Eighty years ago, on the evening of August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union shocked the world by signing a nonaggression pact in Moscow that contained a secret protocol carving up Eastern Europe into mutual spheres of influence, and ensuring that the dictators would stay out of each other’s way as they carried out their agendas.
As a result, on September 1, 1939, World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland, followed by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland two weeks later. The attack on Poland placed Britain and France at war with Germany. This was a double win for Stalin, pitting both his enemies in the west–Nazi Germany and the Allies–against each other.
For Hitler, the pact was an act of expediency that allowed him to invade Poland and further his ambitions in Western Europe without fear of Russian reprisals. For Stalin, the Secret Protocol was a chance to regain territory lost by Russia after World War I.
(The existence of the Secret Protocol was denied by the Soviet Union for decades. It was finally published by the Russian Foreign Ministry in 1992. It had been published in the West shortly after the war.)
After the invasion of Poland, Hitler put his plans on hold but Stalin rushed to fulfill his part of the deal. In October, he issued demands to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and to Finland. When negotiations with the Finns broke down, Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and the Winter War began, the setting for my novel Lost Ground.
The David-and-Goliath battle caught the imagination of the world. Support poured in from everywhere, although not the military support the Finns needed. Until now Finland had been almost totally unknown, even in Europe. Now the eyes of the world were fixed on its life and death struggle.
And it was indeed a heroic struggle. Stalin’s generals had told him the war would be over in 2 weeks, but the Finnish army stopped their advance. The Finnish people united behind their army under Marshall Mannerheim. Former differences were put aside and everyone pitched in.
In the end the tiny Finnish army was forced to bow to an armistice, after inflicting huge casualties on the invaders. The result was the loss of most of Karelia, including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg). The armistice was signed on March 12, 1940.
Here is a gallery of pictures and images of the Winter War. (Photos from SAKuva Finnish War Archives unless otherwise noted).