Finland Finnish Security Policy Between the Wars

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Finland - Finnish Security Policy Between the Wars

Finnish security policy between the wars

The first security policy issue Finland faced upon becoming independent concerned the Aland Islands. Settled by Swedes in about the sixth century A.D., the islands were administered as part of Finland as long as Finland was part of Sweden. In 1809 they were transferred to Russian sovereignty, where they remained until the Russian Revolution. Throughout this period, almost all of the inhabitants of the Aland Islands, the Alanders, continued to be Swedish speakers. During the chaos of the Russian Revolution, the Alanders began negotiations to be united with Sweden, a move that was later supported in a plebiscite by 96 percent of the islands' inhabitants. The Swedish government welcomed this move, and in February 1918 sent troops who disarmed the Russian forces and the Red Guards on the islands. The Finns felt that the Swedish intervention in the Aland Islands represented an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of Finland. Tension rose as both countries claimed the islands, Sweden emphasizing the principle of national self-determination and Finland pointing to its historical rights and to the need to have the islands in order to defend Finland's southwestern coast. Germany then moved into the islands as part of its intervention in the civil war and forced out the Swedes; later that year, however, Germany handed the islands over to Finland. The Finns arrested the Aland separatist leaders on charges of treason. In 1920 both countries referred the matter to the League of Nations, which ruled the following year in favor of Finland. The Swedes were placated by the demilitarization of the islands as well as by the grant of extensive autonomy to the Alanders, a settlement that still obtained in 1988.

Finland's interwar security policy was dominated by fear of an attack by the Soviet Union. Two of its priorities were to end the conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union--that had continued unofficially since the civil war--and to settle the Soviet-Finnish boundary. Negotiations were held intermittently between 1918 and 1920, leading in October 1920 to the signing of the Treaty of Dorpat. In it, Finland received all of the land it had held under Russian rule plus the Petsamo area, which gave Finland a port on the Arctic Ocean. At this point, Finland controlled more territory than it had at any other time in its history. The Soviet-Finnish border on the Karelian Isthmus was drawn only thirty kilometers from Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg). The new border caused some Soviet apprehension because it placed the city and the vital naval base at Kronstadt within the range of the Finns' heavy artillery.

Finland's relations with the Soviet Union had been problematic from the beginning, because of the Finns' strong historical distrust for Russia and the inherent incompatibility of the two political systems. The Finns saw themselves as occupying an exposed outpost of Western civilization, an attitude that was well expressed in a poem by Uuno Kailas that included the verse:


"Like a chasm runs the border.
In front, Asia, the East;
In back, Europe, the West:
Like a sentry, I stand guard.

The mistrust between the countries had been strengthened by the tsarist policies of Russification, by the Bolsheviks' participation in the Finnish revolution, and by continued Soviet efforts to foster subversion in Finland. From the Soviet viewpoint, the Greater Finland agitation and the blossoming of ideological anti-communism in Finland posed a threat. In 1932 the Soviet Union and Finland signed a ten-year non-aggression pact, which, however, did not mitigate the mutual distrust--illustrated in part by the Soviets' cessation of all trade between the two countries in 1934--that was to culminate in war.

In dealing with the Soviet threat, Finland was unable to find effective outside help. The Finns sought assistance first from the other Baltic states, and in March 1922 an agreement was signed by Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Poland. The Finns soon realized, however, that in a crisis no substantial help would be forthcoming from these countries, and they thereupon sought support through active membership in the League of Nations. The breakdown of collective security in the 1930s led the Finns to seek security through a collective neutrality with the other Nordic states, but that arrangement offered no effective counterweight to the Soviets. The more powerful Britain and France did not take a major interest in the Baltic area.

Throughout this period, the Finnish ruling circles had been strongly pro-German in outlook, in large part as a result of the civil war. For this reason, the Soviets developed the suspicion that Finland would allow Germany to use its territory as a base from which to invade the Soviet Union. Although Soviet fears were unfounded, the Finns did little to allay them. In 1937 a German submarine flotilla visited Helsinki, and it was greeted warmly by the people and by the government. In April and in May 1938, the Finnish government presided over two great celebrations, marking the twentieth anniversary of the entry of German troops into Helsinki and of the entry of Mannerheim's forces into Helsinki, respectively, events that numerous prominent Germans attended. The Finns were also indiscreet in allowing a German naval squadron to visit Helsinki. Soviet suspicions were fuelled again by the visit to Finland in June 1939 of the German army chief of staff, General Franz Halder, who was received by the government in Helsinki and who viewed Finnish army maneuvers on the Karelian Isthmus. In summation, Finnish foreign policy between the wars was genuinely unaggressive in relation to the Soviet Union, but it lacked the appearance of unaggressiveness, a deficiency that Finland since World War II has been at pains to remedy.

With German help, Finland established regular armed forces in 1918 to 1919, using the army of the Whites as a foundation. Beginning in the 1920s, conscription was introduced, and most Finnish males were trained for military service. Finnish military doctrine presumed an essentially defensive war in which Finland's forests, lakes, and other geographical obstacles could be exploited to advantage. The Defense Review Committee, in its report of 1926, called for the establishment of a Finnish army of thirteen divisions, equipped with the most modern arms, as the surest means of deterring a possible Soviet invasion. Because of budget restraints, however, these recommendations were instituted only in part, so that when the Soviet Union did attack in November 1939, Finland had only nine available divisions, and their equipment was generally inadequate. Beginning in 1931, however, General Mannerheim had contributed ably to Finnish military preparations from his position as chairman of the Defense Council, and thousands of citizens spent the summer of 1939, without pay, strengthening the Mannerheim Line of fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus. The line later proved to be the anchor of Finland's defenses in this important area.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

List of wars involving Finland - Wikipedia
Foreign relations of Finland - Wikipedia
Finland - Security Policy
Government Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy
Determined By History: Why Sweden and Finland Will Not Be

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