I made the decision to translate and post this quite useful article (from the link given by Seppo Koivisto) which enlightens the Finnish scientific discussion regarding the country's role in WWII:
Game piece or risk player?
Interpretations on Finland during the Second World War
by Henrik Meinander
Why bring up just war history, when one wants to cast light on how various theories and paradigms have guided the discussion and viewpoints in Finnish history science. Could not phenomena of social and economical history and interpretations from those be used as examples? Quite well so, but it remains a fact that studies related to times of war in various ways show more and faster connections between times and contemporary topical questions. This is the case not only in Finland, but everywhere in Europe.
If one studies passing of time from the viewpoint of structural history, social and technological modernization is of course the force that best explains, how our continent has developed for the last three centuries. But if we are interested in knowing how people have personally made sense of historical development, it is quite obvious that collective memories and feelings are guided primarily by life-threatening crises and catastrophes. For Europe, this has for the last five decades meant processing the memories of the Second World War in science and politics as well as in art and entertainment.
When one explores this diverse discussion, certain stages of development stand out. After the end of the war, contemporaries pondered above all who else besides Hitler could be guilty of the horrors of the war. Volunteer scapegoats hardly emerged, so in practice the accusations of the Allied against Germany and its allies were either repeated or minimised. After the great reconstruction work had been completed by the early 1960's, the first remarkable revisionist interpretations appeared. In Great Britain, A. J. P. Taylor dared to claim that a great war was not the aim of Hitler in the autumn of 1939, while his West German colleague, Fritz Fischer vice versa piled more responsibility on his compatriots by claiming that the mother of all horrors had in fact been Imperial Germany reaching for world dominance.
At the same time, the horrors of the persecution of Jews were started to be researched in earnest, and as it is known this became a permanent topic for many decades both in Western Germany and among the circles of the Jewish intellectuals in the United States. In scientific research, the events and strategies of war stayed much longer in the centre, but after this publicity was given clearly more to questions related to moral responsibilities of individuals and nations as well as real possibilities of choice in circumstances of war. This was the case also in countries occupied by Germany, like for example Denmark and the Netherlands, or those countries that Germany had in various ways got to favour its own goals of war, like for example Sweden and Finland. From behind the mythologies of resistance in the occupied countries evidence began emerging on widespread attitudes of collaboration, while in Sweden the topic became above all the country's extensive exports of iron ore to Nazi Germany.
War: the beginning and the end of national existence
After the end of the Cold War, some remarkable shifts occurred in the European citizen discussion on the Second World War. The share of Germany in the war gradually started to get proportions, when the civilian victims of the country could be discussed in the same context as the other atrocities of the war. And simultaneously there was a new flourishing of a moralising discussion on the extent to which other European nations were partially guilty of the persecution of Jews. In the background, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of the EU had their influence. It was as if the citizen circles of Europe had suddenly noticed that the war could be understood both as shared crime and tragedy, or to put it short, shared history.
The Finnish research and citizen discussion on the history of the Second World War have naturally to a great deal followed the pattern described before. In the first stage, the responsibility for war of own country was minimised where possible, in the second stage there was more self-critical discussion from the nation state viewpoint, and in the third stage, which is during the past decade, the preparedness has grown to look at our war years from a general European vantage point. At the same time it is nevertheless obvious that the Finnish discussion on the war years has been labeled by many special features. On one hand, these are related to the specific role of our country in the World War, on the other hand they are the consequence of various different interpretations of war history being used in debates and power struggles of internal politics.
The Second World War was a terrible experience to most European nations. For some, the war even ended independent national existence, like it was for the Baltic countries and to some extent also for the Eastern European states dominated by the Soviet Union. In the case of Finland, the existential significance of the war grew even greater, because even if there was defeat in the war and Karelia was lost, the country remained unconquered and and thus relatively more free than the rest of Eastern Europe. The feeling of the sacrifices of the war not having been futile therefore grew very strong in Finland, and for a long time it formed an essential part of our national identity.
By aggravating one might say that we Finns are in various ways conscious of war being the beginning and the end of our national existence. The birth of the country as a nation state was a consequence of the Napoleonic wars, the independence was gained in the turmoil of the First World War, and during the Second World War, our state passed its proper test of manhood. The symbolic meaning of war has for this reason been of an entirely different category in Finland than for example in Sweden, where the national identity has for the last 50 years been more based on building the welfare state.
Purpose seeking of the driftwood theory
An essential addition to this national perception on war was also given by the war guilt court proceedings of the winter 1945-46, where eight war-time leading politicians were sentenced to imprisonment as the persons responsible for the Finnish-German brotherhood-in-arms. The court process was a measure demanded by the Allied and entirely political while based on retrospective legislation, but as later research has shown, the accused had consciously poor memory about all those issues that would have revealed them having been prepared to the brotherhood-in-arms in question already well before the outbreak of the Continuation War in Midsummer of 1941. In their defence they consistently denied Finland having been committed to the war led by Germany against the Soviet Union and favoured the thesis of the Finnish separate war that had been used already since the beginning of the Continuation War. It is not difficult to understand the reasons for such poor memory. After Germany had lost the war it was in national interests to minimise in all possible ways the systematic nature of the brotherhood-in-arms.
Strong back support for this purpose seeking interpretation was received from Professor of History Arvi Korhonen, who in 1948 published in the United States an anonymous general review on the role of Finland in the Second World War. Korhonen's key message was that Finland's becoming a brother-in-arms with Germany was the fault of the Soviet Union. If Moscow had allowed Finland to remain neutral, Finland would have caused no concern. Due to the delicate nature of the topic, academic researchers avoided the history of the Continuation War for a long time, but during the 1950's several memoirs were published with various ways of supporting viewpoints that emphasised the innocence of the war guilty. The best known of these was the memoirs of the war-time German Envoy to Finland Wipert von Blücher, in which he emphasised Finland having been to a great extent a prisoner of circumstances: ”Finland was grabbed into the whirlpools of great power politics like a swift current grasps a drifting log within it.”
This driftwood theory, or lack of alternatives, had been strongly questioned already during the time of war by the so-called peace opposition, which included especially Western-minded politicians. In the year 1957 they received flank support from a scholar of the United States, C. Leonard Lundin, who in his book Finland in the Second World War emphasised the determination of the war-time government and thus responsibility for the events of the Continuation War. The leading history researchers in Finland, with Arvi Korhonen in the front, immediately labeled Lundin a dilettante cultivating politics, but although there were gaps in his source material, during the next decades research showed with the help of new sources him having been right to a great extent. The military lead of Finland and the inner circle of the government had been aware of the German plans of attack already in December 1940 and they also had practically promised participation in the siege of Leningrad, which then took place.
Finland: the conscious risk player
Why was admitting this so difficult for the domestic body of researchers? One of the reasons was of course that the truth dimmed the martyr's halo of the war guilty, while simultaneously revealing the purpose seeking tendency of domestic history research. A still heavier reason was that the systematic nature of the Finnish-German brotherhood-in-arms was in its own way a strong argument in the Finnish contemporary daily politics in the turn of the 1960's. It showed that Urho Kekkonen had been on the right track after all in 1945 when as the Minister of Justice he pushed through the war guilt project and it thus polished his shield all through the ongoing presidential contest. At the same time it acted as indirect support to the new foreign policy complying with the Soviet Union, with only Kekkonen accepted as its guarantor by our Eastern neighbour. It was the core of the FCMA [Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance] policy that Finland should never again drift to a corresponding brotherhood-in-arms against the Soviet Union.
According to Dr Ilkka Herlin who has comprehensively researched the subject, the proper sinker of the driftwood theory is the researcher from the United States, Peter Krosby, who in his book Finland's choice published in 1967 showed especially with the help of German research material how the suspicions and threats of the Soviet Union made Finland consciously seek brotherhood-in-arms with Germany. From here on, the focus of research shifted clearly to elaborations on why and how the Finnish government and in particular its military lead had well in time before the Continuation War decided to side with the Germans. In other words, when entering the 1970's, in the eyes of researchers the Finland of the Second World War had transformed from an object to a subject, a conscious actor in a mean world, the development of which was determined by the cynical great powers, but in which also fitted small states that responded to crises with cold nerves.
Would it be a coincidence that interpretations like this had demand in a situation where the Finnish foreign policy raised its profile and the lead of State in the country kept repeating about the active foreign policy of Finland, which did not include moralising but skills of problem solving. This view on the world fitted in well with the statement of the then Finnish UN Ambassador Max Jakobson on placing the Finnish independence for discount sale, if it was alleged that Finland ”was taken” to the Continuation War. In reality it consciously sought help from Germany, because neutrality was not regarded as a realistic alternative.
Thus the Finland of the Continuation War was no more necessarily seen as a game piece but more as a conscious risk player, who well understood the obvious risks of remaining idle. In the year 1977 the two researchers Mauno Jokipii and Ohto Manninen had a heated debate on the pre-history of the Continuation War in the publication Historiallinen Aikakauskirja (Historical Journal). Although Manninen did not accept Jokipii's early timing for the Finnish-German brotherhood-in-arms, the core of also his interpretation was that Finland was not taken or it did not find itself in the Continuation War, but rather it understood being forced to choose the road that would lead to war but save the country. Using Manninen's metaphor, Finland was in the situation more like a boat in rapids than a drifting log.
Could the war have been avoided?
Although the source situation has thereafter improved on many fronts, the general perception on the birth of the Continuation War and its prehistory has remained much the same in academic research. Heikki Ylikangas has recently presented an interpretation according to which there was an attempt at getting into the wake of the victorious Germany already at the end stage of the Winter War, but although this is still debated, the parties are unanimous about the active role of Finland in the events. The Finnish lead of State decided under hard pressure to choose an alternative that in the contemporary situation, despite of all risks involved, seemed to lead to the best outcome. With wisdom of hindsight, we can state that this is how it was, although the adventure did not at all end like it was thought in the early summer of 1941, when Germany seemed invincible in the eyes of nearly everyone.
This has also had the consequence of no significant discussion building up between scholars or in publicity about whether Finland could have avoided the Continuation War. Elaborations on alternative scenarios that did not take place have been more centered in the events of the Winter War, because like the name used already by the contemporaries reveals, the Continuation War for Finland's part was specifically a consequence of the Winter War. In the war guilt tribunals this was not yet allowed to be spoken of, because it was undisputed that the Winter War was started by the Soviet Union. But since the 1950's, the stages and aspects of the Winter War have been so thorougly researched from various points of view that what-ifs cannot have been or not even wanted to be avoided.
Max Jakobson's book from his youth Diplomaattien talvisota (The Winter War of Diplomats) from the year 1955 has become a classic, which brings forth practically all of those questions that have been debated later. According to Jakobson, the Finnish lead of State had undeniably been naïve when believing in the protection of international justice and not giving in to the territorial demands of the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1939. Despite that, according to Jakobson one could not draw the conclusion that by agreeing to these demands, Finland could have avoided the horrors of the Second World War like Sweden did. Stalin simply regarded our country as his own sphere of influence and therefore he would never have been satisfied for Finland's share with even the strictest of neutrality. In other words, if concessions of territory would have been agreed upon, Finland's fate would have been the same as that of the Baltic states. As the only positive alternative to the Winter War, Jakobson saw the defensive alliance with Sweden which Mannerheim so passionately tried to reach, because that could have curbed Stalin. As it is known, this possibility was ruled out already by the autumn of 1939.
When entering the seventies, this kind of deterministic description of the role of Finland in the eve of the Winter War was no more swallowed without objections, especially when the buzzword of the contemporary lead of State had become active foreign policy. Like Juhani Suomi emphasised in his dissertation Talvisodan tausta (The background of the Winter War), a central reason for the aggravation of relations between Finland and the Soviet Union was the lack of trust, of which each party had responsibility. Or putting it short, the action of the Finnish Government in the years preceding the Winter War was a warning example of what could happen if the relations to the East were handled in the spirit of distrust.
Juhani Suomi's interpretation probably contributed to curbing the differences of opinion between our countries regarding the causes of the Winter War, and in the same wake there were many other researchers who began elaborating on why there was no readiness for the Paasikivi-Kekkonen policy line already in the 1930's. There was no special emphasis on Stalin's rude attitude towards small states. More readily certain factors of internal policy were brought forth, like the deeply imbedded hate of Russians and strong emotional ties with Germany. After the end of the Cold War, the partial responsibility of Finland for the Winter War became by-passed in many general books and there was return to interpretations where Finland was merely a victim of great power politics. It was hardly a question of any conscious return to an old view, but it shows how easily national emphases re-emerge on the surface in historiography if allowed by the circumstances.
No simple answers to complicated problems
Corresponding features have been observed also in popular books on the Continuation War and in citizen discussions. It is almost as if the collapse of the Soviet Union would have freed the Finnish nation from elaborating the war years with self-critique, even though the new situation would make possible the opposite, that is open discussion free from both moralizing and politicizing about our years of war. The information and facts needed for such discussion are found in the research already published. It may however be that the history of the war years is easily coupled with present day politics and used by seeking purpose, especially when there is an attempt at making arguments for or against the Finnish Nato membership.
Of course I am not condemning the use of historical parallels in discussing security policy and I have cultivated them myself in various connections, because in practice we cannot avoid these kinds of parallels, as we figure out alternative futures. For them to be truly helpful in decision making, it is essential that from history research simple answers are not sought to complicated problems.
The author is a Professor of History in Helsinki University. The article is based on a lecture given in the House of Sciences at the Night of Sciences 9th January during the Days of Science (8th to 12th January 2003).