The Winter War

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Historical Movie Monday returns from an end-of-semester induced hiatus to look at a film little known in the US, about a war little known outside Scandinavia. The film is the 1989 Finnish war movie Talvisota or The Winter War.

They ordered us to drive the Russians away from our positions. I’m going to the headquarters to ask them: with what men?
— Lt. Kantola in The Winter War

The history

In the fall of 1939, flush with success following his invasion of eastern Poland—divvied up with his erstwhile archenemy, now ally and partner, Adolf Hitler—Joseph Stalin planned the next step of Soviet expansion by looking northwest to Karelia and Petsamo, Finnish provinces on the Russian border. He had already managed to bully Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia into "mutual assistance" agreements, which he would shortly exploit to take those countries over, and hoped for similar success in Finland. Stalin pressed Finland to cede these territories to the Soviet Union and provide land for a naval base on the Baltic near Helsinki. The Soviets made these demands for ostensibly defensive reasons—they claimed they wanted a greater zone of security around Leningrad, for instance—but an eventual total takeover of Finland was probably the goal.

The Soviet attacks on Finland, from Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet attacks on Finland, from Wikimedia Commons

The Finns were divided, with even Baron Mannerheim, the retired commander-in-chief of the Finnish military and a fierce opponent of the Bolsheviks, arguing for concessions to the Soviets because of Stalin's perceived invincibility. When negotiations broke down in late November, Stalin had his political pretext, and the Red Army, borrowing a page from their Nazi allies, staged a border incident to provide a military pretext for an invasion of Finland. The war began November 30.

From a purely statistical point of view, Mannerheim had been wise to counsel acquiescence: Finland's population in 1939 was around three million; the Soviet Union's population was 180 million larger. The belligerents' armies were similarly mismatched, with Stalin's Red Army of around 1.6 million men, in almost 100 divisions, outnumbering the 340,000-man Finnish army almost 5-1. The Red Army was also more heavily mechanized, with thousands of up-to-date tanks and trucks available, and had huge advantages in artillery and aircraft. Nevertheless, with Soviet aggression unmasked, the Finnish army mobilized and Mannerheim returned from retirement to lead them.

Since Finland had gained independence in 1917, its military policy had been defined by the proximity of the Soviet Union, an ideologically motivated, aggressive behemoth. With mobilization, Finnish troops moved into a line of defenses across the Karelian Isthmus, the strip of land north of Leningrad between Lake Ladoga and the Baltic. The bulk of Finland's troops deployed to this line of trenchworks, bunkers, wire entanglements, and minefields—later nicknamed the Mannerheim Line—with small forces in the narrow "waist" at the middle of the country and in the far north near Petsamo. 

It was on the Mannerheim Line that the Russians met disaster and the Finns made their reputation. The Red Army, which had lost 40,000 officers in political purges the year before, was poorly and unimaginatively led, ideologically hidebound, and completely unprepared for the Finnish winter. The Finns, on the other hand, were excellent woodsmen and marksmen, were well-prepared for the cold even though a third of them came to the front with civilian clothing or equipment, were capable of lightning-strike movement through the winter landscape on skis, and—a not insignificant factor—they were fighting for their homes.

Despite being undersupplied and grossly outnumbered, the Finns resisted ferociously and bled the Russians in a savage war of attrition. Repeated assaults on the Mannerheim Line resulted in staggering casualties. The difficult, swampy, heavily forested, and lake-pocked terrain ("Finland," a British observer noted, "consists entirely of natural obstacles") channeled Russian attacks into prepared kill zones where they fell to machine guns, artillery, and snipers—a Finnish specialty. Temperatures dropped to -45° F. The Soviets had planned to celebrate victory in Finland with a triumphal parade for Stalin's birthday on December 18. Instead, the war dragged on into January, with a disastrous attempt to cut Finland in half that wasted the lives of nearly 10,000 Russian soldiers against 400 Finnish dead, and into February with renewed assaults on the Mannerheim Line. Attrition ground both sides down. The Soviets learned slowly and at enormous cost in life, but they could afford their losses more than the Finns could.

Finally, with the British, who were already at war with Stalin's ally Hitler, showing interest in intervention, the Soviets ended the war through negotiation. The Finns were forced to cede the disputed territory to Russia, but had given Stalin and his army a black eye. The Winter War looked, to much of the world, like a humiliating defeat for Stalin. To Hitler, observing, watching, plotting, it demonstrated the weakness of the Soviet military.

