This widely overlooked conflict changed world history forever.
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Finnish troops wear gas while on skis. Circa 1940.Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A Russian soldier sits frozen to death minutes after being shot by a Finnish sniper. 1940.Keystone/Getty Images
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A Finnish soldier holds a Molotov cocktail. Finland’s newly improvised weapon was named after Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, who claimed that the Red Army wasn’t dropping bombs on Finland, but food and humanitarian aid. Finns nicknamed the bombs “Molotov’s bread baskets” and devised this “cocktail” as a drink to accompany the “food.” Wikimedia Commons
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Tracer fire illuminates the night sky on the Finnish-Soviet border in 1939, during the first month of the war.Wikimedia Commons
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Dead Russians lie along the roadside after the Finnish victory at the Battle of Suomussalmi in Finland. January 20, 1940.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A group of Finnish alpine troops, or “ghost troops,” on skis.© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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The frozen corpse of a Russian soldier lies on the ground. 1940.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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Finnish infantry on skis move through the snow. October 1939.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Simo Häyhä stands after being awarded the honorary rifle model 28. This Finnish soldier was dubbed “the White Death” by the Soviets. He is reported to have killed 505 men during the Winter War, the highest recorded number of confirmed sniper kills in any major war in history.Wikimedia Commons
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A dead Soviet soldier stands propped upright by Finnish troops during the Winter War. This was meant to serve as a warning to other Soviet troops. Wikimedia Commons
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Finnish soldiers crouch behind an anti-aircraft gun. 1940.Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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The damage after the first bombings of the Winter War in Helsinki, Finland on November 30, 1939.Wikimedia Commons
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A Finnish ski patrol lies in the snow on the outskirts of wooded northern Finland, on the alert for Soviet troops. January 12, 1940. Wikimedia Commons
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The Finnish–Soviet non-aggression Pact was signed in Helsinki, Finland on January 21, 1932. On the left sits the Finnish foreign minister Aarno Yrjö-Koskinen and on the right sits the ambassador for the Soviet Union in Helsinki, Ivan Maisky. Wikimedia Commons
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Finnish counselor of state Juho Kusti Paasikivi arrives from negotiations in Moscow on October 16, 1939.Wikimedia Commons
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In December of 1939, a great sympathy meeting for Finland was arranged at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Pictured, from left: former president Herbert Hoover (chairman of the Finland-committee), journalist Hendrik Willem van Loon, and the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia.Wikimedia Commons
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Red Army soldiers sit in their trench wearing dark green helmets and uniforms that make them stand out against the snowy background. They didn’t receive snowsuits until later in the war.Wikimedia Commons
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Finnish Captain Aarne Juutilainen stands at the front near Kollaa during the Winter War.Wikimedia Commons
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Stone barriers and barbed wires stand on Finland’s Mannerheim Line. Wikimedia Commons
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The Finnish coastal defense ship Ilmarinen sits anchored at Turku harbour during the Winter War.Wikimedia Commons
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A Finnish soldier aims his Lahti-Saloranta M/26 weapon. Wikimedia Commons
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The Finnish 234 mm artillery on the island of Russarö during a military exercise before the war.Wikimedia Commons
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A member of the Lotta Svärd women’s paramilitary organization, watches the skies for Soviet aircraft over northern Finland in January 1940.Wikimedia Commons
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Soviet equipment and bodies of Red Army soldiers lie in the snow after the Battle of Raate Road in January 1940.Wikimedia Commons
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Soldiers kneel in the trenches on Finland’s Mannerheim Line.Wikimedia Commons
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Soviet T-26 light tanks and GAZ-A trucks of the Soviet 7th Army advance on the Karelian Isthmus.Wikimedia Commons
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Swedish volunteers stand with their anti-tank rifles during the Winter War.Wikimedia Commons
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Norwegian volunteers stand in their battle gear, including skis, in northern Finland.Wikimedia Commons
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The most common Finnish artillery was a 76 millimeter gun dating back to around 1902. Pictured: One of these guns sits camouflaged in Viipuri in March 1940.Wikimedia Commons
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A group of Red Army soldiers demonstrate a captured Finnish state flag.Wikimedia Commons
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While few in the West even remember its name, the Winter War launched a chain of events that just might have brought down Hitler, handed the Allies victory during World War II, and thus shaped the last 75 years of world history.
It was 1938 and the Soviet Union sought to bolster their newly-christened city of Leningrad from a possible German attack on the eve of World War II. But there was one little thing that prevented them from creating a wide buffer around the city: the country of Finland.
The USSR then demanded the chunk of Finnish territory along the Gulf of Finland that came closest to Leningrad. However, committed to neutrality, Finland refused to cede any land. Negotiations continued through 1938. But in 1939, an “unknown party” bombed a Soviet guard post near the border, causing four deaths.
Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, claimed that Finland was responsible and demanded an apology. When Finland denied any involvement and ordered a joint Finnish–Soviet commission to look into the matter, Molotov deemed their response hostile.
The USSR then severed its non-aggression pact with Finland. The Winter War began four days later.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin insisted that the conflict would be resolved within just two weeks. However, weakened by the dictator’s removal of officers during the Great Purge of 1936, the Soviet army lacked leadership and strength.
What’s more, the USSR also greatly underestimated their enemy. What the Finnish army lacked in weapons (30 times fewer aircraft than the Soviets and 100 times fewer tanks) and manpower (three times fewer soldiers), they made up for in heart and morale.
Finland also had the advantage of being very familiar with the terrain that they were now defending. For starters, it was very snowy and very cold. Having appropriate clothing for the conditions gave the Finns an advantage over the ill-prepared Soviets, roughly 10 percent of whom died of frostbite.
Given such conditions, the Winter War lasted 14 weeks instead of Stalin’s predicted two. The Red Army’s casualties were substantial, and even more than their ranks, it was their reputation that suffered some humiliating setbacks after failing to quickly dominate an opponent with far smaller forces.
Nevertheless, the Soviets did prevail, taking the territory they sought on March 5, 1940. The Finns then immediately proposed an armistice — but the Soviets declined. Instead, the Soviets kept the pressure on as they made further territorial demands of the Finns.
Finally, on March 12, the Finns had little choice but to accept the Soviets’ new terms and sign the Moscow Peace Treaty. Ultimately, Finland lost 11 percent of its land and a sizeable chunk of its economic strength. Even with volunteer soldiers from other countries, and most of the world on its side, Finland lost the Winter War.
But the consequences for the USSR may have been even worse. Based in part on the surprising amount of trouble that the weakened Soviets had with the small Finnish force, Adolf Hitler decided to break his own non-aggression pact with the Soviets and invade the USSR in June 1941.
It’s this decision, many scholars claim, that brought the downfall of the Third Reich and victory for the Allies in Europe.