Tuesday, December 8, 2009
The Russo-Finnish War
On the 30th of November 1939 Joseph Stalin entered into one of the most epic of military blunders. It was an error that helped set the stage for the Hitlerite stab in the back that was the invasion of the Soviet Union. Fresh from his easy occupation of Poland, Uncle Joe decided to add some more territory to his Bolshevik Empire. In quick secession the Soviets occupied the small Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Next on the bill of fare was Finland.
On paper it did not look like that much of an issue, Finland was tiny; it had a miniscule Army with next to no heavy weapons. Russia on the other hand had a huge Army buttressed by a monstrous territory containing boundless supplies of men and materials. The great Stalin, the terror and awe of his subject peoples, was to relearn the painful lesson that battles are not won on paper but in the real world where Murphy's Law always sides with the hidden flaw.
Not that the flaws in the Soviet juggernaut were all that hidden. The entire nineteen thirties was one long display of Soviet Russia being ripped apart by the paranoid megalomaniac ruler at its center. Show trial followed show trial and the military along with all other governing structures was ruthlessly purged. The officer core of the Red Army was decimated. Experienced cadres were cashiered and then liquidated by Stalin's security apparatus. Many qualified leaders ended their days with a bullet to the back of the head or the slower death of the Gulags. Thus when the Soviets entered Finland their officer corps were both green and incompetent.
Finland on the other hand was lead by one of the true military geniuses of the 20th Century, Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim. With his highly motivated troops Mannerheim made a hash of Soviet military operations. Using the rugged terrain of Finland to his advantage Mannerheim waged a persistent guerilla war against the Soviets. Big and blundering, the Soviet Armies were picked apart piece-by-piece by the quicker, more flexible Finns. The Finns became the ne-plus-ultra of asymmetrical warfare, as case study of how a small nation can humiliate a much larger power.
Stalin did not appreciate the lesson the Finns were offering. He especially did not like the fact that he was being made the fool in international affairs. The greater war in the West had entered the doldrums making the conflict between the Finns and the Soviets the only action of note. The performance of Soviet Army under the harsh light international attention was a constant embarrassment for the Soviet state in general and Stalin in particular.
Worse for the Soviet leader, the misbegotten war emboldened Hitler who thought that the Soviet Union would be an easy mark for invasion. If tiny Finland could run roughshod over the Soviet Army, just think what Germany could do. Hitler was convinced that his blitzkrieging Armies would make short work of the Red Army. In Hitler's mind he saw Soviet Union a carbon copy of the old Imperial Russia that fell apart in WWI. Just one well placed blow would bring the whole rotten Bolshevik structure crashing down. The Finnish war was proof positive that Russians were Untermenschen, subhuman louts, who were no match for the superior Aryan race. The Winter War breaded a dangerous contempt for Russia by Hitler. Fifteen months later that contempt would become manifest in Operation Barbarossa.
The only good that came out of the Finnish War for Russia is that it was a huge wake-up call for Stalin. The military purges ended, the lucky few who survived the NKVD's clutches were returned to lists. The greatest commanders of WWII were graduates of the harsh school set up by Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria. They learned their ruthlessness and monomaniacal drive from the tender ministrations of their jailers. These men had learned the lesson of absolute obedience to Stalin's orders. Stalin, by way of contrast, learned to trust these mens' military judgments and mostly let them get on with the business of defeating Hitler's Germany.
It was a near thing for Stalin though. The reforms that finally helped Soviet Russia defeat the Nazi menace were not all in place when Hitler invaded. In 1941 and 1942 Soviet Russia would pay dearly for Stalin's paranoia and purges. The cities that paid the highest price still are a by-word for unimaginable suffering: Leningrad and Stalingrad. Both have been renamed since the fall of the Bolshevik Empire, Leningrad is once again St. Petersburg, Stalingrad is now Volgograd. Still history lies heavily on both these cities and the citizens of both metropolises remember and deeply honor the sacrifices of those who preceded them.
The chain of causation that history records can be a seriously tangled one; uncoiling this particular serpentine form is never easy. A short and foolish war for some frozen patches of real estate in 1939 lead , by twist, turns and the most improbable of Gordian Knots, to the greatest military operation of the 20th Century: the Ostfront—the Eastern Front of WWII. History is full of these kinds of improbabilities. It is filled with rulers who rush into places were angels dare not thread. It offers object lessons in the cruel mechanics of unintended consequences. The tragedy is so few bother to pay the least attention to these lessons.