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Mannerheim Draws Lines in the Snow

By John M. Taylor
2/28/2018 • MHQ Magazine

A former Russian cavalry officer helped Finland win independence, then saved it from Stalin and Hitler.

On a pedestal across from the Central Post Office in Helsinki stands an imposing equestrian statue of Marshal Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, one of Finland’s greatest heroes. Statues are usually raised to victors, however, and in that regard Mannerheim barely qualifies. He is best remembered in the West for having fought two losing wars against Russia, one of them as an ally of Nazi Germany. Raised in the gallant tradition of Russian cavalry, Mannerheim led Finland’s White Army to victory against the country’s Russian-reinforced Red Guard in its 1918 civil war, then pursued careers— largely abroad—as a diplomat. He knew relatively little of armored warfare or air power when World War II crashed down on Finland in 1939. Then 72, he was reluctant to delegate and slow to reach decisions. He was not easy to work with and subordinates accustomed to his courtesy learned also to deal with harsh criticism. No one ever called Mannerheim a man of the people; his style was that of a feudal baron.

For all his faults, Mannerheim was a true Finnish nationalist. Despite being forced into a partnership with Germany, he had no use for the dictators of his day, and masterminded one of the most humiliating defeats Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union ever suffered, in the Winter War of 1939–1940. He then went on to save Finland from occupation and destruction, defying or cooperating with the world’s great powers to achieve these ends.

Today a parliamentary democracy, Finland is a relatively young country. Part of Sweden for centuries, it became a quasi- autonomous grand duchy of the Russian empire in 1809. This was an uneasy relationship, for the 19th century brought a surge of nationalism in Finland as elsewhere in Europe. In 1904 the Russian governor general in Helsinki was assassinated, and the next year saw a disruptive general strike.

The Bolshevik Revolution gave Finnish nationalists the opportunity they had long sought. In December 1917, with Russia in turmoil, Finland declared its independence. Although sentiment for independence was nearly unanimous, there was wide divergence as to what form of government the country should adopt. The conservatives’ continued ties with Germany provoked Finland’s Communist-supported left into revolt. In January 1918 Finnish socialists, backed by some 40,000 Russian soldiers, overthrew the conservative government in Helsinki. After only weeks of “independence,” Finland was on the brink of civil war.

The embattled parliament then made a curious choice, selecting a Russian-trained cavalry commander—an aristocrat who was not even fluent in Finnish—to bring order out of chaos.

Carl Gustav Mannerheim was born at Louhhisaari Manor in 1867 into a landed family in Askainen, in a Swedish-speaking enclave of Finland. When Gustav was 13, his father’s gambling undermined the family business and destroyed his marriage. As the younger son of a count, Gustav inherited the title of baron. He came under the care of a maternal uncle.

At 15 Gustav enrolled in the Finnish cadet corps at Hanima Military College, but he proved to be a disciplinary problem and was expelled in 1886. Through family connections, he gained admission to the Russian Nikolayev Cavalry School at St. Petersburg. He graduated in 1889 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the imperial cavalry. Promotion came quickly. He served with distinction in the Russo-Japanese War, being promoted to colonel for bravery in the Battle of Mukden in 1905 and decorated for helping organize Russia’s subsequent retreat from Manchuria.

Mannerheim’s career then took a strange twist. In the wake of a failed marriage, he embarked in 1906 on a mission for the Russian General Staff that would take him away from Russia for two years. He traveled first from Russian Turkestan to the Chinese border in the company of a prominent French archaeologist. He then traveled alone into China and Manchuria. Mannerheim appears to have played only a peripheral role in the “Great Game” between Russia and Britain to control Afghanistan, but this expedition to the Far East—almost certainly devoted to gathering intelligence—gave him a taste for international intrigue that he would never lose.

In 1910 Mannerheim was promoted to major general and, in part because he spoke Russian, was given command of Russian cavalry in Poland. Two years later he was appointed to Tsar Nicholas II’s imperial staff, where he was consulted for his extensive knowledge of cavalry tactics. Politically, Mannerheim was conservative but not reactionary. He was fond of the tsar and his family but was critical of the political repression that had followed the Russian Revolution of 1905.

