Monday, September 22, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
THIS WEEK”S ‘SOMETHING OLD’ REVIEW IS BY GUEST REVIEWER CHRISTOPHER REID
“A FROZEN HELL: THE RUSSO-FINNISH WINTER WAR OF 1939-40” by William R. Trotter (Algonquin Books of Chappell Hill 1991) Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER REID
Even a few years after publication, an historical account can remain significant because few other English-language studies have appeared on the topic. By chance I bought a copy of William R. Trotter’s A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40 in a second hand bookshop. The proprietor told me that interest in this work remains high and he rapidly sold the few copies he had in stock.
From the outset Trotter explains why accounts of the diplomatic and political aspects of the Winter War have fared much better in English than its military aspects have. Finland was remote and did not figure as highly in accounts of events during the Phoney War period of World War II, which was when the Winter War occurred. It became ‘forgotten’ when subsequent conflicts took place.
Stalin was furious at the humiliation of Russian defeat after a few weeks’ campaign. Victory would have been part of his 60th birthday celebrations, so Soviet records cover only the subsequent war against the Soviet Union (June 1941-September 1944) which Finns call the “Continuation War”. All Russian prisoners of war who had been returned by the Finns, and many commanders, were packed off to NKVD camps near the White Sea to be “re-educated” and/or shot. The only Soviet account of the Winter War is a brief reference in Nikita Krushchev’s memoirs as part of his criticism of the Stalin era. Even post-Soviet Russian accounts remain sparse for lack of contemporary Russian documentation.
So the most detailed accounts of the war have appeared in Finnish, which is admittedly a most difficult language. William Trotter has a reading knowledge of the language and supplemented his study with interviews with veteran combatants and others.
Though Trotter discusses diplomacy briefly, the implications for foreign relations and the subsequent “Continuation War”, the bulk of his account follows much the same approach that Anthony Beevor takes in his books Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day of recounting campaigns in detail and chronological order.
As background he explains that under tsarist rule the Russians “left the Finns to their own
Count Carl Gustav Mannerheim to this day is regarded as the great national hero of Finland. Mannerheim’s own memoirs are essential yet Trotter found them “disappointingly flat and reticent; reading them was a duty not a pleasure.” However Trotter supplemented the information with interviews and his own “demonic struggles with written Finnish”. He suggests that a fuller biography of this paradoxical figure, who is probably “one of the greatest generals of recent times”, has yet to appear in English
At that time of the war, already in his 70s and a member of Finland’s large population of Swedish descent, Mannerheim had inherited a noble title that was awarded to his ancestors centuries before. He was fluent not only in Swedish, but in German, French, English, and Russian, yet only late in life did he learn Finnish, the language that most foreigners find difficult, and his grammar and pronunciation, as revealed in recordings, were apparently not good.
Mannerheim believed in absolute monarchy, had received Russian noble honours, and to the end of his life displayed prominently a portrait of Tsar Nicholas. He greatly admired the traditional cultures of Germany and Russia yet loathed equally the totalitarianism of Nazism and the Soviets. He had no illusions whatsoever about Hitler and Mussolini, describing them as “little men with little minds swollen by undeserved self grandeur”.
During the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, when the Soviets tried to export Bolshevism to his homeland, he returned to Finland and in the civil war between the Whites and the Reds, he took command of the Whites, and was victorious with some help from the Imperial German army during the final stages of the First World War. Trotter does not gloss over the fact that Mannerheim was ruthless in the treatment of captured Finnish Reds, imprisoning them and having them executed.
After centuries of being a fiefdom of Sweden and tsarist Russia, the Finns valued obtaining in 1919 a democratic constitution that permitted the election of a president, a prime minister and a single-chamber parliament. Most of all, the Finns it seems, would not yield lightly a long-sought self-rule free from totalitarianism.
Despite his distrust of democracy, Mannerheim abided by all its processes, being a Minister of Defence in a Finnish government and eventually accepting the Presidency of Finland. I did not realise until I read this that Mannerheim counselled against entering a war against the Soviet Union, and from knowing his country’s much smaller population and limited and non-existent military resources, he surmised correctly that in the long run Stalin would conquer all or some of Finland. Yet he bowed to the decision of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Though proud of his aristocratic origins, he understood well that in this war of desperation, where every participant had to fight to the utmost, there was no point in insisting on rigid military protocol and hierarchy. He agreed that all combatants could address each other by first name and not by military rank. He could be autocratic in his decisions, yet commanded strong loyalty because he was truthful about situations not given to making completely impossible requests.
