What: Finland stands up to the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and Nazi Germany in World War II, and comes out battered but still standing. Below is the precarious situation at one part of the war, in 1941. The Germans are in grey and black, the Russians are in red, and the Finns are in blue.
Why: Finland broke away from Russia in 1917, when just about everybody bailed on the Revolution. After a civil war of its own, Finland settled into being an independent state, with its border butting up against Leningrad. In their 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler told Stalin he could have Finland free of charge. Trouble was, nobody told the Finns. After shelling their own village to trump up a casus belli, the Russians invaded in what would be called The Winter War. This was an error. Because while the Russians knew how to knuckle down in winter, the Finns knew how to attack in it. Using skis and sleds to outmaneuver the clunky Soviet materiel, the Finns deprived the Russians of their supplies and drove them back at the Battle of Suomussalmi. Still, this was a costly battle. The countries came to a settlement in March 1940, with victorious Finland being declared the loser and giving up 9% of their territory. And then things got really bad. With its eyes on a slavering USSR, Finland found its northern territory swarming with Nazis. The Germans were coming in one way or the other, so Finland let them move all the way to the front lines. That was all the provocation the Russians needed. They came blasting across the border with planes and artillery. This also was an error. With German backing, Finland reconquered Karelia, destroyed the Russian naval bases at Riga and Liepaja, and stood on the doorstep of Leningrad. Meanwhile, Finland faced a new opponent: In the only time WWII democracies battled each other, Great Britain declared war on Finland, but after losing aircraft in a futile attack, the Brits decided to hang back and let the Russians die. During this Continuation War, 1.5 million Soviet soldiers entered Finland; a third of them didn’t make it home intact. Eventually, the Soviets gave up. Despite winning this war as well, Finland had to concede huge amounts of territory and half its GDP. And it had one problem remaining: a whole bunch of Germans still within its borders. So Finland went to war a third time, facing a German foe with no hesitation about burning the entire country to the ground. Run ragged from constant combat, Finland’s forces finally booted the last occupying force out of its country in 1945. Finally, it could breathe.
Impact: Finland had one goal—survival—and it achieved it. The only country to beat the USSR and Nazi Germany in World War II, Finland gave up so much—territory, lives, money, dignity—but retained its independence. It remained democratic even as an ally with Germany, surrendering only eight Jewish prisoners to the Holocaust. It stood on the sidelines in the Cold War, not an easy thing to do given the reach of the belligerents. And it became a modern oasis of calm; only Norway ranks “lower” on the Failed States Index. It remains the toughest, coolest customer in Europe.
Personal Connection: I like train rides. You learn a lot about an environment by whipping through its countryside at 70 miles an hour. One of the most interesting I ever took was the ride from Helsinki to St. Petersburg in the summer of 1992. During the Northern Lights, the sun never goes down, and so my entire train ride was bathed in radiance. On the Finland side, the landscape was gently manicured, with trees cut just so and arranged in perfect lines. And then it all fell off a cliff. As my dad and I crossed the Russian border, just three years after the Wall came down, the landscape blackened, like I imagined Frodo and Sam saw as they crossed into Mordor. Smokestacks blotted our field of vision, and brutalist concrete residence halls sprung tumorlike from the earth. At that moment, I understood what the Finns were fighting for.
Other Contenders: King Leonidas and 300 Spartans hold the pass at Thermopylae; Hannibal destroys the sense of Roman invincibility at Cannae; young Henry V rallies his band of English brothers at Agincourt on Saint Crispin’s Day; Joshua Chamberlain orders the bayonet at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg; the U.S.S. Archerfish single-handedly takes out the Shinano, the most powerful aircraft carrier in the world, before it sees a minute of action; Israel decides it doesn’t want to be invaded during the High Holy Days, thank you very much, in the Yom Kippur War.