would have netted greater gains against the Germans.

Throughout the Continuation War the Germans assumed a very interesting position in relation to Finland. Often times they were bereft of any real choice in terms of operations against the Red Army unless the Finns acquiesced to their demands. And more often than not the Finns simply held back as they had achieved everything they wanted. Unfortunately they did not think things through well enough to understand that if the Germans were to be successful in defeating the Soviets they would be at Hitler's mercy and if the Third Reich were to fall they could hardly do anything of worth against the forces of the Red Army.

Aside from the above mentioned limited representation the Soviets get, there were a few other weaknesses. In mentioning the losses the Soviets suffered in the Winter War the author is unfortunately not aware the official numbers were published years ago in English and are readily available, he, however, quotes inflated estimates. There is mention of the Soviet occupation of the Baltics but nothing to put it into context with Soviet foreign policy and the fact that the occupation only came with the defeat of the last continental power in Europe, France. At times the author doesn't go to the trouble of quoting his sources and, lastly, by the latter part of the book, the author (or maybe editor) forgets that Soviets units were 'rifle' not 'infantry' (for instance, Lunde discusses a 'light infantry corps' when in fact it was a 'light mountain rifle corps'). This at times makes for difficult reading as German and Finnish forces are also listed as 'infantry' and it becomes difficult to separate them all when there are dozens being mentioned.

Nonetheless, overall, this is a fascinating look at the Continuation War and Finland's alliance with the Third Reich. How both attempted to use and help the other and the final results of a dictatorship allying with and at times being at the mercy of a democracy.

13 comments:

Keir said...

From a philosophical perspective, I would be interested to know on what basis the Finns could look back on the war with guilt "in starting this 'War of Choice'." What choice? Lake Lagoda and all land surrounding it was lost. The capital had been bombed a mere four years earlier. How is 'liberating' land illegally seized in a war of aggression something to be ashamed of?

T. Kunikov said...

It was a choice on the part of Finland to let German troops onto their territory, to let German planes operate on their airbases, and to help the Germans mine the Baltic. While Finland was caught in a harsh position when it came to the Winter War, there is little such a nation can do when dealing with a neighbor the size of the Soviet Union, who has its own security and defense to worry about. Nevertheless, the actions of the Soviet Union during the Winter War do not merit a Finnish reaction that includes Finnish forces helping the Germans unleash a genocidal campaign against the Soviet Union.

Keir said...

I admit to knowing nothing about the Finnish side of the war, but knew they were embarrassed to be co-belligerents of the Germans (but not allies).
Letting the Germans onto their territory. They're fighting the same beast, no? Why on earth wouldn't they? Or would one recommend Belgium's policy of refusing British and French assistance? Ditto the other three propsotions. Everyone by 1941 knew about the USSR's use of gulags, holodomor, show trials and massacres, etc. Knew about it since the Red Terror of 1918. How were they to know the Germans could possibly be to that level? I also doubt the Finns were in the know of the extermination campaign which, I assume, took place after the Finns joined forces. The Einsatzgruppen never touched Finnish territory. No death camps anywhere near. But the Finns would have been only too ready to believe the truth about Katyn.
I don't have an agenda; just trying to look at it without the benefit we do of hindsight, but remembering the unjustified aggression the USSR unleashed against the Finns, which led them to be kicked out of the League of Nations.

Keir said...

Just to clarify- I haven't a masters. I teach Stalinist Russia and would like to get an informed and different viewpoint. I get paranoid posting comments online as they tend to get misconstrued as aggressive posturing or such.

T. Kunikov said...

>>Letting the Germans onto their territory. They're fighting the same beast, no? Why on earth wouldn't they?

This occurred before the invasion of the Soviet Union, there is a difference.

>>Everyone by 1941 knew about the USSR's use of gulags, holodomor, show trials and massacres, etc. Knew about it since the Red Terror of 1918. How were they to know the Germans could possibly be to that level?

I don't see the relevance of the above to my review. But if you're trying to say that everything about the Soviet Union was known (which it wasn't, and what was known was regularly questioned), then why do you believe that Germany's actions within her own borders and in Polish territory were not known?

>>I also doubt the Finns were in the know of the extermination campaign which, I assume, took place after the Finns joined forces. The Einsatzgruppen never touched Finnish territory. No death camps anywhere near. But the Finns would have been only too ready to believe the truth about Katyn.

You are omitting context and jumping to conclusions. Fact of the matter is that even if the Finns were not aware of Germany's actions, and to an extent everyone knew as the Germans were happy to propagandize concentration camps, etc., the fact that Leningrad was starving was quite well known to the Finns, and they continued to participate in the war.

Tytti said...

Oh, where to begin! I found this blog through Amazon and because I like a good debate every now and then decided to answer as a youngish Finn with an interest and some studies in history. My opinions are personal but probably reflect how many others think. (I do have read more about these matters than most, though, but haven't seen this book in question.) I will answer first to some issues in the review itself and later to comments if I feel like it.

"Lunde also goes into great detail discussing how the Finns really have no excuse in terms of their guilt in starting this 'War of Choice'. They had planned for it and they cannot simply get out the position they dug themselves into by saying that the Soviets began the war."

I think I can speak for many in saying that Finns don't really feel quilty over it. One reason: Winter War (hence the Continuation War). Other reasons... general understanding that there would be another war against Soviet Union, general distrust of Soviet plans because of decades of dealing with them (and Russia), the current situation in the world and a general belief that Stalin was still going to occupy the country because of the constant pressure coming from there (for example shooting down a passenger plane), probably others, too, like the issue of Stalin purging tens of thousands of Finnish/Karelian people in Soviet Karelia in the 1930s. And the whole starting thing is just, well, trivial.

"Here the majority of combat activity belonged to the Soviets, who initiated numerous offensives and pushed back the Finns and Germans and demonstrated that combined arms operations were a possibility even in the arctic conditions found in the far north of Lapland."

I'm not certain what the author means by this but my understanding is that Finnish military command didn't particulary want to "combine arms operations" with Germans. But granted, the most northern front is pretty unknown to me, just because it was mainly "German" front and nothing really interesting happened there, at least from the Finnish perspective. (Well, the whole war was pretty boring most of the time.) On the other hand, during the summer offensive in 1944 the co-operation between Finns and Detachment Kuhlmey was vital. To recognize their importance Finland erected a memorial for them in 1994.

Tytti said...

(Continued...)

"Unfortunately they did not think things through well enough to understand that if the Germans were to be successful in defeating the Soviets they would be at Hitler's mercy and if the Third Reich were to fall they could hardly do anything of worth against the forces of the Red Army."

How patronizing! So you really think that Finns are/were that stupid and not know the dilemma of the situation? This is why both the political and military leaders took great care to walk that fine line without overly committing Finland to Germany and still keeping them content enough to help (and not try to occupy the country). But the situation was difficult, for example in the winter/spring of 1942 (when the snow was still on the ground) it was estimated that there was food left for only three weeks or so in the country, then the famine would start. I also remember Mannerheim saying something to effect that whatever happens, Finland and Soviet Union will continue to be neighbours and they would not forgive us destroying Leningrad. That is one of the reasons why Finland didn't take part in the siege. Our help would most likely have finished the town.

"There is mention of the Soviet occupation of the Baltics but nothing to put it into context with Soviet foreign policy and the fact that the occupation only came with the defeat of the last continental power in Europe, France."

Excuse me? Frankly I don't think that Stalin couldn't have care less about France, this is the first I have even read about this "connection". Stalin's plans had been pretty clear from the beginning and the secret protocal of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact shows it. And of course there was the Winter War and all that pressure I was talking about earlier.

Now I have only answered some of these claims very briefly and left a lot of information out because frankly explaining the whole situation to a foreigner with (what seems like) very little knowledge of our history is sort of impossible. In Finland there has been a lot of discussion about the Continuation War over the last decades and the more you know the more complicated it gets. But it is mainly over "smaller" issues, not the big picture I'm talking about here. For example I haven't really heard one believable way that Finland would have been able to avoid the Continuation War, except maybe in hindsight. But the thought that Finnish leadership had not become de facto allies with Germany would be scarier and most likely would have resulted in the Soviet occupation. And that was the chance they could just not take.

