When Hitler and Stalin started carrying out their division of Europe in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and Germany had invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain and France gave an ultimatum with a threat of war, unless Germany would withdraw its troops. It did not by the deadline of 3 September, hence a declaration of war followed by Britain and France. After Germany had already defeated Poland with its Blitzkrieg, the Soviet Union then took its share of the spoils of war, and occupied Eastern Poland. Britain and France never declared war on the USSR for this.
The world watched holding its breath, but nothing really seemed to happen for months. Soon the declared war was coined “the phoney war”, as it went on only formally but not in practice. Europe took measures of self-protection and prepared for another destructive Great War, but no one knew when the European great powers would actually clash in battle.
Stalin wasted no time in getting his share of Europe. He demanded negotiations for Soviet military bases in the Baltic countries, which each in turn agreed to provide them for the USSR, and eventually were joined into the Soviet Union. Finland was subjected to similar demands, but refused to cede its territory. Finnish volunteers fortified the border on the Karelian Isthmus, and the army was mobilized in the so-called Extra Manoeuvres. The negotiations then broke out. On 30 November 1939, without a declaration of war, Soviet troops crossed the border all along the 1000 kilometres from the Arctic Ocean to Gulf of Finland, and Finnish cities were bombed by the Soviet Air Force causing civilian casualties.
While nothing spectacular took place elsewhere, the world media now focused on the Russo-Finnish war. The collapse and conquest of Finland was expected in a matter of weeks at most, but against all odds, the small unknown country of less than 4 million seemed to outperform its mighty adversary. Instead of a quick Red Army parade march, the world saw an “epic” battle evolving between David and Goliath in an exotic environment of snow and extreme cold. The Biblical dimension was reinforced by photos of Finnish troops wearing their white snow camouflage with their bared heads bent for prayer, as they gathered strength for fighting their enemy, the godless atheist state that had attacked them unprovoked and now threatened the lives of their families and intended to set up rule of tyranny. No one with a sense of honour could remain indifferent.
Sympathy was overwhelming and men all over the world identified themselves with the heroes who astonished the world by decimating divisions with their light arms fire, as evidenced by sensational photos of frozen convoys and dead enemies on the Raate road circulating in the world press. The remote war going on in unusual conditions became the centre of media attention.
The general atmosphere inspired various forms of spontaneous support all over the world, even willingness for personal participation for idealistic motives. The Republic of Finland, having badly neglected its national defence, welcomed any help offered. Applications started pouring in to Finnish legations all over the world, which in turn requested instructions from Helsinki on how to deal with all the inquiries and offers.
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