By the time the ceasefire went into effect the morning of March 13, 1940, the Red Army had lost over 130,000 dead and missing, with over a quarter million wounded and another 130,000 frostbitten due to the Soviet regime's inability to equip its soldiers with proper winter gear. The Finns, by comparison, lost 22,000 dead and missing and 43,000 wounded. The war had lasted 105 days.

Finnish troops under Soviet assault near Taipale in  The Winter War .

Finnish troops under Soviet assault near Taipale in The Winter War.

The film

Talvisota or The Winter War is based on the novel of the same name by Antti Tuuri. Tuuri's story follows a small unit of reservists from Ostrobothnia, in western Finland, as they are called up, deployed, and survive the war's 105 days of cold, starvation, and Russian attack. The film was released in 1989 to great acclaim in Finland and was even submitted to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated. That's a shame, because The Winter War belongs in the top tier of war films in any language.

Martti (Taneli Mäkelä) aims his rifle during a Russian assault

Martti (Taneli Mäkelä) aims his rifle during a Russian assault

I should point out that there are three versions of The Winter War in circulation. The original release ran over three hours, a cut down international release runs just over two, and an expanded TV mini-series version nearly four and a half. Though I had heard of the film even as a kid, as a faithful reader of World War II magazine, and a college roommate of Finnish ancestry had recommended it, I only got to see it last month thanks to a generous Finnish colleague, who lent me the two-hour version on DVD. I'm very interested in running down the original three-hour version.

While the film has an ensemble cast of colorful war movie types—the lady's man, the earnest officer, the wizened vet—the main character is Martti Hakala, a married farmer who deploys to the front with his dandyish younger brother Paavo. Their mother sends them off with a request that Martti look after Paavo at the front. Martti asks their platoon leader to put them into a squad together, and so the brothers train, march, and dig in along the Mannerheim Line together. There, at the beginning of December, Martti and Paavo's platoon weathers the Russian assaults on Taipale, attempted river crossings near Lake Ladoga that resulted in heavy casualties.

The Finns beat back repeated mass assaults on their trenches despite lack of armored support, little artillery ammunition, and inferior numbers. Several times the Russians infiltrate the Finnish trenches, but Martti's unit counterattacks and retakes their positions. Each attack leaves piles of Russian bodies along the front, but also whittles Martti's platoon down a little at a time. Men die randomly and brutally. One seasoned veteran doesn't even make it to the front; another, in one of the film's goriest and most poignant scenes, is cut in half by Russian artillery but lives long enough for Martti to discover him.

Martti and a wounded Paavo (Konsta Mäkelä) shelter in a trench

Martti and a wounded Paavo (Konsta Mäkelä) shelter in a trench

Martti and Paavo each get leave, and their unit is pulled out of the front line to rest once. The men make trips home, and these trips, especially when following tragedies, underline how much the war is changing the men fighting it. On his last morning at home, Martti's wife, waking early, looks at him like a stranger.

The combat scenes are thrilling and harrowing, as expertly executed as any of the big budget battles of Saving Private Ryan a decade later. The filmmakers dramatize the claustrophobia of trench-clearing, the awkward courage necessary to retake a bunker, and the difficulty of removing the dead and wounded brilliantly. The men themselves look more and more pitiful, as their faces blacken with dirt and powder residue—realistically, over their entire faces, and not in the usual Hollywood manner— and their snowsuits and uniforms shred to rags. Despite the poor video quality of the DVD transfer I was watching, I felt as if I were there—something I haven't felt about a film in a long time.

The film is technically as well as dramatically excellent. The cinematography conveys the severe cold visually, the pyrotechnics are by turns awe-inspiring and terrifying, the stunt work is excellent, and the special effects—primarily makeup and models, especially aircraft—are seamless. The film also benefits from an enviable authenticity, as the filmmakers had access to correct period equipment and gear, including Soviet T-26 tanks captured during the Continuation War fought a few years later.

The film as history

There are a couple of ways filmmakers can dramatize a war. They can take a "God's eye" approach, in which they present numerous perspectives from multiple participants. Think of older war films like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, which balance generals in conference rooms with ordinary grunts on the front lines. A step down from that godlike point of view might be the "bird's eye" view, which offers groundlevel combat with some officers or leaders with a higher level of awareness to let the audience know what's going on, why, and what's at stake. Some newer films like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down come to mind. 

A Finnish machine gun crew entrenched in the frozen woods during the Winter War

A Finnish machine gun crew entrenched in the frozen woods during the Winter War

The Winter War belongs to a final category, one that has existed since the silent era and 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front but certainly favored since Saving Private Ryan came out twenty years ago, a category that offers the ordinary soldier's view without recourse to larger explanatory structures, map tables, or exposition-reciting general officers. The Winter War offers an excellent "worm's eye" view of an important but often overlooked conflict. 

