1939-1945 - World War II
For most of Finland's history, the country had lived on the periphery of world events, but for a few weeks during the winter of 1939-40, Finland stood at the center of the world stage. Finland's stand against Soviet aggression aroused the world's admiration. The Winter War, however, proved to be only a curtain- raiser for Finland's growing entanglement in World War II.
World War II had a profound impact on Finland. Approximately 86,000 Finns died in the war--about three times the losses suffered during the civil war. In addition, about 57,000 Finns were permanently disabled, and the vast majority of the dead and the disabled were young men in their most productive years. The war had also left 24,000 war widows; 50,000 orphans; and 15,000 elderly, who had lost, in the deaths of their sons, their means of support. In addition, about one-eighth of the prewar area of Finland was lost, including the Petsamo area with its valuable nickel mines. One-half million Finns were refugees--more than 400,000 from the ceded or leased territories and about 100,000 from Lapland, where their homes had been destroyed.
Another effect of the war was the financial burden imposed by the cost of maintaining one-half million troops in the field for several years and by the requirement to pay the Soviets reparations in kind worth US$300 million (in 1938 dollars). The Soviet lease of the Porkkala Peninsula less than twenty kilometers west of Helsinki, as a military base, was a blot on the nation's sovereignty. Finally, an intangible, but real, restriction was placed on Finland's freedom of action in international affairs. Finland's relationship with the Soviet Union was permanently altered by the war.
Despite the great losses inflicted by the war, Finland fought for and preserved its independence; nevertheless, had the Soviets been vitally concerned about Finland, there is no doubt that Finnish independence would have been extinguished. Finland emerged from the war conscious of these realities and determined to establish a new and constructive relationship with the Soviet Union.
The signing of the preliminary peace treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union on September 19, 1944, marked the beginning of a new era for Finland. Its hallmark was to be a diametrical change in Finnish policy toward the Soviet Union; the traditional hostility was to be replaced by a policy of friendship. Finnish leaders felt that only a genuine rapprochement between the two countries could guarantee Finland's long-term survival as an independent state. In the late 1980s, the new policy, operative for more than forty years,appeared to have been successful in preserving Finland's freedom. Domestically, Finland's society and economy have undergone rapid changes that have made the country a prosperous social-welfare state. Finland's achievements in the postwar years have been surviving external threats and thriving as a modern industrialized country.
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