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Jared Diamond: Finland shows how nations can survive adversity and thrive

An aerial view of Finland’s capital, Helsinki. Photo/Getty Images

Today, Finland is one of the world’s richest countries, but it’s had to fight for it, as this edited extract from historian Jared Diamond’s new book, Upheaval, shows.

Finland is the Scandinavian (Nordic) country of only six million people that borders Sweden to the west and Russia to the east. In the century before World War I, it was just an autonomous part of Russia, not an independent nation. It was poor and received little attention within Europe, and almost no attention outside Europe. At the outset of World War II, Finland was independent but still poor, with an economy still focused on agriculture and forest products. Today, Finland is known around the world for its technology and its industry and has become one of the world’s richest countries, with an average per-capita income comparable to that of Germany and Sweden. Its security rests on a glaring paradox: it is a liberal social democracy that for many decades maintained an excellent and trusting relationship with the communist former Soviet Union, and now with autocratic Russia. That combination of features constitutes a remarkable example of selective change.

If you’re visiting Finland for the first time, and you want to understand the Finnish people and their history, a good place to begin is by visiting Hietaniemi Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Finland’s capital city of Helsinki.

You may then be shocked by the number of dead Finnish soldiers buried or remembered at Hietaniemi. Klara Lappalainen was born on July 30, 1888; she was killed on October 19, 1943, at 55. At the other extreme, the schoolboy Lauri Martti Hämäläinen was born on July 22, 1929, volunteered to fight and was killed on June 15, 1943, at 13. Why was Finland calling up as soldiers not just the usual 20-year-olds, but also men and women in their 50s plus young teenagers?

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In October 1939, the Soviet Union made territorial demands on four Baltic countries: Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Finland was the only country that refused those demands, despite the Soviet Union having an enormous army and a population almost 50 times larger than its own. The Finns nevertheless put up such fierce resistance that they succeeded in preserving their independence, even though their nation’s survival remained in grave doubt through a series of crises lasting a decade. Finland’s death toll in its war against the Soviet Union was nearly 100,000, mostly men. That proportion is the same as if nine million Americans were to be killed in a war today.

In historical times, ie, after the first detailed accounts of Finland began to be recorded around AD1100, possession of Finland was contested between Sweden and Russia. Finland remained mostly under Swedish control until it was annexed by Russia in 1809. For most of the 19th century, Russia’s tsars let Finland have much autonomy, its own parliament, its own administration and its own currency, and they didn’t impose the Russian language. But after Nicholas II became tsar in 1894 and appointed as governor a nasty man called Nikolay Bobrikov (assassinated by a Finn in 1904), Russian rule became oppressive.
Camouflaged Finnish troops on the Mannerheim Line. Photo/Getty Images

Hence towards the end of World War I, when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in Russia in late 1917, Finland declared its independence. The result was a bitter Finnish Civil War, in which conservative Finns, called Whites, consisting of Finnish troops trained in Germany and assisted by German troops who landed in Finland, fought against communist Finns called Reds, as well as against Russian troops still stationed in Finland.

When the Whites consolidated their victory in May 1918, they shot about 8000 Reds, and a further 20,000 Reds died of starvation and disease in concentration camps. As measured by percentage of a national population killed per month, the Finnish Civil War remained the world’s most deadly civil conflict until the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

That could have poisoned and divided the new country, except that there was quick reconciliation, the surviving leftists received back their full political rights, and by 1926 a leftist had become Finland’s prime minister. But the memories of the civil war did stoke Finland’s fear of Russia and of communism – with consequences for its subsequent attitude towards the Soviet Union.

A mother and child taking cover from Soviet air raids. Photo/Getty Images

During the 1920s and 1930s, Finland continued to be fearful of Russia, now reconstituted as the Soviet Union. Ideologically, the two countries were opposites: Finland a liberal capitalist democracy, the Soviet Union a repressive communist dictatorship. Finns watched with concern Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror and paranoid purges of the 1930s. Of most direct concern to Finland, the Soviets were constructing airfields and railroad lines in sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union east of the Finnish border. Those lines included ones running towards Finland, ending in the middle of a forest short of the border, and serving no conceivable purpose except to facilitate an invasion.

