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The end of the Winter War

The road to peace and the closure of the war




The first probe for negotiations


After the Soviet Union lost it's chance of a quick victory during December 1939 and after Finland managed to achieve considerable victories, the attitude of foreign powers towards the Finnish government started to change. The Soviet government, which had declined to start any negotiations with the Finnish government in Helsinki during December 1939 (the USSR had considered it's puppet government, "the government of the Democratic Republic of Finland", led by a Finnish communist Otto Ville Kuusinen, to be the only legitimate government of Finland) suddenly, in late January, responded to a Finnish attempt to explore the possibilities of a peace treaty.

The previous attempts made through the US and Germany had been rejected, but on January 29th, the Swedish Foreign Minister Christian Gunther received a telegram from Molotov via Aleksandra Kollontai, the Soviet ambassador in Sweden, in where the Soviet government announced that "the Soviet government is not opposed to concluding an agreement with the Ryti-Tanner government," and if the Finns made "adequate proposals," meaning that negotiations with the Finnish government in Helsinki could be started. The telegram was a political turning point of the war. The "People's Government of Kuusinen" was as suddenly as it was formed supplanted from any political role.

The offer of negotiations had, considering the present situation, hard conditions. Molotov was only willing to negotiate, if the large demands of the previous Fall was included. This made it hard for the Finnish government to decide the next course of action. The Front-line was still far from the line that the USSR was demanding, and the situation on the fronts quite stable.


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The Finnish government responded on February 2nd, announcing that it was willing to negotiate if the Soviet demands would be lighter. On February 6th, the Soviet government responded with a negative answer, but it left open the possibility for a new contact in the future.

As the Finnish government sent it's response to the first Soviet telegram, the Red Army started it's major offensive in the Karelian Isthmus, and the Finnish situation on the Karelian Isthmus started to deteriorate.


The Allied help


On Feb. 6th, the Finnish government was told that the Allied High Command had decided to offer military help to Finland if it would be formally asked. (The allied motive behind this was morally questionable. The objective of the expedition force was firstly to increase military presence in Scandinavia, threatening the ore-transports from North Sweden to Germany, and secondly to help Finland.) The French had been especially fond of the idea, but the somewhat obscure plans were starting to get shape only after the British took a supportive stand during January 1940.

(The Soviet government was aware of these plans right from the start. The expedition force was a real threat to the Soviet government, as it was now possible that the Winter War would escalate into a conflict between the allies and the Soviet Union.)


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The help offered by the Allies

The Allied plan, approved on February 5th, by the Allied High Command, consisted of 100 000 British and 35 000 French troops to be sent to Narvik, and from there "towards Finland" securing the supply routes along the way. It was hoped that this would eventually bring the two still neutral Nordic countries, Norway and Sweden into the Allied side (by strengthening their positions against Germany).

Many criticized the plan right from the start. The British War Office marked that the allies were totally unprepared for such a venture. Despite many protests, the plan was agreed to be launched on March 20th 1940 if two conditions were met:

1) Finland would plead for help, and
2) Norway and Sweden would grant passage.
(The British Marshal E.Ironside criticized the plan openly, he said that he was sure that the Nordic countries would oppose any allied transit attempts "...what would these countries hope to gain by giving a permission for transit? They would almost certainly have to face Germany and be occupied!" The British Marshal A.Brook called the plan "The Finnish wild goose", adding that dividing the allied forces would result in "certain doom".)

The strength of the Allied forces, that would really arrive to Finland's aid was always uncertain (the telegrams from London and from Paris gave different numbers). The estimations ranged from 50 000 (most optimistic) to 6 000 (most pessimistic).

As the peace negotiations were in the closing phase, the last allied offer arrived, where 57 000 men were promised to come to Finland's aid. From this number 15 000 would arrive within 3 weeks, and the rest as soon as possible. It was Mannerheim's opinion, that the help wouldn't arrive in time to help much, that the final Finnish plead for help was never sent to the Allies.


The Finnish government was now forced to make a decision about the next course of action, considering the following triangle of unknowns

1.) The situation on the fronts (it was steadily getting worse)
2.) The Allied offer to send direct military help (the offer was still uncertain and too small, and were the allies really prepared to help Finland? )
3.) The Soviet offer for negotiations (the demands were unacceptable at the time, as they were considered to be too hard).

The Finnish political leadership was divided with different opinions. On Feb. 10th, the whole day was spent debating the next course of action. The best order for the following possibilities by the Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner was 1) to make peace with the Soviet Union (an opinion that was supported by the Finnish General HQ), 2) to receive sufficient help from Sweden (it was asked in early February and the answer was a clear "no"), 3) the last option would've to be the help from the allies (the Finnish General HQ judged the Allied effort to be inadequately prepared). Some members of the Cabinet opposed peace, as it incorporated large territorial cessions. It was ultimately the situation on the front-line that tipped the scale to favor the decision to pursue peace as recommended by Tanner and the Finnish Prime Minister Risto Ryti (The Finnish President K.Kallio, Marshall Mannerheim and Minister J.K.Paasikivi were also voting for the peace, while ministers Niukkanen, Hannula and J.Söderhjelm were against it).

On February 12th, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received the peace terms via the Finnish ambassador Erkko in Stockholm. The Soviet Union demanded that in addition to Hanko, Finland had to cede the whole Karelian Isthmus and the area north of Lake Ladoga.

On Feb. 13th, Tanner traveled to Stockholm and met the Swedish Prime Minister Hansson, who gave a negative answer for Finnish pleads for substantial (other than volunteers and supplies) military assistance. The decision was a disappointment to the Finns, especially as the decision was published in a Swedish newspaper on Feb. 16th followed by an announcement by the King of Sweden emphasizing the Swedish neutrality. On the other hand, this was made (according to the Swedish explanation) to recommend the Finnish government to pursue peace and not to hope for substantial military assistance from Sweden.

On Feb. 15th, Mannerheim was forced to state that the Finnish counter attacks in the Lähde-sector in Summa had been unsuccessful and the II Corps was ordered to withdraw to the intermediate line (Väliasema in Finnish).


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The new Soviet demands, late February


On Feb. 21st, the foreign affairs committee was summoned by Tanner, and the situation was discussed. Tanner reported the situation on the front and the prerequisites for peace. That same evening, Tanner asked the Swedish Foreign Minister Gunther to act as an intermediary in the process. Two days later, the detailed demands from Molotov were received via the Swedish ambassador in Moscow, Minister Assarsson.

The Finnish government discussed the terms that same evening. It was decided that before the final decision was made, the final answers had to be get from Sweden about the possible Swedish assistance and to permit the Allied expeditionary force to cross Swedish territory. The written answer was handed to Erkko by Gunther the next day. No extra assistance was possible and the permission for the Allied troops couldn't be given. The Swedish Prime Minister Hansson told later, that Sweden would be dragged into war against Finland on the Soviet side if Allied troops would try to cross Sweden against it's will.

In the meeting of the foreign affairs committee on Feb. 28th, Tanner stated that Finland didn't have any other options left than accept the peace by the given demands, and the PM Ryti, ministers V.Kotilainen, J.K.Paasikivi, P.Heikkinen and J.Koivisto agreed. President Kallio thought that the opinion of Mannerheim was essential in the decision, so the decision was delayed for a day. Mannerheim had a very pessimistic view of the situation, and the military high command was unanimously in favor for peace. After this, the whole government, except the Minister of Education U.Hannula, were ready to accept the peace terms.

A message was sent to Erkko in Stockholm, in where the Finnish government was accepting the terms as the starting point for negotiations. But this message was not to be handed to Gunther to be delivered without a special order.

On March 1st, at 1030 hrs, this order was the subject in a meeting of President Kallio and the Cabinet. The Allied activity had increased during the previous night, and the new official French declaration was that 50 000 men would arrive to Finland in late March. France and Britain would take care of the permissions from Norway and Sweden. France made also a request to stop any further negotiations with the Soviet Union. The size and speed of the promised help had a clear effect on the Finnish Cabinet. No-one was demanding a clear acceptance of the Soviet peace terms. A new, less accepting message was sent to Erkko in Stockholm, that would be sent to Molotov.

On March 3rd, Tanner and Gunther had a telephone conversation, in where Tanner stated that Finland was ready to negotiate if two cities, Viipuri and Sortavala, would be left to the Finns. The telegram to Moscow was sent that same day. On March 5th, the response from Molotov came in via Gunther. The Soviet Union was not giving in to any lesser terms than already stated. The response from Tanner was given right away, the Finnish government was ready to negotiate for peace.

On March 6th, at 0100 hrs, the Swedish ambassador Assarsson received the response from Molotov. At 1500 hrs, the Cabinet and President Kallio decided that the Finnish delegation was to consist of PM Ryti, Paasikivi, Major General Walden and V.Voionmaa, a Member of the Parliament.

While the Finnish delegation had already left, discussions were continued about the plead for Allied help. Mannerheim was considering the situation so severe that the plead should be made in order to relieve some political pressure from the Soviet Union. The problem was, that by each evaluation of the possibility of the Allied help, that would actually arrive in time to make an effect, the numbers changed into a smaller and smaller number. Tanner stated that the plead for the Allied powers was no longer a feasible choice.


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The negotiations in Moscow


On March 8th, the first negotiation was made, the Soviet representatives were Molotov, A.Zdanov and General A.M.Vasilevski.

