Edouard Daladier and the Winter War (1939-1940)

Here we go: first real post…

Henrik Tala, PhD student in the University of Helsinki, defended his PhD last week. I had the honor to work as Tala’s opponent, since the PhD dealt with Edouard Daladier’s attitude towards the 1939-1940 Finnish-Soviet war.

A few words on the procedure, to start with. PhD defenses in Finland are essentially the end of a process that starts with a draft version being presented to a couple of examiners. This version is analyzed, commented, and the examiners decide whether or not the text is worth printing and defending in public. Normally, the examiners advise the candidate one how to improve the text, and the candidate does the corrections. After that the work is printed, most of the time with a University press. The defense is part-ceremony, part-academic discussion: since the text is already in print, the only thing at stake is the grade. A second round of examination before that would ensure that the candidate actually corrects the first draft, and would lower the threshold for the rejection of first drafts that are “good enough, but could be better” – but this is the system as it stands.

The University world in Finland, and especially in Helsinki, is ripe with traditions, costumes and rituals: PhD defenses are thus much more ceremonial than for example in France. Both custodian (kustos) and opponent wear velvety robes and a doctoral hat, speech is regulated, and everybody has a role to play.

The title of Tala’s work is Suomea pelastamassa – Ranskan pääministeri Edouard Daladier ja Ranskan apu Suomelle 1939–40 (Saving Finland – The French PM Edouard Daladier and France’s aid to Finland 1939-1940). In a nutshell, the work dealt with the reasons for Daladier’s reactions to the war between Finland and the USSR in the winter of 1939-1940.  The subject is not exactly unknown or seldom studied: as a matter of fact, the “Winter War” is probably one of the most studied subject in Finnish history. France’s role in this conflict, however, often stayed in the shadow of other actors: Great-Britain, Germany, etc. For Finnish and Anglo-Saxon researchers, France was a minor actor in the region; for French researchers, this “Scandinavian business” was mostly a sideshow to the spring 1940 tragedy.

Thus, archives and research traditions have rarely communicated between Northern Europe and France. The best researches on the subject (Jukka Nevakivi’s Apu, jota ei pyydetty, published in English under the title: The Appeal that was never made) used French archives, but was far from exhaustive and missed a lot of nuances. Previous researches have been rather harsh on Daladier’s government. The decision to send material to Finland, then to involve the Allies into operations in Northern Europe have been described in various forms: an incomprehensible “pipe-dream” (Henry Kissinger) born of chaotic circumstances and weak leadership; an attempt by the French Prime Minister to use popular feelings about Finland to keep his post as Premier (Max Jakobson); a badly planned mistake, the result of anticommunism and indecision, for which responsibility lies ultimately on Daladier’s and other French leaders’ shoulders (René Girault, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle). Francois Kersaudy has presented these decisions as a prologue to the Narvik operations.

Tala brings to this debate some more nuances, concentrating on Daladier’s decisions and on the context in which those were taken. The decision he describes is a mix of domestic policy and strategic planning about the war. Ultimately this commitment to Finland, that Daladier thought as a way to channel pro-Finland enthusiasm and to gain a stronghold in Northern Europe, depriving Germany of Sweden’s iron ore, proved a cumbersome promise. As the war started, Daladier convinced himself and several around him that something had to be done to support the Finns, and eventually to involve concretely the Allies in Northern Europe.Anticommunism had little to do with Daladier’s decision, but it explained a lot of the press reaction and domestic political reaction towards the Soviet Union’s aggression of Finland.

The French Premier made this secondary, tactical operation one of the biggest talking points of his war policy, and eventually pressure mounted to actually “do something”. Daladier relayed these pressures on others: on Britain, which he finally got into a limited “Scandinavian operation” in February 1940; on the civil servants in the French Foreign Ministry, who were unwilling to break the pretense of peaceful relations with the USSR; on the Scandinavian neutrals, who refused to let the Allies intervene on their territory; and finally on an hapless Finnish leadership, whom in early March 1940 were stuck between Moscow’s leonine conditions for peace, the shattered state of their military forces, and allied promises of help if only they continued to fight Stalin.  The Finns finally made the decision, on the 8th of March, to accept Stalin’s peace offer – a sensible decision, taken after several weeks of soul-searching fed by allied promises. A decision that saved the country – in the circumstances of March 1940, it is very unlikely that any allied intervention force would have reached Finland quick enough and with sufficient force to prevent Stalin from seizing the Finnish coastal South.