In the 1930s, Finland began to strengthen its army and its defences under General Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who had led the victorious White troops during the civil war. Many Finns volunteered to spend the summer of 1939 strengthening the main defence line, called the Mannerheim Line, across the Karelian Isthmus, which separated southeastern Finland from Leningrad, the nearest and second-largest Soviet city.

In August 1939, Finland and the rest of the world were stunned to learn that Adolf Hitler and Stalin had abruptly called off their propaganda war and signed a non-aggression pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Finns suspected, correctly, that the pact included secret agreements dividing up spheres of influence, with Germany acknowledging that Finland belonged to the Soviet sphere. The signing of the pact was quickly followed by Germany’s blitzkrieg invasion of Poland, followed within a few weeks by the Soviet Union’s invasion of eastern Poland.

Finnish soldiers use bicycles and horses to reach the front. Photo/Getty Images

In October 1939, the Soviet Union, fearful of an eventual German attack, was eager to push even more of its western border back as far westwards as possible, and made demands for Finnish territory. The Finns were willing to make some concessions, but not nearly as many as the Soviets wanted, even though Finland’s General Mannerheim urged the Government to make more concessions because he knew the weakness of the Finnish army. But Finns from all parts of the political spectrum – leftists and rightists, Reds and Whites in the civil war – were unanimous in refusing to compromise further. The Finns had drawn a lesson from the fate of Czechoslovakia, which had been pressured in 1938 into ceding to Germany its Sudeten borderland with its strongest defence line, leaving Czechoslovakia defenceless against total occupation by Germany in March 1939.

On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, claiming that Finnish artillery shells had landed in the Soviet Union and killed some Soviet soldiers. (Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev later admitted those shells had actually been fired by Soviet guns from inside the Soviet Union.) Soviet armies attacked along the whole length of the Finnish/Soviet border, and Soviet planes bombed Helsinki and other Finnish cities.

When the war broke out, the details of this absurd military mismatch were as follows. The Soviet Union had a population of 170 million, compared to Finland’s population of 3.7 million. The Soviet Union attacked with “only” four of its armies, totalling 500,000 men. Finland defended itself with its entire army, consisting of nine divisions totalling only 120,000. The Soviet Union supported its attacking infantry with thousands of tanks, modern war planes and modern artillery; Finland was almost without tanks, modern war planes, modern artillery, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft defences. Worst of all, though the Finnish army did have good rifles and machine guns, it had very limited stocks of ammunition; soldiers were told to save ammunition by holding fire until Soviet attackers were close.

A 1939 propaganda cartoon. Image/Getty Images

All of those disparities made Finland’s chances of defeating the Soviet Union zero, if Stalin was determined to win. The world had already seen how quickly Poland, with a population 10 times that of Finland and far more modern military equipment, had been defeated within a few weeks by German armies half the size of the Soviet Union’s armies. Hence Finns were not so insane as to imagine that they could achieve a military victory. Instead, as a Finnish friend expressed it to me, “Our aim was instead to make Russia’s victory as slow, as painful and as costly for the Russians as possible.”

To the great surprise of the Soviet Union and of the rest of the world, Finland’s defences held. Against Soviet tanks attacking the Mannerheim Line, the Finns compensated for their deficiencies in anti-tank guns by inventing so-called “Molotov cocktails”, which were bottles filled with an explosive mixture of gasoline and other chemicals, sufficient to cripple a Soviet tank. Other soldiers waited in a foxhole for a tank to come by, then jammed a log into the tank’s tracks to bring it to a stop. Daredevil individuals then ran up to the crippled tanks, pointed their rifles into the cannon barrels and observation slits, and shot Soviet soldiers inside. Naturally, the casualty rate among Finland’s anti-tank crews was up to 70%.