When World War I broke out, Mannerheim took command of a cavalry brigade, which he led with distinction in Hungary and Romania. In December 1914 he received the Order of St. George for his service at the front. Three years later, at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, Mannerheim was in Odessa, recovering from a fall from a horse, and thus escaped the grim fate of tsarist officers in other cities.

Mannerheim decided that it was time to return to Finland, a thousand-mile journey that entailed passing through St. Petersburg. There he was appalled by what he saw, particularly the “democratization” of the Red Army. No democrat, he would complain in his memoirs, “It disgusted me to see generals carrying their own kit.”

Mannerheim reached Helsinki in December 1917, a retired lieutenant general and fervid anti-Communist. Finland was on the verge of civil war between pro-Bolshevik cadres along the Russian border (the Reds) and conservatives to the south dominated by the Whites. Many White Finns looked to the expatriate soldier for leadership, and the government tapped him to lead the country’s armed forces.

As a seasoned front-line officer, Mannerheim had solid military experience. He spoke Russian, French, and some German, though his other credentials were less clear-cut. Fifty years old, he had spent most of his adult life in Russia and his youth in a Swedish-speaking part of Finland. Yet he brought confidence and charisma to his new position. A British officer would describe him in 1919 as “the handsomest foreigner I have ever met, very tall [and] gracefully built.”

He did not suffer fools gladly. Years later, a visiting German officer asked whether it would bother the marshal if he smoked in his presence. “I don’t know,” Mannerheim icily replied. “No one has ever tried it.”

Mannerheim knew the strengths and the weaknesses of the Russian military now opposing him. In Helsinki he set about creating an effective fighting force, often commanded by former tsarist officers like himself. He trained his men to seek out isolated Red enemy units and to destroy them in detail, and he was tempted by the possibility of capturing St. Petersburg and handing it over to the White Russians. He expected Russia’s Whites to emerge victorious, and believed, mistakenly, that they were the side to be cultivated.

There was heavy fighting in January and February 1918. In his first general order, issued on February 23, 1918, Mannerheim swore not to sheath his sword until “Lenin’s last soldier and hooligan is driven…from Finland.” But the Reds had some 90,000 men, and Mannerheim only 40,000.

Over Mannerheim’s objections, the government requested aid from imperial Germany, and a 40,000-man expeditionary force arrived in April 1918. In the fighting that followed, many Finns were caught in the middle. A police report noted that the Russo-Finnish frontier was inhabited largely by poor farmers and crofters, and that “it is difficult to say whether the frontier district is red or white.”

White forces captured Helsinki in midApril and the brief civil war was over. In an order of the day issued in Helsinki, Mannerheim proclaimed, “The task of the army is accomplished. Our country is free.” In sharp contrast with Russia, Finland’s conflict had resulted in victory for the anti-Communists. But the war was an extremely traumatic event for Finland. It had made the country dependent on Germany. And Finland’s population of little more than three million people had absorbed some 30,000 casualties, and an estimated 80,000 revolutionaries spent time in government concentration camps. The Whites were vengeful victors. Some 13,000 Reds died in what would become known as the White Terror, many of them summarily shot. Historian William R. Trotter concludes, “If Mannerheim did not order these killings, he surely did little to stop them.” The White Terror would be the great blot on Mannerheim’s record.

A clause in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, imposed on Russia by Germany in March 1918, called for the Russians to withdraw their troops from Finland.

Slowly they did so, and on May 30, 1918, Mannerheim resigned his defense post, dismayed by Finland’s continued reliance on Germany at a time when the kaiser’s fortunes were on the wane.

Yet Mannerheim the private citizen remained an exceptionally persuasive spokesman for his country. That summer Mannerheim went to Stockholm, where he met with representatives of the soon-to-be victorious Allies and sought to distance Finland from Germany. In October 1918 he traveled to Great Britain, lobbying that country and the United States to recognize Finland’s independence, which they eventually did.The civil war in Finland had important repercussions. Internally, it created a cleavage between the left and the right that would last for decades, with the socialists viewing Mannerheim as a potential man on horseback.

In foreign relations, the war strengthened Germany’s position in Finland. Germany had been the only nation to help the Finns gain their independence.

The late autumn of 1918 brought more political turmoil. In November another general strike paralyzed the Finnish economy. The strike, and the revolutionary chaos that it threatened, united disparate conservative factions, and parliament placed executive power in the hands of a regency council.

The council might have chosen a conciliator as regent, a compromise figure not closely identified with either the right or the left, but Mannerheim’s prestige was such that the job fell to him.

Once he had concluded that Finland would not opt for a monarchy, Mannerheim stood as candidate for president on behalf of a center-right coalition. To his chagrin he lost to the socialist candidate, Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg. Mannerheim accepted the outcome with good grace, but the election results increased his misgivings about democracy in Finland.

Mannerheim departed on what would turn out to be a two-decade-long exile from military power, yet he was never far from the public eye. He traveled extensively, headed the Finnish Red Cross for several years, and enjoyed the company of beautiful women. Having removed himself from the political infighting at home, Mannerheim saw his status rise. He became less a “White” general than a national figure, and in 1933 he was promoted to field marshal.

The protean Finnish governments of the 1930s were fragile centrist coalitions, eager for neutrality in foreign affairs. In the words of one historian, “Their postwar policy with regard to the Soviet Union was one of shutting their eyes and hoping it would go away.” Russia would not go away, and by the spring of 1938 Josef Stalin was indicating that he required some “adjustments” of the Russo-Finnish border.

At issue was the Karelian Isthmus, a heavily forested region between the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga that was the land bridge between Russia and Scandinavia. The Soviet-Finnish border ran through Karelia, its southernmost point only 20 miles from St. Petersburg, now renamed Leningrad. Should the Soviets become hostile, one of Russia’s most important cities was within easy artillery range of Karelia.

Even as Finland was trying to address that threat, the Soviets in early 1939 brought up another territorial issue. They declared that if Finland would lease them the key Åland islands in the Gulf of Finland, the Soviet Union would turn over a slice of land along the northern Russo-Finnish border. It was hardly an equitable proposal, for the border area was largely wasteland. But Mannerheim, who by then had been appointed chairman of Finland’s Defense Council, favored accepting the Soviet offer. For all his anti-Bolshevik politics, he knew that Finland’s ill-equipped forces could not take on the Red Army. The government in Helsinki stalled.

Shortly afterward the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of August 1939 dealt Finland a severe blow, for it seemingly eliminated Germany as a possible ally against Russia. A secret protocol in this pact placed Finland (as well as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) in the Soviet sphere of influence. A month later Germany and the Soviet Union proceeded to divide Poland, and Stalin initiated “mutual assistance” pacts with the other three Baltic states that in effect made them Soviet satellites.

Finland represented unfinished business. On October 5 the Soviets “invited” the Finnish government to discuss “concrete political questions.” In meetings that began on October 12, 1939, Stalin demanded that the Finns cede, not just lease, the Åland islands, that the Karelian border be moved westward to near Viipuri, and that all Finnish fortifications on the isthmus be destroyed.

In effect, the Soviets were forcing Finland to abandon its defensive Mannerheim Line—an 80-mile stretch of concrete bunkers and pillboxes across the Karelian Isthmus—and place the country entirely at Stalin’s mercy. (The general had made a preliminary study of such defenses in 1918, but was not involved in most of its construction, which was poorly funded.)

Finnish foreign minister Eljas Erkko believed that Stalin was bluffing and that the Soviets would back down if Finland stood firm. The result was a series of acrimonious meetings in Helsinki between Erkko’s optimists and a more realistic group led by Mannerheim. Citing Moscow’s takeover of the three other Baltic states, Mannerheim insisted that the Russian threat was real and that Finland had little with which to meet it. “You must come to a diplomatic solution,” he told the coalition cabinet. “The Army is in no condition to fight!”

