Miks demokraatia Soomet ei päästnud? Ühendkuningriigi-Soome sõda ja demokraatliku rahu teooria [Why did democracy not save Finland? The war between the United Kingdom and Finland, and the democratic peace proposition]

Ago Raudsepp


In 1941 on Finland’s Independence Day, the 6th of December, the United Kingdom declared war on Finland. The question whether it was a war at all between those two countries cannot be raised (at least in the legal sense), because if there was a need to conclude Peace Treaty in 1947 then there must have been a war. There was a war in the military sense, but in a peculiar way it did not follow but rather preceded the declaration of war. In July 1941, British bombers attacked Petsamo in Northern Finland, and in September-October 1941 British fighters stationed in Murmansk fought air battles and attacked land targets in northern Finland. We can call these episodes a war between the United Kingdom and Finland – a rare occurrence of war between two democracies and a well-known exception in the democratic peace proposition.
The power to avoid wars is usually attributed to three specific characteristics of democracy that prevent leaders of a state from deciding in favour of war, particularly during conflicts with other democracies: (1) public opinion, (2) democratic institutions, (3) democratic culture. There are many examples of when public opinion has not been very peaceful, and even towards other democracies – like in 1898 during the Fashoda Crisis. Institutions, though important, are only tools that cannot have an influence on their own – at least not the selective influence that works on other democracies. (Selective influence includes politicians who make institutions work in one direction or another.) If we want to find out what gives democracy the power to avoid wars, we must first and foremost focus on democratic culture, which is something described by Bruce Russett as an attitude: “it is not somehow right to fight another democracy”. We can call it the democracy argument. On the other hand, the main goal of every state is to survive, and especially during crisis the leaders of the state must take into account considerations that help their country to stay alive – or as Kenneth Waltz has put it: “the states will ally with the devil to avoid the hell of military defeat.” We can call this the realist argument. It is the task of this paper to analyse the key British decision makers and their motives in 1941, to find traces of those alternative arguments.
The paper focuses on three key decisions by the War Cabinet: (1) the decision to threaten Finland with the declaration of war in September 1941; (2) the decision not to declare war on Finland, Hungary and Romania in November 1941; (3) the decision to declare war on Finland, Hungary and Romania in December 1941. Before interpreting the War Cabinet’s repeated refusals to declare war on Finland as examples of institutional restraints in the sense of democratic peace, we should ask: What motivated the War Cabinet to decide this way? There are hints about the motives of five out of eight War Cabinet members: Churchill, Eden, Beaverbrook, Bevin and Greenwood. We know that Eden proposed to declare war on Finland on several occasions to meet the demands of the Soviet Union. Beaverbrook, as the most pro-Soviet minister in the Cabinet, supported the Foreign Secretary. There are no signs of the democracy argument here. We also know that Labour ministers Bevin and Greenwood were against declaring war on “Finland, etc.”, because they did not trust the communist USSR. Eden and Churchill tended to reduce the significance of communism and to portray Russia as simply an ally who was fighting together with the British against the Germans in the same manner as she did in the Great War. Under Realpolitik, the Soviet Union was indeed Britain’s natural ally, because they had a common enemy: Germany. It was also natural under Realpolitik that states which were fighting against Britain’s ally or helping Britain’s enemy would sooner or later become enemies of Britain. Ideologically, it was not as natural because the Soviet Union was a communist and totally different state. Therefore, the motives of Labourites were not based on realism, but on something else. The connection with democracy is there, because the Finns were also defending democracy in their war with the Soviet Union. It was easy for Labourites to understand that because Social Democrats were the main objects of hatred of both Nazis and Communists. It is correct, then, to regard the opposition by Bevin and Greenwood to the declaration of war on Finland as a restraint caused by democratic culture. However, these two Labour ministers were not in a position to impose their will on the entire War Cabinet. It was the Prime Minister who could tip the scales in Eden-Beaverbrook’s or in Bevin-Greenwood’s favour, thus his motives were decisive.
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the Prime Minister when he wrote to Stalin that he was ready to declare war on Finland in September, but then received some “new information” that made him change his mind. This new information concerned the inevitability of also declaring war on Hungary and Romania if it was decided to declare war on Finland. For Churchill, undemocratic Hungary and Romania were more important than democratic Finland. And it is hard to find any signs of the democracy argument in Churchill’s position. Quite the contrary, after discussing his letter to Mannerheim in the War Cabinet and hearing concerns that Stalin might again feel insulted if the tone of the letter was too mild, he added a line in which he not only threatened the Finns with the declaration of war, but also with actual war. A few days before the final decision, he wrote to Eden that his opinion about the “unwisdom” of this measure remained unaltered. For Churchill, it was not about “injustice” or “improperness”,but about “unwisdom”, which indicates that for him the realist considerations were those that mattered. It was due to realist culture that war was not declared on Finland already in September, October or November. In the end, the opposition of the Labourites faded away and the Prime Minister remained alone in his conviction about the “unwisdom” of satisfying Stalin’s wishes and declaring war on Finland (and inevitably on Hungary and Romania). Eventually, it was not democratic versus realist argument, but Eden’s realism versus Churchill’s realism.
The declaration of war on Finland took three months and 14 War Cabinet meetings. Without a doubt, this is a clear example of restraints imposed by democratic institutions. But the motives of the decision makers were predominantly connected with realist considerations, and those that were not could only partly be associated with democracy in Finland. Such were the Labourites’ motives of not trusting Soviet communism and solidarity with Social Democrats in Finland. Two other non-realist motives were: (1) the desire not to treat Finland unjustly (it would be unjust if war would be declared only on Finland, but not on Hungary and Romania who had invaded the Soviet Union in a “far more flagrant manner”) and (2) the desire not to go against public opinion (not so much in the belligerent United Kingdom, but mainly in the neutral United States and Sweden, who felt sympathy towards Finland because Finland’s war with the Soviet Union was considered justified and the Finns had earned respect by bravely fighting off Soviet aggression in the past). There is no doubt that such motives helped to restrain the War Cabinet from declaring war on Finland despite the fact that neither motive was directly connected with Finland being a democracy. If there was something in Churchill’s motives that was not purely realistic, then it was his sense of justice that did not allow him to treat Finland in a worse manner than other German allies (even though Stalin demanded this). So it was about justice at least as much as it was about democracy. But “just peace” could not have saved Finland any more than democratic peace did. The position of the War Cabinet from the very beginning was that their alliance with Stalin was superior to other considerations, realist or non-realist. Even if the actual events had turned out differently and the declaration of war had been avoided in December 1941, we could not claim that this would have been because of the democracy principle but rather because of not realising the full potential of the realist principle.

KEYWORDS: democratic peace, Finland, United Kingdom, declaration of war, 1941.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.12697/AA.2015.1-2.03

ISSN 1406-3859 (print)
ISSN 2228-3897 (online)
Journal DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12697/issn1406-3859