Analyzed from the International – Especially Legal – Perspective

By Professor Lauri Hannikainen

Analyzed from the International – Especially Legal – Perspective

 Lauri Hannikainen


 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 Po- land and divided it between themselves. It was not long before the Soviet Union ap- proached Finland by proposing exchanges of certain territories: ‘in our national inter- est 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 sev- eral 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 So- viet 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 obliga- tions 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

©   koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ����   |  doi:10.1163/��115897_01701_006

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.


 war  of  aggression  –  armed  force  in  self-defence  –  occupation  –  Finland  in  World War ii – Finland as an ally of  Germany – the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty – the Kellogg- Briand Pact

1. Introduction

1.1. Finland’s First Two Decades of Independence

The first decades of  Finland’s independence were turbulent times.1 The au- tonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire declared its independence on 6 December 1917. The revolutionary Bolshevik regime of Russia gave its formal recognition to Finland’s independence on 31 December – in the name of peo- ples’ right to self-determination. Recognitions were soon received from others of Finland’s neighbours and a number of other European States, such as Ger- many and France. In early 1918 a civil war broke out in Finland, when the Reds, representing the lower classes, rebelled against the bourgeois White govern- ment. The Reds were inspired, encouraged and materially helped by the Bol- shevik regime.2

The bloody civil war lasted until mid-May and resulted in the victory of the White side, with the help of military intervention by Germany, which took place upon invitation by the Whites. The Reds were severely punished and masses of Red prisoners died in the camps due to poor nourishment and epi- demic diseases.3

Finland was under the sovereignty of Sweden for many centuries and under the Russian Em- pire’s sovereignty from 1809 until 191

  • See
    Hannikainen, ‘The Finnish Civil War 1918 and its Aftermath’, in L. Hannikainen &
  1. Hanski & A. Rosas (eds.), Implementing Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts The Case of Finland, (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht, 1992), pp. 9–12; J. Kekkonen, Kun aseet puhuvat, (Art House, Helsinki, 2016), pp. 95–99.
  • Kekkonen, ibid, 41–174.

Finland’s Continuation War (1941–1944)                                   Finland was not satisfied with its eastern boundary. It demanded sovereign- ty over the whole of Karelia – even Eastern Karelia that had belonged to Russia for a long time. The Karelians belong to the Finno-Ugric tribe. Finland consid- ered itself as the mother country of Karelia. Finland organized military inter- ventions to Eastern Karelia in 1918–19; however, all were unsuccessful.4

The disagreements between Finland and Bolshevik Russia were settled by the  Peace  Treaty  of  Tartu  (Dorpat)  in  1920.5  Finland  had  some  freedom  of choice on whether it would like to have sovereignty over a part of Eastern Kare- lia or over the Pechenga region in the north. Finland opted for Pechenga as this secured Finnish access to the Arctic Ocean. Eastern Karelia remained under Russia.6 Russia gave, however, a unilateral declaration assuring that it would grant  autonomy  to  Eastern  Karelia.7 This  declaration  was  not  a  part  of  the Peace Treaty and was not strictly binding. The question about the potential threat of the vicinity of the border to the security of St Petersburg (Leningrad) was not on the table as an important matter (see Figure 1).

In 1921 anti-Bolshevik forces in Eastern Karelia revolted against Bolshevik power.  Finnish  fighters  played  a  substantial  role  in  the  resulting  armed conflict – one of the leading figures of the revolting forces was the Finnish Ma- jor Paavo Talvela. The revolt was suppressed by the Bolsheviks.8 The Finnish action violated the Tartu Peace Treaty.

Finland became a member of the League of Nations in 1921, whereas Russia (the Soviet Union since 1922) remained outside. Finland attempted to bring the case of Eastern Karelia to the leading organs of the League and was to some degree successful but, ultimately, this effort failed.9

In these two neighbouring countries, their civil wars had ended differently. In Russia, the Bolsheviks were able to defeat the White forces, whereas in Fin- land the Whites were victorious. No surprise that relations between these  neighbouring countries remained cool, even somewhat hostile.

  • Hannikainen, supra note 2, 32–40, and J. Niinistö, Heimosotien historia 1918–1922 (sks, Helsinki, 2005), pp. 10–85 and 148–183.
  • Treaty of Peace between Finland and Russia, 3 lnts
  • See Niinistö, Bobi Sivén, Karjalan puolesta (sks, Helsinki, 2001), pp. 149–165.
  • Kallenautio, Suomi katsoi eteensä – Itsenäisen Suomen ulkopolitiikka 1917–1955 (Tammi, Hel- sinki, 1985), pp. 62–66.
  • See Nygård, Suur-Suomi vai lähiheimolaisten auttaminen, (Otava, Helsinki, 1978), p. 87, Ni- inistö, supra note 4, pp. 246–261, and H. Seppälä, Suomi miehittäjänä 1941–1944 (SN-kirjat, Helsinki, 1989), pp. 13–14.
  • Permanent Court of International Justice: Finland Russia, Advisory Opinion on the Status of Eastern Carelia, Advisory Opinion No. 5, 1923, (visited on 19 February 2010).

