The Continuation War was fought between Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II; from June 25,1941, to armistice September 19, 1944. The United Kingdom declared war on Finland on December 6, 1941, but didn't participate actively. Material support from, and military cooperation with, Nazi Germany was critical for Finland's struggle with the big neighbor. The war was formally concluded by the Paris peace treaty of 1947.
The Continuation War (Jatkosota in Finnish) is so named because it by the Finns is perceived as a continuation of the Winter War (November 30, 1939, to March 12, 1940). Seen from a Russian perspective, it was merely one of the fronts of the Great Patriotic War. The war was, however, considered separate from the World War by Finland and the Soviet Union – an understanding not quite appreciated by Finland's chief supporters, the Nazi leadership of Germany.
Although the Continuation War was fought in the periphery of World War II, and the engaged troops were relatively few, the history of this war is intriguing as it challenges many a conventional wisdom on the World War. Not the least, it refutes the popular theory that democratic countries don't wage war against each other.
During the conflict, Finland acted in concert with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, that in turn was allied to Britain and, for most of the period, the United States. Democratic Finland's association with Nazi Germany was, and remains, controversial in the European democracies threatened and occupied by the Nazis. The issue was less controversial in Finland, and in retrospect a relatively broad Finnish consensus asserts, that the Finns as a people would probably not have survived the war without this cooperation with Nazi Germany.
Major events of World War II, and the tides of war in general, had significant impact on the course of the Continuation War:
- Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) is closely connected to the Continuation War's beginning.
- The Allied invasion of France (Battle of Normandy) was coordinated with the Soviet conquest of Viipuri, Finland's second largest city, leading to a five week long alliance between democratic Finland and Nazi Germany (June 26 to August 4 1944).
- The following US/Soviet race to Berlin facilitated the end of the Continuation War by rendering Northern Europe irrelevant.
Aims of war
Finland's principal goal during World War II was, although nowhere literally stated, to survive the war as an independent country, capable to mind its own businesses in a politically hostile environment. Specifically for the Continuation War, Finland aimed at reversing her territorial losses under the March 1940 Moscow Peace Treaty and by extending the territory further east, to guarantee the survival of the Finnic brethren in East-Karelia. Finland's exertion during the World War was, in the former respect, successful, although the price was high in war casualties, reparation payments, territorial loss, bruised international reputation and subsequent adaptation to Soviet international perspectives.
The Soviet Union's war goals are harder to assess due to the secretive nature of the Stalinist Soviet Union. Intelligence, as interrogations of POWs, clearly indicated military control of all of Finland's territory as the immediate military goal in both the Winter War and the Continuation War. This is congruent with a (postulated) Russian long-term strategic goal of securing ice-free harbors at the Atlantic and the North Sea. The Soviet Union of the 1930s was however a militarily weak power, and it can be argued that all of her policies up to the Continuation War best are explained as defensive measures (however by offensive means): The sharing of Poland with Nazi Germany, the annexation of the Baltic states and the attempted invasion of Finland in the Winter War can all be seen as elements in the construction of a security zone between the perceived threat from the Capitalist powers of Western Europe and the Communist Soviet Union – similar to the post-war establishment of Soviet satellite states in the Warsaw Pact countries and the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance concluded with post-war Finland. Accordingly, after Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa, June 22, 1941), the Red Army's attack on Finland, harboring not yet unleashed German forces, can be seen as a preemptive or preventive attack aiming to protect Russian civilians and troops: Through control of Finland's territory, the threat against Leningrad (i.e. the old imperial capital Saint Petersburg) and the important harbor in Murmansk was to be fended off. The fate of a couple of millions of Finns was, surely, a lesser concern when Leningrad was at stake.
In November 1939 the Soviet Union had commenced an invasion of Finland (the Winter War), allegedly in order to improve her own strategic position in Eastern Europe in preparation for a possible widening of the war. After the Moscow Peace Treaty ending the Winter War, Public Opinion in Finland longed for the re-acquisition of the homes of the 12% of Finland's population who had been forced to leave Karelia in haste. The peace treaty was perceived as a great injustice. It seemed as if the losses at the negotiation table, including Finland's second town Vyborg, had been worse than on the battlefield. A fifth of the country's industrial capacity had been lost. The average Finn had absolutely no trust in the Soviet Union's willingness to settle permanently for less than a wholly occupied Finland – in particular not after the Baltic countries had been sovietized in a way that looked very much like the initial Soviet plan of the Winter War.
The ongoing war between Germany and Western Allies had damaged Finnish industry and blocked Finland's Baltic Sea routes to Great Britain and the Commonwealth, forcing Finland to seek alternate markets in and through Germany. Securing import of foodstuff and fertilizers from Germany was also of great importance.
Then there was a vociferous minority opinion which since the 1920s had advocated the extension of Finland's territory eastwards to incorporate ethnically akin Finnic peoples under Soviet oppression. To advocates of such expansion, Finland's security policy focusing on the League of Nations, the politically akin democratic Western countries, Scandinavia, and particularly Sweden had led to a total failure. In these expansionist circles was commemorated Imperial Germany's role in the "White" government's victory over rebellious Socialists during the Civil War in Finland. Seeing the contemporary brand of European democracy as too soft on Communism, similar to in the defeated Western European countries, made an alliance with Germany all the more appealing; since in Germany Communists were no longer.
The experience from World War I emphasized the importance of close and friendly relations with the victors, why Nazi Germany was intensely courted immediately after the Winter War despite the fact that Germany had been the ally of the invader. Finland got a new Cabinet with a Foreign Minister, Rolf Witting, less British-minded and more in the taste of the Germans; and the energetic Toivo Mikael Kivimäki became ambassador in Berlin. Their mission was to regain the support of Germany, after her abandoning Finland to the Soviet sphere of influence.
Finland was still in a state of war, never revoked from the previous conflict. Field Marshall Mannerheim remained commander-in-chief, censorship was not abolished but rather used to facilitate closer relations with Germany, and the military retained supremacy over civil authorities. Propaganda in the censured press could contribute to Finland's re-orientation with very measured means. Finns in general were bitterly disappointed in the European democracies, who had offered plenty of sympathetic words, but no regular troops, to Finland's support during the Winter War. The feelings towards the remaining democracies Sweden and Britain, which had been hold in very high esteem during the 1930s, cooled off – a process further emphasized by their defeat against the "New Germany" seeming to be only a matter of time.
From August 18, 1940, Finland secretly negotiated with Germany on military cooperation, buying artillery and other badly needed weapons – for Germany this was in breach of the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Finland in return facilitated German troop transfers to Finnmark in Northern Norway (occupied by Germany since June-July 1940).
Through the potential presence of German troops on Finnish territory, Finland hoped to deter further Soviet threats, which in turn would threaten to involve Germany on Finland's side. This was also seen to counterbalance USSR's troop transfer right through Finland to the Soviet naval base at the Hanko peninsula in western Finland, which had been handed over as a result of the Winter War.
This secret Finno-German agreement undermined not only the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but constituted a material breach of the Moscow Peace Treaty (ending the Winter War), which in fact was chiefly targeted against cooperation between Germany and Finland. It has in retrospect been disputed whether the ailing President Kallio was informed. Possibly the then-premier Risto Ryti, in concert with Field Marshal Mannerheim, took it as their responsibility during Kallio's illness.
Adolf Hitler had not been interested in Finland before the Winter War. Now he saw the value of Finland as a base for his forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), and perhaps also the military value of the Finnish army. The German-Finnish agreement negotiated in August 1940 was formalized in September. It allowed Germany the right to send its troops by trucks and busses through Finland, ostensibly to facilitate Germany's reinforcement of its forces in northern Norway.
A further German-Finnish agreement in December 1940 led to the stationing of German troops in Finland (mainly in the vicinity of the northern border to the Soviet Union) and in the coming months they arrived in small but increasing numbers, establishing quarters, depots and bases along the road to Norway, which later would be used for the concentration of troops aimed for Northern Russia.
Although the Finnish people knew only the barest details of the agreements with Germany, the pro-German policy was generally approved, especially among the displaced Karelians who wanted to recover the ceded territory of Karelia.
Coordination with Germany
By the spring of 1941, the German army's standing was at its zenith, and its victory in the World War seemed more than likely.
The Finnish military was aware of the German plans for invasion of Russia, although Hitler's real intentions remained unclear. An uncertainty still prevailed as to whether Hitler really intended to attack the Soviet Union before the Battle of Britain was concluded. Through military contacts, Germans hinted to Finns that they could possibly persuade the Germans to obtain Soviet concessions; and the Finnish general Aksel Airo delivered in late May 1941 five alternate border rearrangement drafts to the Germans, who should then propose the best they could bargain to the Soviets. In reality, the Germans had no such intentions, but the exercise served to fuel the support among leading Finns for taking part in Operation Barbarossa.
However, the Finns had in the past bitterly learnt how a small country can be used as small change in the deals of great powers, and in such case Finland could have been used as a token of reconciliation between Hitler and Stalin, which the Finns had every reason to fear, why the relations with Berlin were considered of utmost priority for the future of Finland.
Race issues were reasons of particular concerns: The Finns were not viewed favorably by the Nazi race theorists. By active participation on Germany's side, Finnish leaders hoped for a more independent position in post-war Europe, through the removal of the Soviet threat and the incorporation of the akin Finnic peoples of neighbouring Soviet areas. This view gained increasing popularity in the Finnish leadership, and also in the press, during the preparations for the awaited outbreak of hostilities between Germany and the Soviet Union.
Voices advocating closer ties with Germany grew stronger and the voices advocating armed neutrality within Finland's new borders (some among the Social Democrats, and some of the more left-leaning in the Swedish People's Party) softened. Contacts with Sweden's Conservative Foreign Minister Günther showed an enthusiasm unusual for the Swedes for the anticipated "Crusade against Bolshevism".
Finland's army under Marshal Mannerheim felt it had a broad political support for increasing cooperation with Germany, and accepted not only to put virtually half of the Soviet-Finnish border under German control, but also to put Finnish army units under German command. Some officers (for instance many of them with background in the Finnish Jaeger troops) were happy with this, others less so. Civilian politicians were not deemed fit for this kind of over-sensitive information.
What began for the Finns as a defensive strategy, designed to provide a German counterweight to Soviet pressure, ended as an offensive strategy, aimed at re-conquest of formerly Finnish Karelia and an invasion of East-Karelia in the Soviet Union. The Finns had been lured by the prospects of regaining their lost territories and ridding themselves of the Soviet threat into becoming a party to Nazi Germany's planned invasion of the USSR.
Outbreak of the war
The signs and rumors of the German assault on Russia heaped up, and on June 9 partial mobilization was ordered, and the northern Finish air defense troops consisting of 30,000 men were put under German command. In practice Germany already held the northern half of the border to Russia. On June 14 the 3rd Army Corps was mobilized and put under German command. On June 17 general mobilization took place, and on June 20 Finland's government ordered 45,000 people at the Soviet border to be evacuated. On June 21, Germany finally informed Finland's General Staff chief, Erik Heinrichs, that the German attack was to begin.
The Finnish government didn't wish to appear as the aggressor; the popular support for such a move was deemed insufficient, and international relations would have suffered in vain. The Finnish government's wish not to appear as the aggressor may explain why Finland took no part in the initial German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22. Hitler's public statement gave a different impression, however; Hitler declared that Germany would attack the Bolshevists "(...) in the North in alliance ["im Bunde"] with the Finnish freedom heroes". Finland actually had declared herself neutral, but had already before Germany's assault contributed with mines in the Gulf of Finland, in accordance with German wishes.
Three days later, reports of Soviet bombing of the towns of Helsinki, Turku and Porvoo gave the Finnish government the needed pretext to open hostilities, and war was declared on June 26. After Finland's declaration of war, the German troops in Northern Finland started their offensive against the Soviet Union on June 28, a week after the actual start of Operation Barbarossa.
On July 10, the Finnish army began a major offensive on the Karelian Isthmus and north of Lake Ladoga. Mannerheim's order of the day clearly states that the Finnish involvement was an offensive one. By the end of August 1941, Finnish troops had reached the pre-war boundaries. The crossing of the pre-war borders led to tensions in the army, the Cabinet, the parties of the parliament, and domestic opinion. Military expansionism might have gained popularity, but it was far from unanimously championed.
Also international relations were strained - notably with Britain and Sweden, whose governments in May and June confidently had learned from Foreign Minister Witting that Finland had absolutely no plans for a military campaign coordinated with the Germans. Finland's preparations were said to be purely defensive.