Trotter suggests some of the reasons why the achievements of the Winter War, and initial foreign admiration for the courage and fortitude of the Finns, became forgotten:
“That Finland should fight the Soviet Union again, only fifteen months after the Winter War- and that in doing so should compromise its national image if not its honour – seems a cruel twist of history. That Finland fought at the side of Nazi Germany, officially as a “co-belligerent” but in every practical aspect as a close ally, seems tragic. There was a disturbing aspect to the Continuation War in that only fifteen months before a nation that had been held up as a shining example of freedom and democracy should now make aggressive war on the side of one of history’s most ruthless totalitarian regimes.”
Also, although fascist parties were banned in Finland during this period, strong criticism lingers that some Finns, admittedly few in numbers, were permitted to volunteer for the Waffen SS and there is scepticism about their claims that they did not take part in any atrocities against civilians.
What was new to me was the account of the strong part Swedish diplomacy played in the outcome of the Winter War and the Continuation War.
With the other Scandinavian countries occupied by Germany, neutral Sweden, already anxious about possible Nazi invasion, but desiring German trade, feared that Finland could turn into a Nazi ally, and target for counter occupation by the Soviets, thus making Sweden vulnerable to attack from the East or West. Sweden almost permitted volunteers to join Finnish combatants in the Winter War, but withdrew consent and closed its border to Finland at the last moment. As Trotter puts it, Swedish diplomacy strongly urged “Finland to make peace with Russia in order to preserve its independence, which would leave the nation of Finland in place as an armed buffer between Sweden and the Soviet giant.”
Ultimately, too, with the loss of almost half a million killed out of a population of four million and 420, 000 homes destroyed Finland may have preserved its democracy and independence but it could not prevail. Thus, forced to make an armistice with the Soviet Union the Finns lost everything they had gained in the Winter War. They lost the Karelian Isthmus, which to this day is the Republic of Karelia and, until the fall of the Soviet Union, they remained economically and politically dependent upon the USSR.
Also in exchange for remaining independent and not suffering further Soviet incursions they agreed to drive German troops from Northern Finland which was achieved but the retreating Germans inflicted considerable scorched earth destruction.
However, the bulk of the book is devoted to the Winter War in battle by battle detail. Trotter not only gives harrowing details but his unalloyed admiration.
Against the better-armed and equipped Russians, the Finns could only exhibit boundless courage and ability to survive in the rigours of extreme conditions, and employed great ingenuity with limited ammunition and resources. The undersides of the Russian T-28 tanks were not well plated and were vulnerable, and the fuel easily froze, so the Finns built low stone barricades that tilted the tanks back and stalled their engines.
“They used a hair-raising tactic of working in close, where the tanks’ machine guns could not depress sufficiently to hit them . . . and disabled several vehicles with[Molotov cocktails} hand grenades and by plying treads off [tanks]with a crowbar.”
When Russian convoys of tanks and trucks, already unsuitable for the extreme winter conditions, were bogged down the Finns attacked and disabled the first and final vehicles forcing the vehicles to halt and be vulnerable to further attack. While the Finns ensured that their own troops had frontline dugouts, well heated, sheltered and providing hot food, the Russians had above ground canteens with unarmed catering staff, who were vulnerable to attack. As happened with Napoleon’s Grand Army retreating from Moscow and Hitler’s army invading Russia pinned down by guerrilla tactics, many Soviets perished in the extreme conditions of winter. The ‘frozen hell’ pinned down, without food, heating or adequate shelter many Soviet troops. Russian morale was low but deserters fared no better from the cold and Finnish snipers.
Trotter does not spare on some of the grimmer details. A Finnish soldier who had spent three days without sleep and little food who had shot 500 Russian troops, “either wearied or out of his mind” wandered out to be brought down by enemy fire.
A Frozen Hell remains a useful account of what has been overlooked in accounts of the larger conflict.
(a.) Although the swastika was the emblem of the Nazi flag throughout the Second World War, no Nazi aircraft were identified by it whereas the Finnish aircraft were. Long before Nazism came into being, Finland had the used the ancient Sanskrit emblem as a symbol of good fortune. The swastika inscribed on some of Finland’s orders of honour is not related to Nazism.
(b.) This is not part of Trotter’s book but lodged in Finnish archives is a recording made in 1942 when Hitler visited Finland. Mannerheim arranged for them to have lunch in a railway carriage and unbeknown to Hitler had their conversation secretly recorded. Although some commentators have cast doubt on the authenticity of the recording, Finland stands by its claim and has about 11 minutes of the conversation on disc. It is intriguing to hear Hitler speaking in a different tone from that of his mobile rousing oratory familiar from newsreels and radio broadcast recordings. In usual Hitler fashion he turns the luncheon conversation into a monologue in which one can hear the occasional aside from Mannerheim. One can hear it with an on-screen English translation on Hitler meets Mannerheim monologue (with subtitles) YouTube