In the early 1930s, the Soviet Union wanted to strengthen its security through

non-aggression  treaties  with  its  neigbouring  States.  Finland  and  the  Soviet Union concluded their Non-aggression Treaty in 1932; its binding force was ex- tended until 1945 in an additional Protocol in 1934.10 If  the parties were not able to settle their disputes through diplomatic negotiation, they had to sub- mit them to international mediation before a specific mediation board. Under the Protocol, it was not permitted to denounce the treaty before 1945. The So- viet Union was accepted into membership of the League of Nations in 1933. Notwithstanding  the  bilateral  treaty,  Finnish-Soviet  relations  were  quite strained. In Moscow, Finland was regarded as one of the most anti-Soviet Eu- ropean States whose face was turned towards Germany, which after the take- over by the Nazis became the ideological arch enemy of the Soviet Union.11 The atmosphere became very tense towards the end of the 1930s.

1.2                                    Scope of this Article

In this article I plan to analyse and draw conclusions regarding Finland’s role in the Continuation War: the primary question is whether it was a war of ag- gression or of defence under international law. The related secondary ques- tion is whether it was a war of alliance with Germany or something else, for example, a war of co-belligerents in which both had their own separate goals and cooperated only to a limited extent – or was it simply Finland’s separate war against the Soviet Union? In my legal analysis, I take a broad view and try to discuss all relevant factors in order to make the analysis rich and, hope- fully, to be able to arrive at well-reasoned conclusions. I also discuss the treat- ment Finland received after the Continuation War from the victorious Allied powers.

Historians have extensively examined the Continuation War and the events preceding it, but no international legal analyses have been done for over 75 years.  During the Continuation War, the Finnish government requested the leading Finnish expert in international law, Professor Rafael Erich, to write a legal analysis in support of Finland. I will naturally analyse Erich’s report. Finn- ish historians have focused on analysing the question whether the Continua- tion  War  was  a  war  of  alliance  or  something  less.  I  fully  understand  that historians do not want to become judges on what has happened, but focus in

  • See Suomen Asetuskokoelman Sopimussarja 13/1932 and 58/1 The original language of the treaty and of the protocol was French.
  • Kallenautio, supra note 7, pp. 146–148.


Finland’s Continuation War (1941–1944)                              their studies to finding out what happened and how and why. To a limited de- gree, some historians have addressed some legal aspects of the present theme, but I have found no attempts to analyze the aggression/defence theme in legal terms.

My main method in this article is decidedly normative, primarily and as much as possible legal and secondarily moral. The reason for this choice can be found from the previous paragraph. If historians have written numerous stud- ies about the Continuation War, but no international legal expert has endeav- oured to examine objectively the questions formulated in the first paragraph of this section, surely it is reasonable for me to choose the normative approach? This method is commonplace in legal research: to analyse legal norms and to try to end up with a well-reasoned conclusion – in this case, to interpret wheth- er, in the first months of the Continuation War, Finland violated the Kellogg- Briand Pact and was guilty of an aggressive war, or not. Since I am not a judge but a scholarly analyst, I prefer to examine the case in a broader international and political perspective.

Is the approach chosen here relevant more than seventy years after the Con-

tinuation War? Historians have examined this war extensively and engaged in a lively discussion. I want to enrich the picture by adding the perspective of normative international law in this discussion.

I start my legal analysis from the late autumn of 1939. Since the Soviet Union grossly violated international law in the Winter War, was not Finland justified in resorting to armed force and besides taking back the territories lost at the end of the Winter War also justified in proceeding even further to the East for the purpose of obtaining reparation for the gross violation of its sovereignty and perhaps to secure better possibilities to defend itself  against the Soviet Union?

In this article, I examine Finnish and foreign historians’ writings about the Continuation War. Additionally, the views of foreign non-academic experts, such as diplomats, are discussed. Since especially leading Western powers and Sweden closely followed the developments of the Continuation War and Fin- land’s policies, it is advisable to include the views of their representatives in this study. The legal analysis will of course resort to international instruments and writings by international legal experts.

Among my leading history sources, I mention the book Finland in World War ii (2012) in which 14 Finnish and one German younger generation histori- ans analyse Finland’s role from different angles – however, not from the legal angle. Regarding international law, besides certain conventions and treaties, my main source is Professor Ian Brownlie’s excellent book International Law and the Use of Force by States, 1963. I also resort to a number of other legal ex- perts but regret that none of them has analysed the Continuation War in any depth.

Analyses by contemporary historians have poorly penetrated the conscience of the leadership of Finland and the public at large, who continue to maintain highly patriotic interpretations of Finland’s role in the Continuation War – pointing to Finland’s separate war from Germany.

This article goes on as follows: Part 2 discusses Finland’s complicated path to the Continuation War, its waging of – and difficult exit from – the war, in- cluding the main provisions of the Paris Peace Treaty. Part 3 contains analysis, primarily legal analysis. The article ends with concluding observations.

For more information please visit: