A contrafactual writing of history is needed to avoid mistakes made in the past. Was it possible for Finland to avoid the Winter War with a more realistic diplomacy, will remain a puzzle for sure. Another question is, would it have been possible for Finland to get rid of Germany latest in 1943 or early 1944 and avoid the the strategic offensive of the Red Army in the summer 1944?
Pro-German foreign policy begins in the summer 1940
Based on new documents, the Soviet Union considered seriously of launching a military offensive against Finland to complete the Winter War of 1939-40 in the summer 1940. The Red Army concentrated its troops to the Soviet-Finnish border and launched a ”hybrid war” inside Finland. The Finnish-Soviet Friendship Society organised pro-Soviet demonstrations and the leftist newspapers attacked the government. The aim of the activities was to destabilise a war-ridden Finland before the launching of the offensive.
The government of Risto Ryti (progressive party) ordered a secret diplomatic action by asking the Envoys abroad to collect information whether the Third Reich would be favourable to support Finland against the Soviet threat of military intervention. The Envoys could not help the government because no information was received to support any indication about a possible change of the German pro-Soviet policy line based on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty of August 23, 1939. However, Ryti’s government wanted under the imminent threat of the Soviet invasion to start flirting the German officials. He even mentioned to the German Envoy Wipert von Blücher that there is readiness in Finland ”to establish a German style of political system in my country”. A good Prime Minister needs to be a good actor, too.
In late August 1940 Prime Minister Ryti and Marshall C. G. Mannerheim made together a secret decision which permitted Germany to transport wounded soldiers, some material and ill German citizens via Finland from an occupied Norway to Nazi-Germany. Before that decision they had received information through military channels that Germany may start supporting Finland. It has been discussed that the President of the Republic, Kyösti Kallio was not properly informed or perhaps even left out when that decision was made. If true, the Constitution was not respected.
As a consequence, Finland withdrew from neutrality in August 1940. The country had only bad alternatives: either to start cooperating with Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. The Scandinavian countries were either occupied by Germany or afraid of becoming involved in the war. However, did the government change too quickly its policy because it did not have any clear strategic plan for avoiding the war? One of the first victims of the new pro-German foreign policy of Finland was former foreign minister and Finland’s Representative in The League of Nations, Rudolf Holsti.
He was called back abruptly to Helsinki on 1st of September, 1940. In real terms, he was sacked. The state secretary Tapio Voionmaa called Holsti on June 22, and informed about the decision to call him to Helsinki. He stated that ”there are political reasons that have had an impact on the decision which cannot be discussed in the phone”. This background of the sacking is based on the letter dated 22nd of July, Holsti had sent to his colleague Harri Holma serving as an Envoy at Vichy in France. Furthermore, Blücher was informed about the sacking before Holsti was informed about it which is an indication that the foreign ministry wanted to keep the Germans satisfied that their old foe was fired.
Holsti moved with his family from Bern to the United States in October 1940. He never returned to Finland and became a lecturer of international politics at Stanford university until his death 1945. Holsti settled down in California and tried to be in contact with his old friends and colleagues mainly by writing letters. One of his friends was Risto Ryti who had been elected President of the Republic after the sudden death of Kallio in December 1940. Rudolf Holsti’s long letter of six pages to Risto Ryti dating back to early 1942, has been found recently. The letter reveals a number of interesting details about Finland’s foreign policy and the role Germany to influence Finland’s internal as well as external affairs. Holsti expresses his appreciation ”to my dear fiend Risto”, as he writes, ”for supporting him”. Holsti explains that the foreign ministry was afraid of Blücher’s angry reactions”. Foreign minister Rolf Witting was ”Germanophile” and made the decision to sack Holsti.
The sacking of Holsti in 1940 was nothing but a continuation of the process that was triggered off on November 17, 1938 when Holsti was urged to resign as foreign minister, as we know now, as a result of a ”hybrid action” of Nazi-Germany’s Envoy Blücher. As Iltalehti has published an article on July 14, 2018, the history books are labelling Holsti for a diplomatic failure that caused him his resignation. In all books about the resignation, the main reason has been explained to be Holsti’s ”diplomatic misstep” in Geneva on September 26,1938 during a dinner party.