Understanding that this is the film's approach, The Winter War gets pretty much everything right, small details and large. I've already mentioned the authentic weapons, uniforms, and equipment, but it throws in some other details that help sell its authenticity. The destruction of the distinctive Finnish Lutheran church at Äyräpää makes it into the film, as do the origins of the "Molotov cocktail," an improvised explosive using wine bottles. The Molotov cocktail was not invented in Finland but was named there—after Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov—in a bit of gallows humor.

But where The Winter War really excels is in dramatizing what it was like for the Finns on the Mannerheim Line. The film largely ignores geopolitical speculations. Martti and his comrades discuss the broader significance of the war, how it started, and why, but they do so without full knowledge of their situation—like real soldiers, plunked down into chaos not of their making or choosing, really do. Their behavior and actions are perfect. They don't think of themselves as heroes even while performing herculean feats of bravery. They're scared, tired, and filthy and want to make sure they have enough bread and ammunition to make it through the next day. And what is more, the film makes you feel that. By the end of the film, as both sides stand up in the open to celebrate the ceasefire, all you can do, along with the characters, is stare in disbelief.

A final note: the colleague who lent me the film had several relatives who fought in the Winter War. One was so badly afflicted by PTSD that he killed himself some years later. "That was a whole generation who went to hell," my coworker says. The Winter War, while not downplaying the Finns' incredible bravery, shows you why.

More if you're interested

The Winter War is usually treated as a subset of World War II, often a footnote to Hitler's scheming to invade Russia. The textbook I currently teach from for Western Civ gives the conflict half a paragraph. 

The two most readily available books I've come across are The Winter War: Russia's Invasion of Finland, 1939-40, by British journalist Robert Edwards, and A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40. Both are relatively short and readable. I say "most readily available," because you may have to hunt for them. I found the former in a used book store and snatched it up, and had to order the latter from Amazon. That the copy I received was print-on-demand may indicate its scarcity and lack of demand. Let's fix that.


If you're looking for an account in a widely available survey, Antony Beevor's Second World War has a good, detailed narrative that fits the Winter War into the broader context of World War II but doesn't shortchange the ferocity of the conflict or Finnish heroism. A pretty good two-page synopsis is in A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War, by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett. There is also detailed treatment of both the Winter War and its sequel, the Continuation War, in A Concise History of Finland, by David Kirby, which I've been browsing preparatory to reading this summer.

A book I did find in Barnes & Noble and would happily recommend is Finnish Soldier vs. Soviet Soldier: Winter War 1939-40, by David Campbell. The book is part of the relatively recent Combat series from Osprey, a well-established and reliable publisher of military history books. I have a small library of Osprey guides. This one gives, in about 80 pages, a capsule summary of the war and its political context but focuses mostly on combat proper and the men involved: uniforms, weapons, equipment, communications, chain of command, food, supply, and how all of these affected the men doing the fighting. The book features three chapter-length case studies of battles along the Mannerheim Line and in the middle of the country and gives the reader a vivid picture of what it was like, which is arguably the most difficult task for historians. It's also lavishly illustrated with photos and maps. 

On the Russian side, the crucial book is The Great Terror: A Reassessment, by Robert Conquest, which covers the purges and show trials of 1938 with excruciating detail. Conquest includes several pages on the effects of the purges on the Red Army, especially its performance in Finland. Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War, by Chris Bellamy; Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941-1945, by Richard Overy; and Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, by Catherine Merridale all include examinations of the Winter War and its effects.

If I can insert a personal plug, the Winter War figures into the background of my World War II novel Dark Full of Enemies. The sniper character, Ollila, was inspired by Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä. Please do check it out if you're interested.

Finally, the kind Finnish colleague who lent me The Winter War on DVD also recommended The Unknown Soldier, a 1955 film about Finnish troops in the Continuation War. The film was adapted from a novel by Väinö Linna and has been remade twice since, most recently in 2017. This version was shot using natural light and looks beautiful and harrowing. Watch the trailer here. Penguin Modern classics brought out a new English translation of Linna's novel, published in the UK as Unknown Soldiers, in 2015 and which I got in the mail last week. I've been reading it ever since—it's excellent so far.

Coming up

Historical Movie Monday will continue. Coming up this summer, I'll get away from World War II again for a bit to look at a few ancient and medieval films and, perhaps, even my favorite baseball movie. Thanks for reading!