Added 28 February 2010.


Robert Edwards: White Death: Russia's War With Finland 1939-40

Before Hitler attacked the USSR and made Stalin into an ally of the west, the two dictators signed an infamous pact for pure reasons of self-interest in 1939, freeing both of them to go about their business for a while without fear of attack from the other. Hitler got most of Poland and was able to concentrate on dealing with the West, while Stalin was able to grab the rest of Poland and under secret clauses in the treaty took as the Soviet Union's sphere of influence the former Tsarist territories in the Baltic. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were cowed into submission, but Finland, for various reasons, was not. White Death is the story of the Fenno-Soviet war of 1939-40.

Given that most British people are hazy about Finland these days and associate it possibly mostly with saunas, blond women and skiing, it is interesting to learn that Finland was a major trading partner of the UK before the war, and that the Finns also had a sturdy reputation for paying off their debts. While the economic situation was praiseworthy, however, the political climate was still quite polarised in the wake of the Finnish Civil War in 1917 which had pitted Reds against Whites in a brutal conflict that had ended in harsh camps for the losers and order being imposed by the Germans. Mannerheim himself was a German noble who had served in the Tsarist army and retained much of his aristocratic outlook, hating Bolshevism but also despising the fascism of Hitler. Of the several languages he spoke, apparently Finnish was his least accomplished. The Finnish war leader nevertheless comes across as a political realist who begged the government to make some concessions to Soviet demands simply because he knew that in 1939 a war with Russia would be unwinnable for the Finns. Stalin, Molotov and Zhdanov are perhaps understandably painted in a fairly black dye, but the real opprobrium is reserved for the Finnish Bolshevik Otto Kuusinen, the titular head of the "Terijoki government", or Finnish Democratic Republic, a group of Finnish communists who were to form the Soviet's instrument of rule in the event of the complete victory that they were expecting. Hitler's role in this war was somewhat ambivalent, since he ostensibly adhered to the terms of the pact and sent no weapons to Finland and indeed gave the USSR indirect help, eg in the Baltic, but the author suggests that Göring, who had close links with Sweden through his deceased first wife, actually sorted out some aid for the Finns and tried to give the Swedes assurances about their future. Perhaps surprisingly, Mussolini with his admiration for the Finns and astonishment that Hitler should help the Bolsheviks comes across as one of the more sympathetic characters in the narrative.

Those who know anything about the actual war will recall that the Red Army gained an unenviable reputation for wishful thinking, political influence over command decisions and lack of coordination among its tactical arms that led to wholesale slaughter on the battlefield and some stunning defeats, notably the loss of two or three divisions around Suomasalmi. In fact the truth is somewhat more complex, although this is not to deny that the overall performance in the first month of the war was disastrous. The more talented general Shaposhnikov had in fact prepared a reasonably cautious and sensible plan, but was passed over in favour of a more ambitious scheme that seems in retrospective to have been a triumphalist view of a likely Finnish collapse, similar to the sad end of the Poles and the Baltic States. The same haphazard approach seems to have been taken towards both training and motivating the Soviet troops, some of whom mutinied, and one political commissar was murdered. Nevertheless when their own survival was threatened the Red Army rank and file fought defensively to the death, and in fact the Finns took very few prisoners. As Edwards notes, this stoic defence to the death is a Russian tradition. For their part the Finns lacked much modern weaponry, having largely ancient artillery pieces, few modern anti-tank weapons and almost no armoured vehicles of any description, and contrary to the view of the invincible Arctic warriors, also suffered from frostbite and other cold-related problems, although not to the same degree as their opponents, some of whom (notably around the Suomossalmi battlefields) were starving. They were however better armed with automatic weapons than the Soviet troops, which in the close quarters fighting of the forested terrain proved highly advantageous. The view of military commanders on both sides seems fairly even-handed, with Timoshenko (who subsequently took over the offensive) being shown as a politically adroit operator who was willingly to take high casualties if he could inflict the same on the enemy, but who also managed to break some of the damaging political control of operations. The political soldier Mekhlis comes across, understandably, as sinister, but a few of the Finns were also controversial, one commander being so shocked by the rampaging Red Army on his transfer from the Arctic to the Karelia-Ladoga region that he went on a three-day "bender".

The book is strongest when dealing with political events, both those causing the war and those it gave rise to. The important personalities on the Finnish side, especially Tanner and Mannerheim, are examined, but the frantic efforts of Finnish functionaries in London, Paris and Washington to buy modern arms (mostly in vain) are examined, as well as previous and contemporary efforts to form a collective Scandinavian defence (which would have been mainly Finland and Sweden) against the bruising pressures from both the USSR and Nazi Germany. In fact the political efforts of the Finns were to become overshadowed by Allied excitement at the prospect of using the conflict as an excuse for intervening in Scandinavia, which would include blocking German access to Swedish iron ore. The gap between reality and Allied aspiration - "Napoleonic" is the word Edwards uses - becomes glaring here, given that the British had only been able to send three divisions to France and had just one armoured division, while the French had placed all their hopes on the Maginot Line and were determined to keep any fighting off their own territory, even if it meant shifting on to that of others. Even Churchill does not come out too well from Edwards' account, although not as badly as Chamberlain and Daladier. In the event Hitler, having decided to safeguard Nazi interests in Norway and Sweden, struck more quickly and more ruthlessly, occupying the former country and cowing the latter but at the cost of much of the German navy. Thus the seemingly obscure events in the frozen forests of Finland had repercussions beyond what either Stalin or the Finnish Government intended. Even more far-reaching, however, would be the general reaction to the Red Army's reverses, namely a downplaying of its potential strength, especially by the Germans. Although Hitler had long nursed an ideological desire to destroy "Bolshevism", the poor showing of the Soviet forces in Finland may have helped him to carry along those who were worried about a war on two fronts in 1941. Even British politics absorbed some of the fallout from the war, with the pro-Soviet wing of the Labour Party being acutely embarrassed and somewhat tamed by Attlee as a result of their mistaken initial support for the USSR's action - a contrast with the Finnish communist who, when invited by Kuusinen to join his puppet government, thought long and hard and decided the enterprise was basically criminal.

If you are looking for a purely military history, this is probably not the definitive account of the Winter War: the politics of the European powers loom more to the forefront in later chapters, and there is not much detail on the campaign after the destruction of the Soviet units at Suomossalmi apart from highlights in the second, more successful, phase of the offensive. However the author has read a large number of sources (the bibliography is reasonably impressive) and the style is fairly easy to read, comments on the author's grammar and possible political stance on Amazon notwithstanding.

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