USSR occupation of Baltic states early in WWII

In September 1939 (under the blessing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), the USSR issued an ultimatum to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland with demands to the effect of, “join us or else”. While those four nations were deliberating about the ultimatum, pressure was brought to bear on them in the form of military attacks by the USSR e.g. bombing raids.

Over a two week period commencing in on Sept 28, 1939 all of the aforementioned states with the exception of Finland capitulated and acceded to the USSR’s demands. Finland refused and, shortly thereafter, went to war with the USSR (so-called Winter War).

Why was Finland so emboldened?

What, if any, were it’s unique circumstances (within the group of the four threatened nations) that allowed it to repudiate the Soviet demands? Did it possess a militarily favourable geography for its defense (compared to the other three countries)? Did the Finns have some novel or advanced military tactic or strategy?

As an aside, because of the Winter War and its need to resist Soviet hegemony, Finland felt compelled to ally itself with Germany and the Axis powers. As such, it was the only democratic country to do so. In fact, Finland acquitted itself well (with the Winter War almost coming to a stalemate). Eventually, it would even succeed in throwing out, and keeping out, the Soviets.

Comments? Answers?


All during the Cold War, I kept hearing references to “Finlandization”, and it wasn’t a good thing. What compromises did Finland have to make with the USSR to retain their independence?

I would think geography played a big part. The Baltic states were surrounded by the USSR and Nazi territories, so didn’t have much option. Finland, on the other hand, held a border with neutral Sweden.

Also, was Finland included in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact? If not, that may have given them a better diplomatic position, even prior to the German invasion of the USSR.

They weren’t allowed to join NATO or Sweden’s proposed Scandinavian Defence Union. Finland was also forced to try and convict several of it’s leaders for war crimes.

There’s no easy answer, and one must consider the possibility that the Baltic states made a mistake by not resisting. If they had known how the Soviet army had been weakened by Stalin’s purges, and if they had foreseen the consequences of 50 years of Communist rule, they might have done so.

That said, among the factors favoring Finland were (1) at least partial support from Nazi Germany; (2) access to the West through neutral Sweden; and (3) better national morale under a non-authoritarian government.

Here is an article which discusses the question. It’s difficult to read, as not written by a native speaker of English, but makes some good points:

Thanks, all! Very helpful.

Northern Piper asked if Finland was included in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. To the best of my knowledge, no, it wasn’t. In fact, some of the ‘secret’ aspects of the pact called for the USSR to essentially take over Finland, or at least have Finland in the mutually agreed upon (by Germany and the USSR), Soviet “sphere of influence”.

Both Freddy the Pig and his cite allude to the positive effect of a non-authoritarian government in improving national morale and thereby possibly helping to embolden the Finns to resist. That’s very interesting and makes sense. However, it’s my understanding that the general sentiment among the Finnish people was not to agree to the terms of the Moscow Peace Treaty which ended (temporarily) the hostilities between Finland and the USSR. In other words, their freedom nothwithstanding, the Finnish people had essentially no say in the action of their government in that instance at least.

:confused: Doesn’t that mean that Finland was included? My understanding is that the R-M Pact did consign Finland to the Soviet “sphere of influence”, but that whereas Germany was prepared to accept the total liquidation of the Baltics, she preferred to see Finland retain its independence, and privately encouraged the Finns to resist the more extreme Soviet demands (such as a naval base on the Hanko Peninsula).

Yes, that’s true, and one could also cite instances of people under totalitarian governments fighting ferociously to maintain their independence–most notably the Soviets themselves in 1941. So perhaps this factor should not be exaggerated.

But I perceive at least some connection betweeb the freedom and will to resist of Finland in 1939. Finland had been part of the Russian Empire for only 100 years, and had been allowed relative autonomy, with its own Parliament and a culture of free peasants inured to an outdoor life of hunting and skiing. Such a people were more inclined to defend their nationhood.

The Baltics had been part of the Russian Empire for 200+ years, with no autonomy, and an economy of cities and large land estates with landless serfs. Its peoples were more easily subdued–first by home-grown autocrats and then by the Soviets.

Wouldn’t just sheer size alone have something to do with it? All the Baltic states are little tiny countries, while Finland is much bigger. Finland is about 7 or 8 times the size of Estonia, for example. The much larger size of Finland would give them confidence that they could resist the Soviet Union.

During the 1939-40 Winter War the Soviet Union demanded and then conquered a fairly large portion of Finland. There was considerable sympathy for Finland, a democracy in a dictators world, although the war ended before France or England got around to providing aid.

During the second world war, Finland was a co-belligerent with the Axis powers in fighting the Soviet Union (if only to regain territories conquered by the Soviets during the Winter War). Later, as the war situation developed not necessarily to Finland’s advantage, they were forced to change sides and evict German forces still in Finland. IIRC additional territorial concessions may have been made as well.

After the end of the war the Soviet Union would from time to time make demands on Finland. Because the Finns had effectively sided with the Nazis during the war (and spurned allied efforts to extract them from the war) no country would be willing to lift a finger to help the Finns.

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.

Interesting that you said that. Take a look at this short editorial from October 1939 published in The Nation. Mention is made therein of “Scylla and Charybdis”. “Between a rock and a hard place”, recognized and published in real time!

Here is another example from a well-written and rather interesting web page. Look at the part that’s about 1/3 of the way down and is entitled: Sealion Fails Pt 6: U-boats and Geopolitics.

It’s worth noting that Finland refused to enact anti-semitic laws or restrictions on it’s small Jewish community. This led to bizarre incidents of German and Jewish soldiers fighting side by side against the Russians. I’m not sure, but some Jews may even have been offered the Iron Cross.

Absolutely. While I was reading stuff with respect to my OP, I came across one site which stated unequivocally that three Finnish Jews did win the Iron Cross. From that site:

The Finns invented the Molotov Cocktail in its “Modern” form during the Winter War, interestingly enough.

The Finns were skilled snow-fighters and tacticians; the highest-scoring military sniper of all time was Simo Hayha, a Finnish soldier who picked off Russian soldiers using the iron sights on his Sako/Mosin-Nagant M39 rifle and scored over 530 confirmed kills.

In short, the Finns were probably NOT the best people for the Russians to be picking a fight with…

AIUI, the Finns were generally short on ordnance but had some fun toys, like this 20mm (sic) anti-tank rifle and plenty of submachineguns. Also, Finnish winters are even more vicious than Russian ones, and the Finns knew how to move around in them.

There’s a fascinating page about the Lahti L-39 here. Unable to penetrate the armour of T-34s and KVs, it still found plenty of use throughout the war.