Sweden's leading Cabinet members had hoped to improve the relations with Germany through indirect support of Operation Barbarossa, mainly channeled through Finland. PM Hansson and FM Günther found however, that the political support in the Cabinet and within the Social Democratic organizations turned out to be insufficient, particularly after Mannerheim's July 10 Order of the Day, and even more so after Finland by deeds had commenced a war of conquest. A tangible effect was that Finland became still more dependent on food and munitions from Germany.
In December 1941, the Finnish advance had reached the outskirts of Leningrad and the River Svir (which connects the southern ends of Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega). By the end of 1941, the front stabilized, and the Finns did not conduct major offensive operations for the following two and a half years. The fighting morale of the troops declined when it was realized that the war would not end soon.
Germany's eastern campaign was planned as a blitzkrieg lasting a few weeks. British and US observers likewise believed at first that the invasion would be concluded before August. In the autumn of 1941 this turned out to be wrong, and leading Finnish military officers started to mistrust Germany's capacity. German troops in Northern Finland faced circumstances they were not properly prepared for, and failed also badly to reach their targets, most importantly Murmansk. Finland's strategy now changed. A separate peace with the Soviet Union was offered, but Germany's strength was too great. The idea that Finland had to continue the war while putting the own forces at the least possible danger gained increasing support, perhaps in the hopes that the Wehrmacht and the Red Army would wear each other down enough for negotiations to begin or at least to get them out of the way of Finland's independent decisions. Some may also have still hoped for an eventual victory by Germany.
Finland's participation in the war brought major benefits to Germany. 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, especially for the vital iron ore from northern Sweden and nickel and rare metals needed in steel processing from the Petsamo area. Finnish front secured the northern flank of German Army Group North in the Baltic states. The sixteen Finnish divisions tied down numerous Soviet troops, put pressure on Leningrad - although Mannerheim refused to attack - and threatened the Murmansk Railroad. Sweden was further isolated and was increasingly pressured to comply with German and Finnish wishes, though with limited success.
Despite Finland's contributions to the German cause, the Western Allies had ambivalent feelings, torn between residual goodwill for Finland and the need to accommodate their vital ally, the Soviet Union. As a result, Britain declared war against Finland, but the United States did not. There was no combat between these countries and Finland, but Finnish sailors were interned overseas. In the United States, Finland was highly regarded, partly due to having continued to make payments on its World War I debt faithfully throughout the inter-war period.
The Allies often characterize Finland as one of the Axis Powers, although the term used in Finland is "co-belligerence with Germany". Finland later also earned respect in the West for the strength of its democracy and its refusal to allow extension of Nazi anti-Semitic practices in Finland. Finnish Jews served in the Finnish army; and Jews were not only tolerated in Finland, but most Jewish refugees also were granted asylum (less than 20 of the more than 500 refugees were handed over to Germany). The field synagogue in Eastern Karelia was probably unique on the German side during the War.
About 2,600-2,800 Soviet prisoners of war were given to the Germans. Most of them (around 2,000) joined Russian Liberation Army. The rest were mainly army officers and political officers (and a handful of Jewish refugees), most of them dying in Nazi concentration camps while some were given to the Gestapo for interrogation. Sometimes these handovers were demanded in return of arms or food. Sometimes the Finns received Soviet prisoners of war in return. These were mainly Estonians and Karelians willing to join the Finnish army. These, as well as some volunteers from the occupied Eastern Karelia, formed the Tribe Battalion (Finnish: "Heimopataljoona"). At the end of the war, the USSR required that the members of the Tribe Battalion were to be handed over to the Soviet Union. Some managed to escape before or during the transport, but most of them were either sent to the Gulag camps or executed.
In 1941, already before the Continuation War, one battalion of Finnish volunteers joined the German Waffen-SS with silent approval of the Finnish government. It has been concluded that the battalion served as a token of Finnish commitment to cooperation with Germany. This battalion, named the Finnisches Freiwilligen Bataillon fought as part of the 5th SS Wiking Division in the Ukraine and Caucasia. The battalion was pulled back from the front in May 1943 and was transported to Tallinn where it was disbanded on July 11. The soldiers were transferred into different units of the Finnish army.
The end of the war
Finland began actively to seek a way out of the war after the disastrous German defeat at Stalingrad in January-February 1943. Edwin Linkomies formed a new cabinet with the peace process as the top priority. Negotiations were conducted intermittently in 1943-44 between Finland and its representative Juho Kusti Paasikivi on the one side and the Western Allies and the Soviet Union on the other, but no agreement was reached.