In response, members of the ruling coalition party whispered that the marshal, at 72, was too old for his responsibilities and too intimidated by the Russians. President Kyoski Kallio requested Mannerheim’s resignation from the Defense Committee, and received it. However, the situation changed abruptly on November 30, when Soviet bombers appeared over Helsinki, and Russian troops advanced into Karelia.

A world that was for the most part still at peace was shocked, and sympathy for Finland was widespread. The New York Times editorialized, “In the smoking ruins of the damage wrought in Finland lies what remained of the world’s respect for the government of Russia.”

The Finnish government promptly returned Marshal Mannerheim to his post as commanding general. Mannerheim remained a monarchist at heart, dis- trustful of republican politics. He was leading his people in a war that he had no hope of winning at an age when there must have been some thickening of the professional arteries. Yet an officer who dined with Mannerheim on December 3, just before the marshal left Helsinki for the front, recalled that “the Marshal was as composed as God.”

In Karelia and in Finland’s frozen wastelands to the north, the defending army, which Mannerheim had put on alert in October, began a staunch resistance. The Finns lacked tents, radios, and automatic weapons. They had almost no tanks and few anti – tank weapons. With only 250,000 men under arms and 48 fighter aircraft, the Finns took on an invading force of more than 600,000 men (later boosted to 1.2 million), supported by 1,500 tanks and 3,000 aircraft.

But the defenders enjoyed certain advantages. They were predominantly outdoorsmen, undeterred by the bitter winter of 1939–1940. They had been well trained in small-unit tactics, including the use of ski troops. They were highly motivated, both by the fact that they were defending their homeland and by the traditional Finnish loathing for Russia. Geography also was an ally; northern Finland in particular was dreadful tank country, with great forests penetrated by roads that were little more than wagon trails. The few hours of daylight and the shortage of fixed objectives largely neutralized the invaders’ control of the air. On the ground, Soviet motorized divisions were tied to the roads, while the lightly armed defenders moved rapidly on skis. In the far north the Finns employed reindeer to pull sleds loaded with military supplies.

The Russians, in contrast, were badly prepared. Stalin’s purges had stripped the Soviet army of some of its ablest soldiers, not just at the top but in the middle ranks as well. Army tactics had changed little since the Russian disasters of World War I. Armor would prove of limited value in Finland, where subzero temperatures required the invaders to keep vehicle engines running at all times, which in turn made for frequent breakdowns. Finally, Stalin’s soldiers were poorly motivated and badly trained. Soviet propaganda proclaiming that the Finns would welcome them as liberators did Red troops a disservice.

Overall command of the Soviet advance lay with Marshal Klimenti Voroshilov, a bungling survivor of Stalin’s purges. On the Karelian Isthmus, Gen. Kirill Afanasievich Meretskov commanded the Seventh Army of 12 divisions and a tank corps; north of Lake Ladoga, the Eighth Army comprised six divisions; and smaller forces confronted the Finns at points still farther north. But because the Russians were encountering slow going in the north, Mannerheim was able to concentrate his greatest force across the Karelian Isthmus. Half of Finland’s army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Hugo Österman, defended the Mannerheim Line. Although the situation in the north was critical, Karelia was even more so, because a Finnish collapse there would enable the Russians to cut the country in two.

Fortunately for the Finns, the enemy advance was remarkably inept. Soviet armor and infantry advanced in slow, parade-ground fashion. The Finns were short of artillery, but they mowed down the Russians with machine guns, massed rifle fire, mortars, and grenades.

One Russian survivor would later write, “The battalion commander…called all the officers together and gave us the following orders: ‘The attack will be repeated! And let’s not lie in the snow, dreaming of our warm beds! The village must be taken! Company commanders…will shoot anyone who falls back or turns around!’” Any remounted attack, in which the soldiers would have to climb over the bodies of their own killed and wounded, would fail, and this one did.

