What the Story of Finland in 1939 Can Teach Us About the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2022
by AMAC Newsline
putin protest

AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman

There are some curious parallels between an event of today and an event that took place 83 years ago.

In November of 1939, most of Europe was at war — a war precipitated by Hitler’s invasion of Poland in which he was joined by Soviet Russia. Just before that, Nazi Germany had signed a shocking non-aggression pact with its presumed sworn enemy in the Soviet Union. The pact had stunned the world because fascist Hitler and communist Stalin were ideological rivals and had opposed each other three years before in the Spanish Civil War, where each had sent men and weapons to opposing sides.

But hungry for territory, Hitler and Stalin set aside their differences, brutally carved up Poland, and immediately began looking for new conquests. On November 30, Stalin made his move when he sent 400,000 troops into his small democratic neighbor of Finland, bombed its capital Helsinki, and demanded that the Finns surrender without a fight.

The Finns refused to surrender and, with a small army and volunteers, held off the much larger and better equipped Russian invader until March of 1940 in a heroic effort that was closely observed by the free world. After the crushing of Finland, Hitler, who had his own Scandinavian ambitions, then invaded and conquered Norway and Denmark. Sweden, which supplied the Nazis with steel, was allowed to remain neutral.

Stalin had presumed his massive forces and the bombing of Helsinki would intimidate his neighbor into submission, and that the non-European world would not care about tiny Finland. Like another Russian dictator eight decades later, Vladimir Putin, Stalin was wrong. The courage and ingenuity of the Finnish resistance helped transform isolationist and pacifist U.S. public opinion into sympathy for the Allied cause before Pearl Harbor, when most Americans were opposed to getting involved in another European war only 22 years after the end of World War I.

A notable example of this was the case of the well-known American playwright Robert E. Sherwood. In the 1930’s, Sherwood wrote some of the most serious and literate dramas in the Broadway theater, including Acropolis, Petrified Forest, Reunion in Vienna, Idiot’s Delight, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois — the latter had received the Pulitzer Prize.

A young volunteer in the Canadian Army in World War I, Sherwood had become an outspoken pacifist. Idiot’s Delight, written as the first clouds of a new war in Europe appeared, exemplified his pacifism. Originally a liberal admirer of the Soviet Union and one of the first global celebrities, aviator Charles Lindbergh, by 1939, Sherwood had become profoundly disillusioned with both when the former signed a pact with Hitler and the latter made isolationist speeches on the radio. The final blow to Sherwood’s pacifism came when Stalin invaded Finland in November 1939. Deeply troubled, Sherwood wrote There Shall be No Night while the battle for Finland was taking place, and by the time the play had its premiere in New York, Finland had been overrun.

The play was a call to Americans to wake up from their isolationism and pacifism and recognize the growing threat to democracy from both Hitler and Stalin. Although Finland had fallen by the time audiences saw the play, the so-called “phony war” period in Europe had ended as Hitler sent his blitzkrieg past the French “impregnable” Maginot Line and was overrunning continental Europe. Then, in June of 1941, Hitler double-crossed Stalin and invaded Russia, driving the Soviet Union to become one of the Allies against the fascist Axis Powers.

Among those who appreciated There Shall Be No Night was the long-running temporary resident of the White House in the nation’s capital, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president despised Hitler and recognized the Nazi threat to the world but had promised the American people that the U.S. wouldn’t send men to fight in the European war. He recognized that the eloquent Sherwood could help him in his effort to change public opinion, so he invited him to the White House. This meeting resulted in Sherwood becoming one of Roosevelt’s main speechwriters, a position he held until the end of FDR’s term in 1945.

As for Stalin’s Soviet Union, they provided the Allies with an important second front against Hitler and suffered grievous casualties in doing so. But as soon as the war was over, Stalin resumed his imperialist strategy of controlling neighboring nations in eastern Europe and trying to spread totalitarian communism throughout the world. This led to a “Cold War” between the U.S. and other democracies, lasting 45 years until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

After a brief democratic period, the new Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin once again began a period of territorial expansion. Just as his autocratic predecessors, the czars and Stalin, had done, Putin began to enlarge his domain, annexing Crimea and trying to reclaim Ukraine, which had become an independent democratic state. Like Stalin in 1939, Putin assumed his massive use of force would result in meek capitulation.

However, the Ukrainians, like the Finns 83 years before, are resisting. Mr. Putin’s assumption that the rest of the world would respond fecklessly was wrong. The conquest of Ukraine in 2022 is turning out to be grievously expensive for the Russian Federation.

Russia has now had two brief periods of democratic government. The post-revolution regime under Alexander Kerensky lasted only a few months in 1917. The post-Soviet government begun by Boris Yeltsin in 1991 lasted only a few years. Long subject to autocratic rulers, the Russian people, torn by war and servitude for centuries, seem ready for truly democratic freedom if only given a durable opportunity.

URL : https://amac.us/newsline/society/what-the-story-of-finland-in-1939-can-teach-us-about-the-russian-invasion-of-ukraine/