It sometimes seems as if there’s nothing new that can possibly be said about World War II, but over the weekend I read Henrik Lunde’s Finland’s War Of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Alliance in World War II, and while it’s not the most gripping war narrative you’ll ever read, it certainly does advance some new ideas.
The German-Finnish alliance is a bit of a historical curiosity. Only one democratic country — Finland — allied itself with Nazi Germany. This is anomalous to the point that the official line out of Finland is that it didn’t happen. The official story, as I understand it, is that Finland coincidentally fought a war with the Soviet Union (the “Continuation War”) that happened to be taking place at the same time as the Germany invasion of the U.S.S.R. and that also happened to involve German troops operating on Finnish soil. This was not how Western policymakers understood events at the time, which in turn led to the similarly anomalous fact that Finland spent the Cold War essentially inside the Soviet sphere of influence.
Lunde argues that the alliance really was quite strange and in ways that mattered. He argues that the Finns blundered into what they meant to be a limited war for limited territorial objectives without recognizing that by signing up for Hitler’s war of aggression, they’d committed themselves to a situation in which only the complete destruction of the Soviet Union could produce a Finnish victory. The Germans, meanwhile, likewise blundered by ignoring the Finnish front. Initially Hitler was far too conservative about defending Norway from the phantom menace of a British amphibious assault, and then the Germans simply failed to nail down real Finnish commitment to the war effort. Consequently, Finland achieved its limited territorial ambitions and then just kind of stopped rather than pushing east to seize and cut the railroad to Murmansk during Operation Barbarossa. Lunde mostly focused on micro-level description of what was happening on the Finnish front, but he makes a digression aimed at persuading us that the entry of Lend-Lease aid via the Murmansk route was critical to keeping the Soviet Union in the war. The theory, in other words, is that a well-managed alliance between Finland and Germany could have produced victory on the Eastern Front.
It’s a fascinating argument, but Lunde arguably donwplays the possibility that Finnish policy was in fact optimal. It’s almost never the case that it’s a smart idea to lose a war you’ve launched, but it’s actually difficult to see how a German victory would have served Finnish interests better than the actual outcome. Finland could have attempted to stay neutral, but a great many neutral countries found themselves invaded anyway so there’s no guarantee here. Lunde argues that there was a lost opportunity for Finland to (re-)enter into a political union with Sweden, but this would clearly have done a worse job of preserving Finnish independence than their actual policy. Between Finland’s smaller population and its large Swedish-speaking minority, this would basically be Swedish conquest of Finland. Long story short, being geographically located between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army was bad news for everyone involved during the years in question. If you read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin , it’s hard to miss the fact that Finland’s population suffered dramatically less than that of anyone else in that position.