In the north and on Karelia, the Finns succeeded in surrounding and destroying entire Soviet divisions. In doing so, the defenders captured an enormous amount of Russian equipment, booty that enabled them to continue the war.

The Soviets also found it difficult to maintain convoy discipline as they advanced along single-track roads through snowbound forests. Breaking into a series of small clusters, their vehicles were vulnerable to attack by the fast-moving Finns. A favorite Finnish tactic came to be that of isolating the strung-out elements of an enemy column into what they called mottis—bundles of firewood ready for chopping—and destroying the bundles in detail. Molotov cocktails—bottles filled with gasoline and other combustibles—proved effective in hit-and-run strikes against Soviet tanks. When the army ran short of containers, the State Liquor Board in Helsinki rushed 40,000 empty bottles to the front.

Although the Finns were formidable on the defensive, attempts to take the initiative brought mixed results. On December 22, Mannerheim approved a plan for an elaborate pincer attack aimed at surrounding three enemy divisions in Karelia. However, the attack was launched in a blizzard, and advancing units lost touch with one another and with their supporting artillery.

After modest gains, Finnish units withdrew to the Mannerheim Line.

Elsewhere, however, the Finns won a remarkable battle at Suomussalmi, among the lakes of central Finland, where two Soviet infantry divisions marched directly into a Finnish ambush and were virtually annihilated. One unit blocked the Soviet advance, while a 6,000-man force cut off the enemy retreat. Repeated Finnish attacks on the stalled invaders inflicted some 23,000 casualties at the price of 800 Finns.

The embarrassing setbacks in the war against little Finland did not sit well in Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev told how, one night in Stalin’s dacha, a furious Stalin began to denounce Voroshilov. Voroshilov, also boiling mad, leaped up, turned red, and hurled Stalin’s accusations back into his face: “You have yourself to blame for all this! You’re the one who annihilated the Old Guard of the army; you had our best generals killed!” Stalin rebuffed him, and at that, Voroshilov picked up a platter with a roast suckling pig on it and smashed it on the table. (Remarkably, Voroshilov retained a degree of Stalin’s favor and lived to a ripe old age.)

By Christmas, three Soviet advances in Karelia had been stopped in their tracks. The defenders had shocked their enemy, but to what end? The Finns could not defeat the invaders; their only hope lay with the slight prospect of aid from abroad. The Nazi-Soviet pact had ruled out help from Germany, and Western liberals who had flocked to the Republican banner during the Spanish civil war showed little interest in Finland. But world opinion overall was nevertheless supportive, and Finland developed a strategy based on hope: that Finland might hold on long enough for Western powers to come to its aid, or that Finnish resistance would prove so fierce that the Soviets would opt for a negotiated settlement.

Mannerheim urged new negotiations with the enemy, but the Soviets were not yet interested. A furious Stalin sacked Voroshilov and replaced him with a thoroughly competent officer, Marshal Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko, who in turn chose as his chief of staff a barrel-chested soldier named Georgi Zhukov. Timoshenko assured Stalin that he could break the Mannerheim Line, but asked and received Stalin’s assurance that he would not be held personally responsible for the heavy casualties this would entail.

On February 1, the Soviets began a new offensive in Karelia. Soviet tanks that had once wandered aimlessly, an invitation to the defenders’ Molotov cocktails, now operated close to infantry, and cooperated more closely with aircraft. On February 11, the Soviets breached the Mannerheim Line near Summa, and for the first time victory seemed within their reach. But on the very next day Moscow indicated through Sweden its willingness to negotiate a peace. Reports of the overture coincided with rumors—later proved correct—that the Soviets would demand substantial territorial concessions from Finland.

It was unlikely that Finland would receive official aid from Norway or Sweden; both feared Russia and had traditionally adopted neutral foreign policies. Britain and France, however, lulled by the “Phony War” on the Western Front, offered to send more than 100,000 troops to aid the Finns, going through the Norwegian port of Narvik. Quite apart from aiding Finland, such an expedition was seen as threatening Germany’s supply of iron ore that came from Sweden.

But as the month wore on, the prospect of significant reinforcements dwindled and eventually evaporated. The Soviets continued their advance and threatened the defenses east of Viipuri. On March 5 the Finnish government, led by Prime Minister Risto Ryti, entered into negotiations with the Soviets in Moscow. On March 9 Mannerheim advised the government that his commanders regarded the military situation as untenable and that foreign assistance, even if provided, could not arrive in time. Viipuri fell on March 11, and the next day the Finnish delegates in Moscow signed the peace treaty put before them.

Its conditions were harsh. Finland lost one-tenth of its territory, including the Karelian Isthmus and the city of Viipuri. This allowed the Soviet Union to absorb numerous factories and refineries, plus some of Finland’s best timberland. The border from Leningrad was pushed west roughly 43 miles.

The terms of the treaty came as a shock to the Finnish people, who knew only of victorious engagements in the snow. But Finland continued to exist as an independent entity. In a proclamation issued on March 14, 1940, Mannerheim thanked “the soldiers of Finland’s glorious army,” of whom he was as proud “as if you were my own children.”

Few “small” wars have had so profound an influence on future events as Finland’s Winter War. The Red Army had been exposed to the world as badly trained and poorly led. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler said of Russia, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” In Washington, the War Department advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany could conquer Russia within one to three months. The British estimate was six to eight weeks.

But the Russians were not idle. In the wake of the Finnish debacle, they sharply increased the pace of rearmament, reorganized their armed forces, and even returned some purged officers to favor. Voroshilov had been sacked but, in Khrushchev’s words, “kept around…as a whipping boy.”

With any luck, Finland might now have looked forward to a precarious peace in the shadow of the Russian bear. Hitler, however, planning his war against Russia, saw Finland as a promising route to Murmansk. At the same time, Finnish politicians were eager, in the words of a German diplomat, “to secure the protection of the Führer’s umbrella.” Hitler invaded Norway in April 1940, and German war planners came to view Finland as a probable ally.

In the spring of 1941, Finland and Germany opened talks. The result was not a treaty but an understanding that Finland would assist Germany in any war against the Soviet Union. In early June, 80,000 German troops crossed from Norway into Finland at Petsamo—one of many indicators of Hitler’s warlike intentions toward Russia that Stalin chose to ignore. The Germans offered Mannerheim command over their troops in Finland—an offer that the field marshal declined, probably to avoid linking Finland irrevocably with the führer’s war aims.

When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, Mannerheim initially forbade German attacks from Finnish soil. The issue became moot, however, when hundreds of Soviet bombers attacked Finland’s cities on June 25. Four days later, Finnish troops went on the attack.

For once, the Finns enjoyed local numerical superiority. They struck east on August 21, and captured the key city of Viipuri eight days later. By September 2, the Karelian Isthmus had been cleared of Soviet forces up to the pre-1939 border.

But the cost had been heavy: some 25,000 Finnish soldiers died. Mannerheim wrote to his sister, “The Bolsheviks fight with a tenacity and bitterness which borders on the incredible.”

Finland paid a political price for its initial success in what came to be known as the Continuation War. German troops were again on Finnish soil. The British, pressed by the Soviets, urged Finland to stand down. On November 29, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote unofficially to Mannerheim: “I am deeply grieved at what I see coming, namely, that we shall be forced in a few days out of loyalty to our ally Russia to declare war upon Finland…. It would be most painful to the many friends of your country in England if Finland found herself in the dock with the guilty and defeated Nazis.”

In November 1941, however, there seemed little prospect of Hitler’s ending in the dock, and Germany appeared to be the ally Finland desperately needed. Mannerheim replied to Churchill: “I am sure you will realize that it is impossible for me to cease my present military operations before my troops have reached positions which in my opinion would give us the security required. I would regret if these operations, carried out in order to safeguard Finland, would bring my country into a conflict with England.”

But they did. On December 6, 1941, Britain declared war on Finland.