During these months, a secondary matter (intervention in Scandinavia), meant as a way to open a new front on the peripheries against Germany, became the flagship of Daladier’s war policy. The Premier bears prime responsibility here: weak, versatile, easily influenced, Daladier convinced himself of both the strategic and the domestic political advantages of a new, Northern front. Finland served as a pretext for an operation that could, he thought, contribute to the blockade around Germany. Like in the First World War, the Nordic Countries’ neutrality was considered as a hole in Germany’s encirclement, a crack in the armor. Neutrals were asked to chose their side. Some were asked quite brutally, as Sweden and Norway, who were repeatedly approached to allow the Allies’ crossing of their territory. Some were asked with a bit more manners: the whole Finnish affair was considered in France also as a showpiece to convince the USA to chose the allied camp, fighting for liberty and supporting small states, against the tyranny of Hitler and Stalin.

Eventually, Daladier’s plans failed to crystallize as the Finns hesitated but refused to call for aid and signed a peace with Moscow on March 13th, 1940. Daladier stumbled in Parliament, resigned, but continued as a Minister in Paul Reynaud’s government to supervise the Narvik operations.

In my own PhD, I described the 1939-1940 war as an exception in Franco-Nordic and Franco-Finnish relations, while underlining some elements of continuity. Since the 1920s, the French policy in the Eastern Baltic had been to muster understanding and peaceful relations between the USSR and its small Western neighbors, under the aegis of the League of Nations. The French constantly mediated, trying to usher in peaceful regional cooperation. Only in 1938-1939, with the rise of tensions, will the French start to consider a sort of “Russian imperial stabilization” as an option for this region. The Winter War appeared in this continuum as an exception, where the circumstances of the war bring Daladier to break with this conciliatory tradition. In this respect, Daladier’s projects remind one of the 1919 project of intervention against Saint-Petersburg with Finnish, White Russian and Estonian forces; exceptional intervention periods against Russia in a long-term policy characterized by the fear of German influence and the research of regional cooperation schemes involving Russia. The Winter War thus appears as one point of equilibrium in the delicate balance France tried to strike since 1917 between its relations with Eastern European small powers and its relations with Russia/the USSR. This is something I dwelt upon a bit more in two publications, one in French (my contribution to the book of Dessberg & Schakenbourg, Les horizons de la politique extérieure française, Stratégie diplomatique et militaire dans les régions périphériques et les espaces seconds), the other in English (my contribution to the book of Corum, Mertelsmann & Piirimäe, The Second World War and the Baltic States).

Continuity can be found, however, in the incredible enthusiasm of the French press and public opinion towards Finland, and in the concentration of decisions and influence in Paris, between a group of French leaders, Finnish envoys, and various lobbyists and networks (to use Julien Gueslin‘s excellent expression, the “itinerary salesmen” of Finnish realities in France).

The Winter War had long been the flagship of classical historical methodologies (political, strategic, diplomatic history) and a towering landmark in Finland’s national tale – this is less the case today, with a more diversified approach to the conflict. Tala’s work, on the other hand, remains in the fold of classical diplomatic history, but with a broad view of decision-making in foreign relations and an interest for the effects of society and representations on this decision-making.

Despite disagreeing on a few details, I liked the work as a solidly researched, well-written study cross-referencing a mass of documents from both France and Finland. Trans-border historical research is still rare enough to deserve praise, and Tala’s work is commendable in that respect.

I poked him a bit about his title, which I found unnecessary grandiloquent, and to which I would have added a question mark. Tala made his point, however, along three lines. First, it is difficult to tell what was Daladier’s intention (save Finland or intervene in the North? Certainly both, with the later clearly ahead). Second, he emphasized that Daladier was the primus motor in actually getting Britain interested in the North of Europe and ready to intervene there. Finally, as an aside of his work, we discussed the role Allied grandstanding and rumors of intervention did influence Stalin to propose peace to the Finns – albeit on extremely harsh terms.

The Winter War has been an important subject for historical debate in Finland, and I was waiting for the worst sort of media interest: unrelated to the content of the PhD under discussion, unaware of the nuances of the subject, and mostly interested in soundbites about good/bad guys, and how Finland “defended itself”, was “saved” or “attacked”. Considering the role of the Winter War in Finland’s symbolic life, this is clearly unavoidable, but always difficult to maneuver without losing sight of scientific integrity. But finally media interest was quite discreet and rather matter-of-fact, as can be seen in this article for Helsingin Sanomat. Presented with two reasons why Daladier “helped” Finland, most articles decided of course to emphasize domestic policy concerns in the title and develop the strategic aspects only in the text – Finland as the victim of a French Prime Minister’s domestic ambitions makes for a better title than Finland as part of complex strategic planning. Which is fair enough, I guess.

But this relative lack of interest can also be explained by the nature of Tala’s subject. His work touched on a part of the conflict that remains obscure to many, and it lacked grand revelations or scandalous statements. That aside, maybe historical research on the Winter War does not anymore stir up the Finnish public interest quite the way it used to.

Edit 2014: Tala’s PhD has now been published by Minerva.

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