Ah, it’s that time of year again. There is a chill in the air, even down here in Texas. The leaves are starting to turn color. The Beaujolais Nouveau is being released today. The holiday season is about to begin, and the mood is festive. It’s a great time of the year for family, friends, and fellowship. It’s time to break out the Frank Sinatra Christmas album.
And for me that can mean only one thing: it’s time to renew my obsession with the Winter War, the great Russo-Finnish conflict of 1939–40.
Everyone has obsessions: favorite foods, drinks, bands, movies. And so do historians. All of us have topics that we just can’t seem to get enough of. For me, it’s the Winter War. My dream: I quit my day job as a university professor, and someone pays me to sit around for the rest of my life and read books on the Winter War. Anyone wishing to finance this dream can contact me at any time, care of World War II magazine.
It’s one of history’s classic David and Goliath stories. It is fall 1939. The Germans have overrun Poland, and Britain and France have declared war on the Reich. Hitler’s ally Josef Stalin intends to cash in on the Nazi-Soviet Pact he signed back in August. Through his foreign minister and henchman, V. I. Molotov, Stalin puts the screws to Finland, a sparsely populated land that had, until World War I, been part of the Russian Empire. The demands on the young nation are moderate enough: the Soviets want a lease on the Hankö peninsula on the southern Finnish coast for use as a naval base; they want border adjustments on the Karelian isthmus, where the frontier was only 20 miles from the great Soviet city of Leningrad. Molotov is even willing to cede a larger area in return, some 5,500 square kilometers of territory in Soviet Karelia.
From the Finnish perspective, however, what was happening was not negotiation, and the actual terms were meaningless. This was the era, after all, of Hitler and Mussolini and Imperial Japan, of lawlessness in the international arena, of stronger powers preying on weaker ones. More specifically, surrender of any territory to the former imperial masters meant the beginning of the end for an independent Finland. The government refused Molotov’s demands.
And just like that, the world had yet another war on its hands. On November 30th, 1939, the great guns roared, the bombers screamed overhead, and the Red Army invaded Finland. Calling it “David and Goliath” might seem to be a cliché, but how else to describe a war of 168 million vs. 4 million?
It makes what happened next seem all the more shocking.
More next time.