On November 1, the German state secretary of AA Ernst von Weizsäcker called Finland’s Envoy in Berlin to a meeting where he criticised Holsti for having offended Adolf Hitler during a dinner party in Geneva on September 26th. However, this was not true. The German state secretary had received disinformation about the events during that night. Holsti had not insulted Hitler but translated Hitler’s racist and aggressive speech. Holsti was requested by his French colleagues among them former French Prime Minister Paul Boncourt to translate English excerpts of the speech to French because the host of the dinner was an Irish diplomat and his staff had translated the excerpts from German.
Holsti explained his version about the dinner in his unpublished memoirs that has been used in the article mentioned above. Somebody had misunderstood his translation to be his own words and opinion although Hitler attacked and insulted the Czech President Benes in the speech. The Finnish envoy made a secret report to the Finnish Prime Minister and President about the German protest without questioning whether the story was true or not. Holsti’s reputation had been damaged and his own version played no role because German attitude was part of realpolitik. He himself was close to publish the truth but withdrew in order to continue as Finland’s Envoy to the League of Nations in Geneva and to avoid additional problems to his government. His health was also weakening perhaps also for the painful process he had to go through during turbulent times in European politics in 1938.
Moscow had interpreted the resignation of Holsti as a diplomatic victory to Germany. As Max Jakobson has stated in his famous The Winter War of the Diplomats, Holsti’s fall played a role when we discuss whether the Winter War could have been avoided by means of diplomacy later on.
Ryti’s uncertain strategic thinking
The literature about the Winter War does not reveal very much about Ryti’s own thinking. Ryti served as Prime Minister during the war and was the chairman of the delegation that negotiated the hard peace terms on March 13th, 1940. He has not opened up his thinking whether the government and the military commanders would have made mistakes before the war or whether the war was ended too early.
Princeton Professor Stephen Kotkin has in his Waiting for Hitler (2018) stressed that Finland fought ”an avoidable war in 1939-40”. Kotkin has used original Soviet archives and drawn a conclusion that Stalin was serious in his efforts to have a peace deal with the Finns by proposing minor, although painful territorial exchanges for the security of Leningrad as well as guarantees against Germany during the negotiations. We will never know for sure whether the war would have been avoidable in November 1939. However, what we know is that Nazi-Germany betrayed Finland in a very grotesque way. Kotkin reveals that the Germans handed over to the Soviets maps about the Mannerheim line, a defence structure built in the Karelian isthmus. In January 1940 German Envoy in Moscow Werner von der Schulenburg offered German military aid to the Red Army. As we know, the offer was approved.
However, Finland served very well Hitler’s interest on June 22, 1941, when Finland joined the Barbarossa offensive. The government of Finland tried to convince the world opinion that the Finnish army was waging a separate war, ”The Continuation War”, with its own goals when joining the German army after a few days of waiting on June 25th, 1941. It was obvious that this explanation did not convince everybody. When Josif Stalin met Averell Harriman, a special envoy of F. D. Roosevelt, in Moscow in September 1941, the Russian dictator explained that Finland had become ”a puppet of Nazi-Germany”. Stalin demanded the United States to break the diplomatic relations with Finland but did not manage to get his view approved in Washington.
Ryti had explained to Blücher in early September 1941 that ”the Finnish people has always wanted to expand to the east”. President had accepted the strategy of the military commanders that it was necessary to cross the old borders in Olonets Karelia (East Karelia) in order to eliminate the platforms of the enemy’s offensives in the future. Ryti had been reluctant to go along with this plan a week before because of heavy losses of 12 000 soldiers during the first weeks of the war but had changed his mind after a meeting with Mannerheim. One can assume that it was Ryti whose approval was a decisive factor that led to the crossing of the old border which caused 10 000 more killed soldiers during the autumn weeks. Although the army stopped short its offensive on December 6,1941, the occupied areas constituted a real problem later on when the final countdown of the war began in 1944. The occupation of Eastern Karelia was resisted by some of the influential politicians in the social democrats and the leader of the party Väinö Tanner even tried - but in vain - to have a strategic change to stop the offensive already in November. Instead Finland joined as a result of the pressure of the Germans an ideological ”Anti Comintern pact” in late November which irritated the allied countries.
Was Holsti’s appeal a wise strategic advice in 1942?
