The Winter War:
Russia’s Invasion of Finland, 1939-1940
by Robert Edwards
I picked up this book over the summer of 2012 as a supplement for a board game I was playing with my father-in-law. I was looking for a book to read that would expound upon that game’s coverage of the battle of Tolvajärvi and the Winter War was the most professional looking copy on the NOOK. This book met and exceeded my expectations. It was engaging and detailed without becoming a dry boring husk of a history book. I eagerly devoured the contents of the book as it has a natural flow and a good pacing in the ordering of events and I appreciated how the author took the time to set the stage thoroughly and enjoyed every chapter.
Edwards starts his book with a description of Finland in 1938 as it has finally won the struggle to pull itself out of debt and into the modern economic world and is preparing to host the Olympics. He sketches the Finnish political scene and all the major players who would have an effect in events throughout the book. Then he begins to paint the path to war. He covers European diplomacy and military readiness at the time of the war and the demands placed on Finland and its attempts to reconcile them peacefully while preparing for a war they were not prepared for. Once the war starts he discusses both sides command and logistical situations and documents how the actions during the war changed them. The war itself is covered in chapters four through 12 but these chapters do not just discuss the military maneuvers. They also document the Finnish pleas for assistance and the reaction of the civilian populations in Finland and surrounding countries to the war. The last chapter is dedicated to the outcomes of the war and the Russian Finnish Treaty of 1939 is attached as an annex.
The scope of this book is very thorough. It covers the Winter War from it’s pre-war diplomatic beginnings in 1938 all the way through the beginning stages of Fenno-German cooperation in 1940. The war itself only lasted 3 and a half months, but it changed Finland forever. At the end of the war “Finland’s economy was in smoking ruins; over 25,000 of its people were dead and many more were injured or dispossessed. It lost 11 per cent of its territory and 30 per cent of its economic assets”[i], and this was actually the best possible result of the war after the shooting had started. Edwards states up front how devastating the war was but as you go along through the book you realize how much worse it could have gotten and how amazingly good the horrible results actually are.
Additionally, the book discusses the domestic politics that existed in all the major players in this war as well as the diplomatic players in the prewar conditions, France, England, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Italy, and the US. The lives of the soldiers who fought the war as well as the effects of this war upon the politics of Europe are well covered. The logistical issues that both armies faced and a discussion of the strategic and tactical moves by both sides are present. While the book does not get in-depth on any one particular battle it does take time to fully describe all of the battle zones along the length of the combat.
There are no ‘points’ to this book but Edwards does take care to describe how the Russian actions in this war helped set the stage for German-Russian and Fenno-Germanic relations in the next five years. He shows how Germany used their notes from this war to underestimate the Russians and how the Russian actions helped drive the Finns into the German portfolio of alliances.
Like I mention in the opening paragraph I was not very deeply versed in Finish history before reading this book. I had heard of Finnish snipers but I had never heard anything more about the Finns other than a cursory understanding that they fought the Russians during the second World War. I never understood before how any democratic freedom loving society could support the Nazi regime. Now, because of the scope of Edwards’ book I feel I have a solid grasp on the events leading up to the Winter War and the effects on the coming world war that followed. In particular he was able to highlight the inability of the allied powers to be decisive on any form of policy in the pre-war years, the desperation of the non-power nations and how very clearly the big countries discounted the little ones. While I don’t think this has changed much throughout history it was interesting to see exactly how upfront they were about it at the time.
They showed a boggling level of arrogance about the need for the Finns to allow Russian troops on their land, for Finns to dismantle their defenses on the Finn-Russian border and to give up land. Stalin stated “Russian demands were ‘minimal’ and also the ‘very minimum’ and therefore haggling over them was pointless”[ii] Hitler stated: “…the demands Russia has made upon Finland, so far as we are aware, are reasonable “[iii] and went on to say in effect “well at least they didn’t take as much as they took from Estonia and Poland so you should be happy to give it up”. It was very eye opening to me exactly how open the Germans and Russians were of their intentions to annex areas around them, I had always imagined them taking the rest of the world by surprise.
Another area I was enlightened about was the role of communication and leadership in winning a war. The Russian army certainly was physically capable of communicating between its varied elements but was as an institution criminally inept at passing on information and agreeing on maneuvers. The septic poison of fear left over from Stalin’s purges crippled the Russian officers as they started the war and the effects of this leadership void cannot be over stated. On the Finnish side they were not afraid of making mistakes and this confidence bled over into all of their actions and allowed them to successfully frustrate their enemies superior forces.
The author was a Wall Street analyst for twenty years and contributes to the Daily Telegraph in London according to what little information I could find out about him on the internet. When I searched the Daily telegraph website I was unable to find any references to him as a contributor. So I do not know how much about his scholarship accolades but I do know his bibliography list in the book contains over one hundred and forty books so I can imagine that he has successfully done his homework. I am perturbed by the lack of information on him and wish the book had included a small blurb describing his background and credentials.
In the book he states that his goal in writing this book was:
“…an attempt to account for the necessity of such a policy, and to explain how it came into being—to examine the attempt made by the Soviet Union on the last day of November 1939 to effectively annexe the territory of Finland by invasion, why they failed, and to introduce the reader to some of the consequences.”[iv]
It is my opinion that he succeeded in his intent completely. After reading his book I discussed the war with a few others who knew details of the war and every time the details matched. Granted this is not the most rigorous of confirmations but I am not a historian either so this level of follow up will have to do.
Once again I repeat that this was an excellent book and worth recommending to anyone whether they are a history major or just someone looking for a great story of a nation overcoming impossible odds and facing down an implacable enemy.