What most won the admiration of world observers for the Finnish defenders was their success in destroying the two Soviet divisions that attacked Finland at its waist. The Soviets advanced with motor vehicles and tanks along the few roads leading from the Soviet Union into Finland. Small groups of Finnish soldiers mounted on skis, wearing white uniforms for camouflage against the snow, moved through the roadless forest, cut the Soviet columns into segments, and then annihilated one segment after another.

A Finnish veteran described to me in 1959 the tactics he and his fellow soldiers had used in those winter battles. At night, Soviet soldiers who had parked their vehicles in a long column along a narrow one-lane forest road gathered around big bonfires to keep warm. (Finnish soldiers instead stayed warm at night with small heaters inside their tents, invisible from the outside.)

Russian tanks captured by the Finns in 1940. Photo/Getty Images

My friend and his platoon skied through the forest, invisible in their white camouflage uniforms, to within firing range of a Soviet column. They then climbed nearby trees while carrying their rifles, waited until they could identify the Soviet officers in the light of the bonfire, shot and killed the officers, and then skied off, leaving the Soviets frightened, demoralised and leaderless.

Why did the Finnish army prevail for so long? One reason was motivation: the soldiers understood that they were fighting for their families, their country and their independence, and they were willing to die for those goals. Finally, the Finnish army, like the Israeli army today, was effective far out of proportion to its numbers, because of its informality that emphasised soldiers taking initiative and making their own decisions rather than blindly obeying orders.

But the tenacity and temporary successes of the Finnish army were just buying time. With the expected melting of the winter ice and snow in the spring, the Soviet Union could finally put its numerical and equipment superiority to use in advancing across the Karelian Isthmus and across the Gulf of Finland. Finland’s hopes depended on receiving assistance of volunteers, equipment and army units from other countries. What was happening on that diplomatic front? Widespread sympathy for little Finland bravely fighting the big Soviet aggressor inspired 12,000 foreign volunteers, mostly from Sweden, to come to Finland to fight. But most of those volunteers had not yet completed their military training by the time the war ended.

Realistically, the only countries from which Finland had any hopes of receiving many troops and/or supplies were Sweden, Germany, Britain, France and the US. Neighbouring Sweden, although closely connected to Finland through long-shared history and shared culture, refused to send troops out of fear of becoming embroiled in war with the Soviet Union. Although Germany had sent troops to support Finnish independence and had long-standing ties of culture and friendship with Finland, Hitler was unwilling to violate the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by helping. The US was far away, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s hands were tied by US neutrality rules resulting from decades of US isolationist policies.

A Finnish family fleeing the fighting. Photo/Getty Images

That left only Britain and France as realistic sources of help. Britain and France did eventually offer to send troops. But both were already at war with Germany, and that war was the overwhelming preoccupation of the British and French governments, which could not permit anything else to interfere.

In January 1940, the Soviet Union finally began to digest the lessons of its horrifying troop losses and military defeats in December. It assembled huge concentrations of troops and artillery and tanks on the Karelian Isthmus, where the open terrain favoured the Soviets. Finnish soldiers had been fighting continually at the fronts for two months and were exhausted. Early in February, Soviet attacks finally broke through the Mannerheim Line.

The conditions that the Soviet Union imposed in March 1940 were much harsher than the ones that the Finns had rejected in October 1939. The Soviets now demanded the entire province of Karelia, other territory farther north along the Finland/Soviet border, and use of the Finnish port of Hanko near Helsinki as a Soviet naval base.

But why, in March 1940, did Stalin not order the Soviet army to keep advancing and to occupy all of Finland? One reason was that the fierce Finnish resistance had made clear that a further advance would continue to be slow, painful and costly. The poor performance of the huge Soviet army against the tiny Finnish army had been a big embarrassment: about eight Soviet soldiers killed for every Finn killed.

