This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German régime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe. In 1939 Poland joins together with Romania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland to form a defensive alliance called the Warsaw Pact. The alliance is put to the test in October 1944, when a Soviet-backed coup attempt in Lithuania brings war between Poland and the USSR.
Five months of war brings steady victory to the Poles and their Warsaw Pact allies. In the south, the Soviets face widespread rebellion in the Ukraine, while in the north the Finns push forward into the Karelian ASSR. By March 1945, the Soviet leadership is ready to come to terms.
Today's post was written by Jussi Jalonen, who has kindly consented to bring his wealth of knowledge of Finnish history to add some much-needed verisimilitude to this timeline. So, without further ado, the Johnny Pez blog proudly presents:
Testvér a Testvérért
by Jussi Jalonen
"Our blood kindred from the Danubian plains have heard the call of our war horn, and after a millennium is the Magyar saber once again raised to fight side by side with the Finnish sword."
"Ti, Duna melléki vérrokonaink, szintén meghallottátok csatakürtjeink távoli hangját és több ezer éves távollét után a magyar kard ismét ütésre emelkedett a finn testvérek védelmében."
- C. G. E. Mannerheim, in his Commander-in-Chief's Order of the Day no. 38, January 13th, 1945.
Gora, East Karelia, USSR
16 March 1945
Thin curls of smoke were rising from the stovepipes of the tents into the cold, pale winter sky. In the middle of the snow-covered spruces, the soldiers were finally enjoying an undisturbed rest in their bivouac. Most of the men had slept like logs for ten hours or more, and were showing no signs of having had enough. A portable Columbia gramophone in front of the field-dressing station's tent was quietly playing the gentle sounds of the Argentine tango, for which the men had an inextinguishable affection; Mercedes Simone's latest single "Otra Noche" had become the virtual theme song of the East Karelian campaign.
Captain Kémeri Nagy Imre and Lieutenant Salomon Klass had listened to the young corporal for almost an hour. The NCO had led his machine-gun squad to the camp last night, explaining that they had lost contact with their own company in the thick of the fight, as the entire unit had retreated before the onslaught of a massive Soviet force in the northeast. The two officers had no reason to doubt the report. For the past few days, the continuing Finnish advance had drawn an unexpected reaction from the Red Army on the Svir front, and the opponent which the men had already believed defeated had shown itself capable of counterattacking -- sometimes even quite fiercely and with good success.
"He says that the Russians have thrown back the entire regiment in the north," Klass translated to Nagy in German, which was the only common language that the two men shared. "In other words, they're about to outflank the Division, leaving us completely isolated. And they've brought their best new tanks to spearhead their counterattack, which is going to be made here, against our positions, exactly as we thought. But he doesn't believe that we should withdraw."
"What does he suggest?" Nagy asked angrily. "That we sit and wait here for the enemy to grind over us? Our communications are down, we have no artillery support, our anti-tank rifles are of no use against their new armour, and the rocket launchers that we managed to bring along can be counted with the fingers of one hand. What the hell can we do? Throw pine cones at them?"
Klass turned back to the NCO, who had listened to the German-language discussion between the two officers with visible interest. "Corporal -- I'm sorry, what was your name again?"
The man lit a cigarette and drew a long breath of smoke before answering. "Corporal Linna, Lieutenant, sir." His speech had a clear, steady Tavastian accent, which contributed to his cool, calm appearance. "And even though it's not my business to issue orders to you, I'd advise against leaving, either by the road or through the forest. You won't get away even if you try to, and if you try, they'll cut you down. This time, the Russians are faster than we are, and turning our backs on them means inviting them to pursuit. That's how they managed to shatter our unit, if you understand what I mean."
Klass nodded. He translated Linna's words to Nagy. "Based on what he's said, our promised reserves are likely to be diverted to fend off the attack in the north. We're alone and exposed and unlikely to get much help . . . but I think he's right. There's no use turning back now, after the whole long march, and sacrifice what little advantage we still have. Besides . . . " Klass paused. "Besides, we were given clear orders. We have no other choice but to stand our ground, and press on towards our objective."
Nagy shrugged. He understood exactly what Klass meant; all company commanders as well as battalion commanders had been ordered not to move from their positions under any circumstances. Thus, in the event of a defeat or an all-out retreat, the officers were expected to die at their posts.
"Wasn't there supposed to be air support by today?" Nagy asked.
"There was, but we still don't know if we will get any," Klass answered. "The word from HQ was that all our own squadrons were dispatched back to the Isthmus, and all we can rely on over here are the Poles. And they can't be everywhere at once." Colonel Wacław Macowski's 212th Dywizjon Bombowy of the Polish Air Force had arrived in Finland in December, and supported the Finnish operations in East Karelia ever since.
