Finland’s Continuation War (1941–1944): War of Aggression or Defence? War of Alliance or Separate War?

Analyzed from the International – Especially Legal – Perspective

In: Baltic Yearbook of International Law Online
Lauri Hannikainen
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In September 1939, after having included a secret protocol on spheres of influence in the so-called Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland and divided it between themselves. It was not long before the Soviet Union approached Finland by proposing exchanges of certain territories: ‘in our national interest we want to have from you certain territories and offer in exchange territories twice as large but in less crucial areas’. Finland, suspicious of Soviet motives, refused – the outcome was the Soviet war of aggression against Finland by the name of the Winter War in 1939–1940. The Soviet Union won this war and compelled Finland to cede several territories – about 10 per cent of Finland’s area.

After the Winter War, Finland sought protection from Germany against the Soviet Union and decided to rely on Germany. After Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Finland joined the German war effort in the so-called Continuation War and reoccupied the territories lost in the Winter War. Finnish forces did not stop at the old border but occupied Eastern (Soviet) Karelia with a desire eventually to annex it. By that measure, Finland joined as Germany’s ally in its war of aggression against the Soviet Union in violation of international law. In their strong reliance on Germany, the Finnish leaders made some very questionable decisions without listening to warnings from Western States about possible negative consequences.

Germany lost its war and so did Finland, which barely avoided entire occupation by the Soviet Army and succeeded in September 1944 in concluding an armistice with the Soviet Union. Finland lost some more territories and was subjected to many obligations and restrictions in the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty, dictated by the Allies.

This article analyses, according to the criteria of international law, Finland’s policy shortly prior to and during the Continuation War, especially Finland’s secret dealings with Germany in the months prior to the German attack against the Soviet Union and Finland’s occupation of Eastern Karelia in the autumn of 1941. After Adolf Hitler declared that Germany was fighting against the Soviet Union together with Finland and Romania, was the Soviet Union entitled – prior to the Finnish attack – to resort to armed force in self-defence against Finland? And was Finland treated too harshly in the aftermath of World War ii? After all, its role as an ally of Germany had been rather limited.

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