After the March 1940 armistice, the Soviet Union reorganised its army and annexed the three Baltic Republics. Germany occupied Norway and Denmark in April 1940 and then defeated France in June 1940, so that Finland was now cut off from any possible outside help – except from Germany.

Bomb damage in Helsinki. Photo/Getty Images

Hitler decided to attack the Soviet Union the following year. While Finland had no sympathy with Hitler and Nazism, the Finns understood the cruel reality that it would be impossible for them to avoid choosing sides and to preserve their neutrality in a war between Germany and the Soviet Union: otherwise, one or both of those countries would seek to occupy Finland. Finland’s bitter experience of having to fight the Soviet Union alone in the Winter War made the prospect of repeating that experience worse than the alternative of an alliance of expedience with Nazi Germany. Finland declared it would remain neutral, but on June 25, Soviet planes bombed Finnish cities, giving the Government the excuse that night to declare that Finland was once again at war with the Soviet Union.

With the Soviet army preoccupied in defending itself against the German attack, the Finns quickly reoccupied Finnish Karelia. But Finland’s war aims remained strictly limited, and the Finns described themselves not as “allies” but just as “co-belligerents” with Nazi Germany. In particular, Finland adamantly refused German pleas to do two things: to round up Finland’s Jews (although Finland did turn over a small group of non-Finnish Jews to the Gestapo); and to attack Leningrad from the north while Germans were attacking it from the south.

Nevertheless, the fact remained that Finland was fighting alongside Nazi Germany. The distinction between “ally” and “co-belligerent” was lost on outsiders who did not understand Finland’s situation.

Finally, after the Soviet Union had made sufficient progress in pushing German troops out of the Soviet Union that it felt able to divert attention to Finland, in June 1944, it launched a big offensive against the Karelian Isthmus. Soviet troops quickly broke through the Mannerheim Line, though (just as in February 1941) the Finns succeeded in stabilising the front.

A 1939 cartoon depicting Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin sharing the world. Image/Getty Images

This time, Soviet territorial demands were almost the same as they had been in 1941. The Soviets took back Finnish Karelia and a naval base on the south coast of Finland. The Soviet Union’s only additional territorial acquisition was to annex Finland’s port and nickel mines on the Arctic Ocean. Finland did have to agree to drive out the 200,000 German troops stationed in northern Finland, in order to avoid having to admit Soviet troops into Finland to do that.

The peace treaty required Finland to pay heavy reparations to the Soviet Union: $300 million, to be paid within six years. Even after the Soviet Union extended the term to eight years and reduced the amount to $226 million that was still a huge burden for the small and unindustrialised Finnish economy. Paradoxically, though, those reparations proved to be an economic stimulus, by forcing Finland to develop heavy industries such as building ships and factories-for-export. That industrialisation contributed to the economic growth of Finland after the war, to the point where Finland became a modern industrial country (and now a high-tech country) rather than (as formerly) a poor agricultural country. In addition to paying those reparations, Finland had to agree to carry out much trade with the Soviet Union, amounting to 20% of total Finnish trade.

In those years of danger, Finland devised a new post-war policy for averting a Soviet takeover. It became known as the Paasikivi-Kekkonen line, after the two presidents who formulated, symbolised and rigorously implemented it for 35 years (Juho Paasikivi, 1946-1956; Urho Kekkonen, 1956-1981). The Paasikivi-Kekkonen line reversed the disastrous 1930s policy of ignoring Russia. Paasikivi and Kekkonen learnt from those mistakes. To them, the painful realities were that Finland was a small and weak country; it could expect no help from Western allies; it had to understand and constantly keep in mind the Soviet Union’s point of view. Maintaining the Soviet Union’s trust would require bending over backwards by sacrificing some of the economic independence, and some of the freedom to speak out, that strong unthreatened democracies consider inalienable national rights.

Here is Kekkonen’s explanation of the policy: “The basic task of Finnish foreign policy is to reconcile the existence of our nation with the interests which dominate Finland’s geopolitical environment … [Finnish foreign policy is] preventive diplomacy. The task of this diplomacy is to sense approaching danger before it is too close and take measures which help to avoid this danger – preferably in such a way that as few as possible notice that it has been done … A nation should rely only on itself.”

Modernisation: Helsinki Cathedral. Photo/Getty Images

Finland fulfilled on time all the conditions of its armistice and subsequent peace treaty with the Soviet Union. That meant driving out German troops, conducting war crimes trials against Finland’s own wartime leaders, legalising the Finnish Communist Party and bringing it into the government while preventing it from taking over Finland, and punctually paying its war reparations to the Soviet Union, even though that involved individual Finns contributing their jewellery and gold wedding rings.

At the same time as Western countries were Finland’s major trade partners, Finland became the Soviet Union’s second-leading Western trade partner (after West Germany). Container shipments through Finland were a major route for Western goods to be imported into the Soviet Union. Finland’s own exports to the Soviet Union included ships, ice-breakers, consumer goods and materials to build entire hospitals, hotels and industrial towns. For the Soviet Union, Finland was its major source of Western technology and its major window onto the West. It was so much more valuable to the Soviet Union independent and allied with the West than it would have been if conquered or reduced to a communist satellite.

Finland as a small country has had to face realities. To make productive use of its entire population, Finland’s school system aims to educate everybody well, unlike the US school system, which now educates some people well but more people poorly. Finland has egalitarian, high-quality public schools with few private schools. Astonishingly to rich Americans, even those few Finnish private schools receive the same level of funding from the Government as do public schools, and are not permitted to increase their funding by charging tuition, collecting fees, or raising endowments!

Modernisation: crowded streets in the capital. Photo/Getty Images

US teachers have low social status and are drawn predominantly from the lower-performing ranks of college students, whereas Finnish teachers go through a competitive selection process, are drawn from the brightest high-school and university students, enjoy high status (even more than university teachers!), are well paid, all have advanced degrees, and have lots of autonomy in how they teach. As a result, Finnish students score at or near the top of world national rankings in literacy, math and problem-solving abilities. Finland gets the best out of its women as well as out of its men: it was the second country in the world (after New Zealand) to extend the vote to women, and its president happened to be a woman at the time of one of my visits. Finland even gets the best out of its police: again astonishingly to Americans, Finnish police have to have a university bachelor’s degree, are trusted by 96% of Finns, and almost never use their guns.

That strong focus on education yields a productive workforce. Finland has the world’s highest percentage of engineers. It is a world leader in technology. Its exports account for nearly half of its GDP, and its main exports are now high-tech – heavy machinery and manufactured goods – instead of timber and other conventional forest products as was the case before World War II. Finland has become a world leader in the development of high-tech products from its forests, such as electricity generation, fertilisers, textile fibres to replace wool and copper, and even guitars.

Its combined private and government investment in research and development equals 3.5% of GDP, almost double the level of other EU countries, and (along with the percentage of its GDP spent on education) close to the highest in the world. The result of that excellent educational system and those high investments in research and development is that, within just 50 years, Finland went from being a poor country to being one of the richest in the world. Its average per-capita income is now equal to that of France, Germany and the UK, all of which have populations 10 times that of Finland and have been rich for a long time.

When I visited in 1959, knowing almost nothing about the history of Finland’s two wars with the Soviet Union, I asked my hosts why Finland deferred to the Soviet Union in so many ways, imported the inferior Moskvich cars and was so afraid about the possibility of a Soviet attack.

I told my hosts the US would surely defend Finland if the Soviet Union attacked. In retrospect, there was nothing more cruel, ignorant and tactless that I could have said to a Finn. Finland had bitter memories that, when it was attacked by the Soviet Union in 1939, it had not been helped by the US, Sweden, Germany, Britain or France. Finland had to learn from its history that its survival and independence depended on itself. 

Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, by Jared Diamond (Allen Lane, $40), will be published on May 7.

This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.