For nearly a month, direct negotiations had persisted. Back-and-forth communications?…more than 18 months. The Soviet Union had, since April of 1938, been interested in territory that belonged to Finland, its neighbor to the west. And Finland had (more or less) politely refused.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact came and went. The combined German-Soviet removal of Poland from the map came and went. And still the Soviets negotiated with Finland. Not as far as he could kick him did Soviet dictator Jospeh Stalin trust his counterpart in Berlin. Yes, half of Poland gave Stalin a sizeable space-cushion between himself and the National Socialism he despised. But he was still afraid that Adolf Hitler would use his military might, vastly superior to any of the Scandanavian countries, to take over Finland, whose borders were just a stone’s throw from the Communist “Mecca” of Leningrad.
So, Stalin’s representatives asked that Finland give up 20 miles of territory on the Karelian Isthmus (the strip of land between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga). They also desired that Finland cede several islands in the Gulf of Finland and the northernmost tip of Finland (the Rybachi Peninsula). Finally, they asked that Finland allow them to lease the port of Hanko (on the the southernmost tip of Finland) and build a base there. Essentially Stalin was creating additional buffer space on all approaches to Leningrad.
For its part, Finland reiterated that it was a decidedly neutral nation, and any incursion (including one from Germany) would be viewed as hostile. So there was no need to give the Soviets a buffer zone…Finland would provide it for free. What’s more, giving up territory in the Karelian Isthmus meant destroying much of the Mannerheim Line, a fairly stout series of fortifications, tank traps, and pillboxes. Finland would essentially be defenseless, which wasn’t necessarily terrible…if that’s all that Stalin wanted. If. IF.
But Joseph Stalin was a man who had spent most of the last several years slaughtering thousands and thousands of officers, including a goodly number of Finnish-born officers. If his own men could not trust him, how much less a target country with almost no military power? If Finland ceded the territory, there was no way it could defend itself against subsequent aggression.
Carl Gustav Mannerheim, Finland’s leading military man, did not hold to the Finnish convention. He strongly believed Finland should give the Soviets what they wanted. He said that if the Soviets wanted the territory badly enough, they would simply take it by force, and Finland could do nothing anyway. So while Foreign Minister Eljas Erkko was convinced Stalin was bluffing, Mannerheim was not.
And so the Soviet-Finnish meetings continued. Having begun in earnest on October 12, 1939, they had lasted throughout the month. The Finnish delegation (shown above) gave some ground, offering to give up a bit of Karelian territory and some of islands, but the Mannerheim Line and the port of Hanko were simply non-negotiable.
It was on this day, November 9, 1939, that the negotiators met for the last time, where the Finnish delegation reminded Stalin of their compromises…and their unwillingness to go any further. Stalin was somewhat surprised by the intransigence he witnessed. After an hour, the meeting concluded (despite the heavy discussions) on an upbeat note. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister smiled and waved. Stalin wish the Finns the best and then departed…
…to meet with his generals and begin making plans to subdue a stubborn little pip-squeak country on its western border.
Recommended Reading: A Frozen Hell – A friend (and fellow reader of Today’s History Lesson) recommended this book to me. I’m reading it now, and it’s really good.