Finland’s participation in the war brought distinct benefits to Germany. Its troops in northern Finland represented a threat to Murmansk. The Finnish naval blockade in the Gulf of Finland prevented Soviet egress and freed the Baltic so that iron ore from Sweden could be safely shipped to Germany and U-boat crews could be trained in secure sites. But the Finns balked at Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Jews served in the Finnish armed forces, and Finland provided asylum for several thousand Jewish refugees.

For decades Finnish nationalists, including Mannerheim, had been tempted by the concept of a “greater Finland”—a homeland that included the 100,000 ethnic Finns then living in Soviet Karelia. Once the Russians were fully engaged with Hitler’s invading armies, Mannerheim allowed Finnish forces to cross into Soviet Karelia and thus to threaten the Soviet supply line to besieged Leningrad. Support for extending the war across the Soviet border was far from unanimous, however, and Mannerheim resisted German pressure to actually attack the city.

The Continuation War settled into a stalemate. Mannerheim and his staff set up their headquarters in a manor house at Mikkeli, located near the geographic center of Finland. He began each day with a horseback ride before settling down at his desk for what was often a 12-hour workday. Various ailments limited his physical activity, but visitors found him erect and alert. He disliked making snap decisions, however, and President Risto Ryti once criticized Mannerheim as being “at such an age that his moods changed from day to day and this caused…sudden changes of opinion.” The soldiers, in contrast, saw him as a commander who did what he could to limit casualties and make life easier for the men in the trenches.

In June 1942 Mannerheim celebrated his 75th birthday, an event that led Hitler to make a rare visit beyond the borders of Germany. The marshal was not impressed with either the führer or his urging of more aggressive action by Finnish forces. Finland had joined Germany against the Soviet Union in anticipation of a speedy victory over its traditional enemy. After the German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, however, Finland sought to make a separate peace with the Soviets. That year it made several attempts to broker a peace through Sweden and the United States, the latter having failed to follow Britain’s lead in declaring war on Finland. But negotiations broke down in February 1944, and the Soviets launched an offensive.

No longer were the Finns facing poorly trained and unmotivated troops. On June 9 a massive Soviet attack in Karelia broke through the Finnish defenses and captured Viipuri. By July 12, the Finns had managed to bring the Soviet onslaught to a halt once more, but the war’s ultimate outcome was as clear as it was inevitable.

In 1920 Mannerheim had sought his country’s presidency and had been defeated at the polls. Now, with Finland’s war against the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, there was a broad consensus that Mannerheim was the only person in Finland with the authority and reputation to make terms with the Russians. President Ryti resigned on July 29, and the parliament elected Mannerheim to a six-year term as president.

The terms ending the Continuation War on September 19 were harsh for the losers, harsher than even Mannerheim could forfend. All of Karelia reverted to the Soviet Union, and Finland had to absorb several hundred thousand refugees. Finland was required to expel all German troops from its territory, a directive that led to clashes between Finnish forces and German troops, reluctant to retreat from Lapland to northern Norway. The Gulf of Finland port of Porkkala was turned over to the Soviet Union.

Finland was required to demobilize its armed forces and to pay heavy reparations; the peace terms were to be enforced by a Soviet-dominated Control Commission.

However, Finland—unlike Denmark, Norway, and the Baltic countries to the south—was never occupied and retained its independence. It remained a parliamentary democracy with a free-market economy. There were rumors that Stalin himself admired the way Mannerheim had played the hand that geography had dealt him.

Mannerheim served as president for less than two years. Recurring health problems troubled him; in the winter of 1945 he spent six weeks in Portugal, and resigned the presidency in March 1946. In 1947 Mannerheim moved to a sanatorium in Switzerland, where he passed the last four years of his life. He died there on January 27, 1951, mourned in a homeland from which he had often lived apart.

Despite his reserve and his failure to win the engagements in which he commanded, Mannerheim fought Finland’s wars with great consideration for his country and its people. When the odds became insuperable in both 1940 and 1944, he made peace. The costs for Finland were high, but whereas Germany and the Soviet Union divided most of northern Europe between them, Finland remained free, and that was a victory well worth commemorating.

 

Originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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