T. Kunikov said...

Oh, where to begin! I found this blog through Amazon and because I like a good debate every now and then decided to answer as a youngish Finn with an interest and some studies in history. My opinions are personal but probably reflect how many others think. (I do have read more about these matters than most, though, but haven't seen this book in question.) I will answer first to some issues in the review itself and later to comments if I feel like it.

Well, thank you for taking the time to 'visit' and comment.

"Lunde also goes into great detail discussing how the Finns really have no excuse in terms of their guilt in starting this 'War of Choice'. They had planned for it and they cannot simply get out the position they dug themselves into by saying that the Soviets began the war."

I think I can speak for many in saying that Finns don't really feel quilty over it. One reason: Winter War (hence the Continuation War). Other reasons... general understanding that there would be another war against Soviet Union, general distrust of Soviet plans because of decades of dealing with them (and Russia), the current situation in the world and a general belief that Stalin was still going to occupy the country because of the constant pressure coming from there (for example shooting down a passenger plane), probably others, too, like the issue of Stalin purging tens of thousands of Finnish/Karelian people in Soviet Karelia in the 1930s. And the whole starting thing is just, well, trivial.


I'm sure Finland had its reasons, but the point that Lunde made stands in that there is no excuse in regards to Finland's guilt.

"Here the majority of combat activity belonged to the Soviets, who initiated numerous offensives and pushed back the Finns and Germans and demonstrated that combined arms operations were a possibility even in the arctic conditions found in the far north of Lapland."

I'm not certain what the author means by this but my understanding is that Finnish military command didn't particulary want to "combine arms operations" with Germans. But granted, the most northern front is pretty unknown to me, just because it was mainly "German" front and nothing really interesting happened there, at least from the Finnish perspective. (Well, the whole war was pretty boring most of the time.) On the other hand, during the summer offensive in 1944 the co-operation between Finns and Detachment Kuhlmey was vital. To recognize their importance Finland erected a memorial for them in 1994.


I don't think you understood what I meant by combined arms operations. Combined arms operations means operations undertaken with cooperation between artillery, infantry, tanks, and the air force (something that was lacking during the Winter War).

T. Kunikov said...

"Unfortunately they did not think things through well enough to understand that if the Germans were to be successful in defeating the Soviets they would be at Hitler's mercy and if the Third Reich were to fall they could hardly do anything of worth against the forces of the Red Army."

How patronizing! So you really think that Finns are/were that stupid and not know the dilemma of the situation? This is why both the political and military leaders took great care to walk that fine line without overly committing Finland to Germany and still keeping them content enough to help (and not try to occupy the country). But the situation was difficult, for example in the winter/spring of 1942 (when the snow was still on the ground) it was estimated that there was food left for only three weeks or so in the country, then the famine would start. I also remember Mannerheim saying something to effect that whatever happens, Finland and Soviet Union will continue to be neighbours and they would not forgive us destroying Leningrad. That is one of the reasons why Finland didn't take part in the siege. Our help would most likely have finished the town.


I don't believe the Finns were naive but I find it hard to believe that they fought they could walk a fine line in regards to either Hitler or Germany. Their choices were limited, there's no doubt about it, but to think that the Soviets would be forgiving to Finland for walking a fine line seems preposterous considering the Winter War in general.

"There is mention of the Soviet occupation of the Baltics but nothing to put it into context with Soviet foreign policy and the fact that the occupation only came with the defeat of the last continental power in Europe, France."

Excuse me? Frankly I don't think that Stalin couldn't have care less about France, this is the first I have even read about this "connection". Stalin's plans had been pretty clear from the beginning and the secret protocal of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact shows it. And of course there was the Winter War and all that pressure I was talking about earlier.


Not at all. Just because you haven't read anything doesn't mean information is unavailable. The Soviet Union only moved to fully occupy the Baltic states after the fall of France was assured, not before. That isn't a simple coincidence. Furthermore, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was about spheres of influence, not invasions and occupations. The Soviets had no idea what the future held, they simply wanted a say in said future.

Now I have only answered some of these claims very briefly and left a lot of information out because frankly explaining the whole situation to a foreigner with (what seems like) very little knowledge of our history is sort of impossible. In Finland there has been a lot of discussion about the Continuation War over the last decades and the more you know the more complicated it gets. But it is mainly over "smaller" issues, not the big picture I'm talking about here. For example I haven't really heard one believable way that Finland would have been able to avoid the Continuation War, except maybe in hindsight. But the thought that Finnish leadership had not become de facto allies with Germany would be scarier and most likely would have resulted in the Soviet occupation. And that was the chance they could just not take.

That's your opinion, and you're entitled to it, but that doesn't change or alter anything I've written in my review as you're talking about 'what if' scenarios.

Tytti said...

"I'm sure Finland had its reasons, but the point that Lunde made stands in that there is no excuse in regards to Finland's guilt."

Well, does USA or UK feel guilt over actions of the Soviet Union? Has Russia even admitted all the stuff it did? Like the partisan attacts to civilian villages where even babies were slaughtered? No. Exactly what we should feel guilty about? There even was the "war quilt" trials organized after the war and some politicians served time in jail, including the former president Ryti. Of course they had to make up a law after the fact (against all principles of justice system) and the accused were forbidden to talk about many things, so everybody knew it was a farce. But it was demanded by the Allied Control Commission, lead by Zhdanov, so it was done.

"I don't think you understood what I meant by combined arms operations. Combined arms operations means operations undertaken with cooperation between artillery, infantry, tanks, and the air force (something that was lacking during the Winter War)."

Hmm... maybe there were some problems, who knows, but my point mainly was that the front was pretty "stagnant"(?) most of the war. Between December 1941 and summer 1944 there was not that much need for operations. (Mannerheim had ordered to stop the advancement.) The only major attack Finns made was in the battle of Suursaari. We did have reconnaissance troops that were active during that time, though, I had a relative in one of those. And Finland didn't really have tanks, the airforce was actually excellent but very small and old, and the artillery general didn't want to share his invention regarding the trajectory calculation formulas to Germans anyway. I have no idea what Germans were doing up north. As for the rest, stopping the attact in Tali-Ihantala and in other battles during the summer of 1944 probably speaks for itself.

"I don't believe the Finns were naive but I find it hard to believe that they fought they could walk a fine line in regards to either Hitler or Germany. Their choices were limited, there's no doubt about it, but to think that the Soviets would be forgiving to Finland for walking a fine line seems preposterous considering the Winter War in general."

Well they did, not sure how they managed it. No Finnish Jews were handed over to Germans, even though they asked for them, and Ryti sacrificed himself when agreeing to their terms to get weapons during the summer of 1944. Jews even fought in the Finnish army, they had a field synagogue 2 kilometres from Germans and three were awarded Iron Crosses which they refused. And like I mentioned earlier, Soviets let Finns organize the war quilt trials ourselves and as a result no Finn was executed or taken to Soviet Union. Stalin even seemed to respect Mannerheim and knew his importance, he was never charged with anything and resigned his post as a president in 1946 for medical reasons. Finland was also the only country between Soviet Union and UK involved in the war that was not occupied by either side.

Tytti said...

"Not at all. Just because you haven't read anything doesn't mean information is unavailable. The Soviet Union only moved to fully occupy the Baltic states after the fall of France was assured, not before. That isn't a simple coincidence. Furthermore, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was about spheres of influence, not invasions and occupations. The Soviets had no idea what the future held, they simply wanted a say in said future."

Yes, I know the timeline. But I also know that the first Soviet troops went to Estonia in the fall of 1939 (de facto occupation), after that their fate was pretty much sealed. And after Finland refused Stalin's demands, he invaded. And don't forget, Stalin had already annexed Eastern Poland. You seem to have a lot of trust for Stalin's good intentions, Finns didn't have any reason to trust him. The Terijoki Government was also a very good example of his plans. Finns knew what was at stake, many of us would have ended in forced labour camps. After all, Stalin had already executed practically the entire leadership of the Finnish Communist party exiled in Soviet Union.

"That's your opinion, and you're entitled to it, but that doesn't change or alter anything I've written in my review as you're talking about 'what if' scenarios."

Well it seems to me that you are the one talking about "what if" scenarios. We survived the war! We stayed independent! That was our goal. Estonia did what Stalin asked and paid the price. The only real criticique I've really seen so far is that we should feel guilty over something because a couple of Americans(?) seem to think so. No, it doesn't work that way. I understand and respect the decisions that our leaders made at the time. They were not always the best ones but that happens. That one author, who doesn't even know Finnish or Russian, tries to explain it differently, doesn't make him any more correct. (Lousy sentence but I'm tired.)

We have already listened for 50 years of Soviet Union telling us that we were responsible for the Mainila shots and the whole Winter War was pretty much forgotten. Yeltsin was the first who admitted that they started it. Even if one was to blame Finland for something, loosing some 12 % of the land (and making over 450 000 people homeless) and having to pay $300,000,000 ($4 billion in today's dollars) in war reparations would seem to be enough. My opinion is based on various books by Finnish researchers (how many have you read?) and some post-Soviet Russians', too, and documentaries I've seen over the years. I also had a father who remembered the war times and, like all Finns, relatives who fought in it.

T. Kunikov said...

Well, does USA or UK feel guilt over actions of the Soviet Union? Has Russia even admitted all the stuff it did? Like the partisan attacts to civilian villages where even babies were slaughtered? No. Exactly what we should feel guilty about? There even was the "war quilt" trials organized after the war and some politicians served time in jail, including the former president Ryti. Of course they had to make up a law after the fact (against all principles of justice system) and the accused were forbidden to talk about many things, so everybody knew it was a farce. But it was demanded by the Allied Control Commission, lead by Zhdanov, so it was done.

Well, you're no longer partaking in an argument, you're grasping at straws.

Hmm... maybe there were some problems, who knows, but my point mainly was that the front was pretty "stagnant"(?) most of the war. Between December 1941 and summer 1944 there was not that much need for operations. (Mannerheim had ordered to stop the advancement.) The only major attack Finns made was in the battle of Suursaari. We did have reconnaissance troops that were active during that time, though, I had a relative in one of those. And Finland didn't really have tanks, the airforce was actually excellent but very small and old, and the artillery general didn't want to share his invention regarding the trajectory calculation formulas to Germans anyway. I have no idea what Germans were doing up north. As for the rest, stopping the attact in Tali-Ihantala and in other battles during the summer of 1944 probably speaks for itself.

And your point was/is based on a straw man. You're not addressing my original argument, which was that the Red Army could succeed in offensive operations against Finland using combined arms operations.

Well they did, not sure how they managed it. No Finnish Jews were handed over to Germans, even though they asked for them, and Ryti sacrificed himself when agreeing to their terms to get weapons during the summer of 1944. Jews even fought in the Finnish army, they had a field synagogue 2 kilometres from Germans and three were awarded Iron Crosses which they refused. And like I mentioned earlier, Soviets let Finns organize the war quilt trials ourselves and as a result no Finn was executed or taken to Soviet Union. Stalin even seemed to respect Mannerheim and knew his importance, he was never charged with anything and resigned his post as a president in 1946 for medical reasons. Finland was also the only country between Soviet Union and UK involved in the war that was not occupied by either side.

Once more, you're creating your own argument. Nothing I mentioned discussed Finnish attitudes and/or actions toward Jews. As for Stalin's actions in the post-war period, Mannerheim wasn't a fortune teller, Finland took its chance and my original point, already buried under piles of your straw men, is that Finland cannot escape its guilt in the war.

T. Kunikov said...

Yes, I know the timeline. But I also know that the first Soviet troops went to Estonia in the fall of 1939 (de facto occupation), after that their fate was pretty much sealed.

It was not a 'de facto occupation', that's your personal interpretation, not historical fact.

And after Finland refused Stalin's demands, he invaded.

This is a vacuous statement.

And don't forget, Stalin had already annexed Eastern Poland.

Fallacious argument.

Well it seems to me that you are the one talking about "what if" scenarios. We survived the war! We stayed independent! That was our goal. Estonia did what Stalin asked and paid the price. The only real criticique I've really seen so far is that we should feel guilty over something because a couple of Americans(?) seem to think so. No, it doesn't work that way. I understand and respect the decisions that our leaders made at the time. They were not always the best ones but that happens. That one author, who doesn't even know Finnish or Russian, tries to explain it differently, doesn't make him any more correct. (Lousy sentence but I'm tired.)

Well, now you're simply arguing with yourself.

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