The United States joined the world war after Pearl Harbor, but this important turning point did not change the strategic thinking of the Finnish leaders. The membership in the Anti Comintern pact helped Finland to receive food supplies from Germany during a very critical period in the winter 1942. The political price, however, had to be paid too. Finland was considered in London and Washington more and more an ideologically loyal partner of Nazi-Germany. The Finnish parliament, however, approved the law for re-annexing the territories lost after the Winter War but did not apply the law to the occupied areas in Eastern Karelia, which was of course a wise decision in the light of the future developments. Holsti in his letter to Ryti early 1942 praised the military achievements of the Finns, but despite these successes in the battlefield, ”our policy once again is not in compliance with the real developments”. He went on and stated that ”similarities with the situation in 1918 and 1941 are too evident”. In Holsti’s view ”it should have been self-evident already in the summer 1918 that Germany will lose the war” but ”our Envoys in Stockholm (Gripenberg) and in Berlin (Hjelt) blindly reported about the forthcoming victory of Germany”.
Holsti himself had reported from London - where he worked as Envoy for food aid and for recognition of independence inside Entente already in the Spring 1918 about the forthcoming defeat of Germany. ”I was informed that in the foreign ministry my report were ridiculed as well as was the case of my colleague in Paris (Ehrström)”. As we know, Finland remained a loyal partner with Germany until the end of war in November 1918 and had to wait food aid and recognitions of the Entente countries months longer than in case the senate (government) would have drawn right and realistic conclusions in the summer 1918.
Holsti makes a comparison between the commander of the German forces Rüdiger von der Goltz, which intervened to the civil war to help the white to win the war in April 1918 with envoy Blücher. ”I have not met any diplomat so extravagant and arrogance but only among the Soviet diplomats”. ”He started to persecute me after my appointment to Minister already in October 1936. I am informed that foreign diplomats did not even want to meet anybody in the foreign ministry because in the ministry only Blücher was appreciated and listened”. In his letter of six pages, Holsti is worried that Finland is again in isolation concerning the developments in the world. He is recognising that the German News Agency DNB is filtering the news concerning the US and allied countries before the Finnish News Agency starts reporting based on the DNB version.”Finland can not stand a long war”. Holsti makes an appeal to President.”My dearest friend, Risto, I am convinced that you want our country to be taken away from this terrible diplomatic situation”. ”We should not repeat what happened in 1918”.
Ryti did not follow Holsti’s. He said to the US Envoy in January 1943 that he did not believe a total victory of Germany but hopes ”Germany could beat the Soviet Union”. The following month, the Stalingrad catastrophe happened. Ryti launched contact diplomacy concerning peace options but made a mistake by asking the opinion of Berlin first. So any hope for an early withdrawal disappeared although Helsinki had received a secret message from Moscow that there existed a real interest to find a way for peace negotiations. In March a new government with Edwin Linkomies as the Prime Minister drew the conclusion that Germany cannot win the war but Finland will keep the occupied areas for ”a trump card” during the negotiations. The government did not have any strategy for exit but acted on the basis of a hollow fantasy.
In February 1944 Mannerheim criticised the government that it had not prepared the Finnish people, the public opinion, to accept hard peace terms with the Soviet Union. ”This is the reason that we cannot make the peace now when time for it has come”.
Holsti had predicted correctly the outcome of the war in early 1942. His appeal was not listened. His reputation had been damaged by the German envoy Blücher that had an impact on Finland’s foreign policy since November 1938. Germany betrayed Finland in 1939 and in the Winter War Finland was left alone. Despite these traumatic events, Ryti and Mannerheim considered it necessary to approach Nazi-Germany in the summer 1940. The Continuation War 1941-44 was based on the need to compensate the losses during the Winter War. The inability to stop the offensive in September 1941 and to withdraw to have a separate peace with the Soviet union and the Allied countries early on, remains a subject of research for sure. Rudolf Holsti’s wise advice in 1942 constitutes one of the documents to be used in this respect.
Originally published by Iltalehti, October 20, 2018 (an unofficial translation)
"The more you understand the world, the higher your chance of shaping it".
Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.
Valtiotieteen tohtori, suurlähettiläs, tasavallan presidentin entinen neuvonantaja, professori ja kirjailija.
Kirjoituksia saa lainata. Lähde on mainittava.