While the Finnish delegation expressed that the demands were extremely hard for the Finnish people to accept, not to mention the economical effects. At the end of his speech, Ryti continued "...I hope that in an atmosphere of conciliation, a solution could be found that would adequately meet the military demands of the Soviet Union, without leaving utter bitterness into the hearts of the Finnish people."
Paasikivi described Molotov's reaction in the following way "... To these reasonable and quite true words Molotov responded in a way, that showed that he couldn't comprehend the situation from our point of view".
Molotov response began by a statement that "...the Soviet Union didn't want war... we were patient with you last Fall, and tried to find a peaceful solution. But nothing came out from those negotiations. This is a sign of Finnish hostility towards the Soviet Union, and the hostility was even greater than we had thought." Molotov blamed the Finnish government of planning to allow hostile forces to cross it's territory in an attack against the Soviet Union. That's why the issue of the safety of Leningrad is even more important, and the old demands aren't enough. The other demands in the north are only to secure the Murmansk railroad and to secure Murmansk from hostile intentions.

The negotiations were ended in a hidden ultimatum, "...Our confidence has been betrayed...Finland is to accept these demands in full, or the war will continue."

On the next day, the detailed demands were sent by telegram to Helsinki. The President and the Cabinet discussed the terms in two meetings. All attendants were shocked by the final terms. Minister Hannula demanded, as before, that the appeal to the Allies should be made, this time backed up by the Defense Minister Niukkanen. The first meeting was ended when Mannerheim phoned that he would give a detailed report of the current situation at 2200 hrs.

The report was grim indeed. The situation at the front was near catastrophic. The commander of the II Corps, Lt.Gen. Öhquist, stated that the front could maybe hold for a week, but no more. The Finnish suffered average daily losses of nearly 1 000 men, and especially the officer losses were alarming. The only conclusion was, that any delays in the peace negotiations would result only in worse conditions and harder demands.

Again, all attendants, except Hannula and Niukkanen, supported the motion of giving the delegation full authorization in accepting the peace. President Kallio, who had had some doubts in continuing the negotiations was alarmed by Mannerheim's report, that he supported the authorization of the delegation.

During March 10th and 11th, Mannerheim phoned Tanner many times trying to speed up the negotiations. "Viipuri is going to fall in a few days..." was his view of the situation.

In the morning of March 12th, the Presidential letter of attorney was approved by the Cabinet, giving the delegation full authorization to sign the peace treaty. After signing the letter, President Kallio uttered "This is the most horrible paper I've ever signed... Let my hand wither, which is forced to sign such a paper." (my translation, the text in the original Finnish form:"Tämä on kamalin paperi, jonka olen koskaan allekirjoittanut... Kuivukoon käteni, joka on pakotettu tällaisen paperin allekirjoittamaan"). Minister Niukkanen wanted to resign immediately, but Tanner persuaded him to keep the Cabinet together until the peace was signed.

The peace treaty was eventually signed in the early hours of March 13th, but it was dated to the previous day, the text being dictated by the Soviet Union. The treaty was written in three languages, Finnish, Swedish and Russian. Both sides got a copy of each version.
- The Finnish Parliament decided to ratify the treaty on March 15th by 145 votes (a total of 200 members of Parliament, 3 of whom voted against the ratification, 9 voted "empty" and 42 didn't attend, Voionmaa was in the delegation, so his vote was not included).-

At 1100 hrs, the cease-fire began, and the front was suddenly dead quiet.

At 1530 hrs, the Finnish military flag was first lowered into half-mast, hoisted Back to Top, and finally lowered in the Castle of Viipuri (unlike the Soviet sources indicated after the war, the Red Army never conquered Viipuri during the Winter War, reaching only the suburbs in early March without ever taking the city center). This was the third time during the Citadel's 650-year history when a "western" flag was lowered in face of an eastern enemy.


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The Moscow Peace Treaty


A map showing the ceded areas
  • The new SE border will follow in principle the border of "Peter the Great" drawn in 1721, where the entire Karelian isthmus with the city of Viipuri, the whole of Viipuri Bay with its islands, as well as the territory west and north of Lake Ladoga with the cities of Käkisalmi and Sortavala, are ceded.

  • A part of the area near Salla and Kuusamo are ceded, due to the closeness of the Murmansk railroad

  • In Kalastajasaarento (the island NE of Petsamo, Rybachi Peninsula in English), the western part of the island is ceded

  • The Finnish islands in the eastern part of Gulf of Finland are ceded (Suursaari and the islands to the east)

  • Hanko and the surrounding area is for 30 years (the Soviet Union gets the right to establish a military base, with as much armed forces as deemed necessary)

Additional demands / conditions

  • Finland is to build a railroad from Salla to Kemijärvi, connecting eventually to the Swedish railroad network. (This was a major threat, as it would create a good supply route for an attack through Finland to the Swedish border).

  • The Soviet Union (and it's citizens) gets the right to go through Petsamo to Norway

  • The Finnish naval strength in the Arctic is restricted to 400 tons (wasn't a big demand since the Finnish Navy didn't have any notable vessels there)

  • A trade agreement is to be made between Soviet Union and Finland

  • All evacuated "installation" equipment, from the ceded territory is to be returned. The Finnish opinion was, that this would apply only to equipment evacuated after the peace was signed. But the Soviet opinion was that, regardless of the time of evacuation, the equipment of economical installations including e.g. hotels, mills, hospitals, movie theaters and sanitariums were to be returned. As a result, the equipment of some 70 installations were returned alongside with 75 locomotives and some 2 000 carriages (some 10 % of Finland's total railroad equipment), a large number of cars, trucks etc., 78 different vessels and 267 barges.

  • The Enso (Svetogorsk) industrial area was in the original peace treaty clearly on the Finnish side of the border (as in fact stated by the Finnish-Soviet border committee). On March 20th, the Soviet Union demanded the area to itself. Enso had no military significance whatsoever, but it was extremely important to Finland's economy. A strong Soviet military detachment came to the border where they told the local Finnish commander Major V.Ursin that they were under the direct command of the Soviet high command to occupy the Enso industrial installations. As a result, on March 21st, to prevent the hostilities from erupting, Major Ursin issued an order to withdraw. Later the maps showing the borderline were modified to include this new Soviet "gain".

  • Both parties refrain from any attacks, alliances or coalitions that are directed against the other.

(Note, that the Soviet Union withdrew from Petsamo, even while it had occupied the area during the war. The reason behind this was probably that Kremlin didn't want any further deterioration of relationships with the British, as a British-Canadian Mining Co. held the mining license to the Petsamo nickel mines.)


Reactions of the Finnish people

To the Finnish public, the hard peace terms came as a shock. Feelings ranged between utter disbelief to rage against the aggressor. While Finland had gained major victories against the Soviet forces invading Finland in northern Finland and Ladoga Karelia, and the Soviet losses in the Isthmus had been massive, the general public was mostly unaware of how close the Finnish Army was from complete exhaustion and running out of ammunition. Nearly all had believed, that if the peace would come, the new border would run along the line that was held stubbornly in the last days.

On March 13th, everywhere in Finland, the national flag was hoisted to half-mast.


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The effect of the treaty on the Finnish economy

The ceded territory was over 10 % of Finland's territory, some 40 000 km² (roughly the size of the Netherlands).

The ceded territory had housed some 450 000 Finns, roughly 12 % of the total population. Nearly 100 % of the Finnish population moved to Finland (quite rare in the world history), rather than becoming Soviet citizens. This was a good thing for Finland as a nation, but a major burden for the economy. (As the ceded territories were empty, this made it easier to the Soviet Union to merge them into "Soviet" territory by simply transporting thousands of people into the new areas).


The peace treaty inflicted a severe blow to the Finnish economy. One of the most severe problems was grain. The ceded territory, and the fact that the war had ended any fertilizer imports to Finland combined with bad weather had decreased the Finnish grain production to 60 - 65% of the required. Famine was a threat.

Over 10 % of Finnish agricultural areas were lost (mostly in the Karelian Isthmus). Over 60 % of the local population had earned their livings from agriculture, and 84 % of the farms were small (below 10 hectare) owned by independent peasants.


11 % of the total deposit of forests was lost by the ceded territories (note that the forests in the south grow faster than in middle - north Finland, a seemingly insignificant thing, but on a national scale, quite important). Alongside the forests, 15 % of the wood industry (sawmills, paper mills etc.) was lost, not to mention other industry.

Over 17 % of Finland's electricity output was lost, as was 17 % of the railroad network. Many ancient waterways (important e.g. in transporting logs to sawmills) were severed, as was the Saimaa-canal, a really important route from the big lakes in SE-Finland to Viipuri. Viipuri was Finland's third biggest city, a prosperous trading center and the biggest port for timber exports.

Hanko, which was leased for 30 years, was an important port and an industrial center.

Nickel was the only strategic natural resource that Finland had. It's importance to Germany and to the Soviet Union was only growing, the longer the world war was lasting. The increased Soviet presence and interest in the Petsamo region would prove to be a real headache for the Finnish leadership in the following months.

The losses of civilian property was enormous. In addition to industrial (and the like) buildings, e.g. over 600 schools, 15 different institutes, 33 orphanages, hospitals, a valuable historical archive were lost to the former enemy. The task of rebuilding the destroyed and damaged homes and installations at the Home Front, and providing new homes to the Karelian refugees was an enormous for a small nation like Finland, especially since the threat of a future conflict was clear and the country was still arming itself



See also:

The text of the
Moscow peace treaty

Information about human casualties on both sides
The Casualties of the Winter War

For questions about picture copyrights, see 'Sources' page

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