Instead, on June 9 1944, the Soviet Union opened a major offensive against Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus and in the Lake Ladoga area (it was timed to accompany the Battle of Normandy). On the second day of the offensive, the Soviet forces broke through the Finnish lines, and in the succeeding days they made advances that appeared to threaten the survival of Finland. Finland especially lacked modern anti-tank weaponry, which could stop heavy Soviet tanks, and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop offered them in exchange for a guarantee that Finland would not again seek a separate peace. On June 26 President Risto Ryti gave this guarantee as a personal undertaking, which he intended to last for the remainder of his presidency. In addition to material deliveries, Germany sent some assault gun brigades and a Luftwaffe fighter-bomber unit to temporarily support the most threatened defense sectors.
With new supplies from Germany, the Finns were now equal to the crisis, and halted the Russians in early July 1944, after a retreat of about one hundred kilometers that brought them approximately to the same line of defense Finns were holding at the end of Winter War, Viipuri(Vyborg)-Kuparsaari-Taipale(VKT)-line running from Vyborg to Vuoksi river and along the river to Lake Ladoga, where Soviet offensive were stopped in the Battle of Tali-Ihantala. Finland had already become a sideshow for the Soviet leadership, which now turned their attention to Poland and south-eastern Europe. Although the Finnish front was once again stabilized, the Finns were exhausted and wanted to get out of the war.
Mannerheim had repeatedly reminded the Germans that in case their troops in Estonia would pull back, Finland would be forced to make a peace at even very unfavorable cost. Soviet-occupied Estonia would have provided the enemy favorable base for amphibious invasions, air attacks against Helsinki and other cities and strangled Finnish access to the sea. When the Germans indeed withdrew, Finnish urge to end the war increased respectively. Perhaps because of realizing validity of this point, initial German reaction to Finland's announcement of separate peace was limited to vocal opposition only.
President Ryti resigned, and Finland's military leader and national hero, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, became president, accepting the responsibility for ending the war.
On September 19 1944, an armistice (practically a preliminary peace treaty) was signed in Moscow between the Soviet Union and Finland. Finland had to make many limiting concessions: The Soviet Union regained the borders of 1940, with the addition of the Petsamo area. The Porkkala Peninsula (adjacent to Finland's capital Helsinki) was leased to the USSR as a naval base for fifty years (but returned in 1955), and transit rights were granted. Finland's army was to demobilize in haste. And Finland was required to expel all German troops from its territory. As the Germans refused to leave Finland voluntarily, the Finns had no choice but to fight their former supporters out of Finland in the Lapland War.
In retrospect the Continuation War might be seen as the result of a series of political miscalculations by the Finnish leadership in which Finland's martial abilities clearly outshone her diplomatic skills. The matter has been thoroughly scrutinized in Finland, and many commentators also hold that Finland was a victim of bad luck in addition to any failings on its own part, being forced to make a choice in a situation when any of the available alternatives would result in being attacked by either side. According to the prior proceedings of war at the time, Finland chose the alternative that seemed back then to provide better chances of post-war survival. The aged Field Marshal Mannerheim might have been responsible for a couple of misjudgments, such as for instance the infamous Order of the Day of July 10, 1941, but at the end of the war he had earned a remarkable reputation among former foes and allies, in Finland as well as abroad, which to a considerable degree eased Finland's extrication from a potentially disastrous undertaking.
In any event, Finland's fate was no worse than any other country struck by the World War - quite the contrary. Finland had defended her territory and her civilians with more success than most other European countries. Only 2,000 Finnish civilians were killed during World War II, and only relatively narrow border regions had been conquered by force. For nearly three years until June 20, 1944, when Vyborg fell, not one major Finnish town was besieged or occupied.
After the war, Finland preserved her independence while adjusting her foreign policy to avoid offence to the USSR, now the world's second superpower, a concession which the Soviet government reciprocated by surrendering part of its gains from the postwar settlement and refraining from too obvious intrusions in Finland's domestic affairs. To Moscow, an independent Finland seemingly was a price worth paying for keeping Sweden formally neutral in the Cold War, a quid pro quo that for forty years safeguarded wider Soviet strategic interests in the region.
- Paasikivi doctrine
- Paasikivi-Kekkonen Line
- List of Finnish wars
- Finnish naming of geographical locations