Klass turned back to the NCO. "Very well, then, Corporal." Linna concealed his amusement at the peculiar r-sound, which revealed the Swedish-speaking background of the Jewish lieutenant. "We believe that you're right; your words certainly match the information we've received so far from elsewhere. For now, there's a place for your men in my company. Take your squad to the third platoon, and prepare for action. Based on what you've told, it may come far sooner than expected." Klass smiled. "I suspect that before the day is over, there will be many opportunities for you to get payback. Believe me, this time, we won't have to run."
Linna nodded and tossed the stub of his cigarette away. "If you say so, Lieutenant." The corporal grabbed his submachinegun and made a casual salute at the Hungarian captain, who responded to the gesture in an orderly military manner. "See you at the tanner's rafters," Linna said.
"What did he say?" Nagy asked, a baffled look on his face.
Klass laughed. "I'm sorry, but a direct translation is impossible. In this case, I don't think that even the linguistic relationship would help."
* * *
The white March sun was covering the snowdrifts with a bright light, the harbinger of a thaw and an early spring. The soldiers, both Magyars and Finns, were waiting quietly in their positions, listening to the distant sound of gunfire which was slowly drawing closer to them. Their sense of the weather, their surroundings, and their conditions was gradually fading to the background, being replaced by the consciousness of the fact that they would soon experience one of the most unique sensations of the human mind: the threat of losing one's life.
The volunteers had lifted their Hungarian flag on one of the pines close to the trenches. Nagy was sitting beside the tree, observing the preparations of the anti-tank squads in the distance. The men were inspecting and distributing whatever weaponry they had managed to bring along; rocket launchers, old anti-tank rifles, satchel charges and the ubiquitous bottles of petrol which their Soviet adversaries had grimly nicknamed "Tanner's milkshakes". Further away, the machine-gun squads were taking up their positions, and Nagy noticed the Finnish NCO he had met earlier in the morning. Linna appeared to be a dutiful and responsible squad leader, and he was paying an almost pedantic attention to the machine-gun, together with his men. After he had finished the check-ups, he relaxed, lit a cigarette, pulled a small, brown-covered writing pad out of his backpack and started to write, apparently making notes of the scene around him. The sight reminded Nagy of his own past as a journalist, and brought back memories of the time before the war.
He remembered the general euphoria which had swept over Hungary the previous October. The sudden Soviet attack against Poland, followed by the equally sudden outbreak of hostilities between the USSR and Finland, had aroused the feelings of the Magyar nation. The sense of obligation and kinship towards Poland, the traditional ally of Hungary, as well as towards Finland, the distant northern sister nation, had led tens of thousands of young men all across the country to volunteer to fight against the Soviets. The spontaneous volunteer movement with both its overtly democratic as well as nationalistic overtones had worried Admiral Horthy, and at first, the government had attempted to curtail these activities. After it had proved impossible, the government had decided to endorse the movement, in an attempt to exercise at least some kind of control over the continuous flow of young men across the border to Poland. After November, all new volunteers had enlisted through the new, official recruitment network under Count Pál Teleki.
And they had made it to the front, by rail across Austria and Bavaria, with the full sanction of the fellow Catholic régimes of Schuschnigg and Ehrhardt - as expected, the Czechoslovaks had bluntly refused to allow any aid to Poland to pass over their territory. Most of the volunteers had joined the ranks of the Polish army immediately after their arrival in the country, and under the leadership of Brigadier General Kövacs Károly, they had formed the so-called "St. Stephen's Division" in General Kazimierz Sosnkowski's forces. But many had continued further, boarded the ships at Gdynia and Danzig headed for Finland, arriving at Helsinki just in time for the New Year festivities. On the Twelfth-Night, the three thousand Magyars who had reached Finland had been organized into a new Infantry Regiment 41 "Kossuth Lajos", supported by local Finnish pioneer and artillery units. The unit had become part of the 4th Division of the Army of Karelia, fighting north of Lake Ladoga.
For six long weeks, the Magyars had faced the enemy on the front lines, sharing the Finnish victories and defeats, and suffering the same hardships and privations as their northern comrades-in-arms. All of the volunteers had found life-long friends, and a few of them had married local girls; some Finnish women had proved extremely susceptible to the dark, exotic looks of these strange foreign soldiers. Many of the volunteers had already possessed strong democratic beliefs, which had strengthened still further during their service and experiences in the different political atmosphere of Finland. Consequently, several of them had, over the past months, openly stated that they would "no longer stand for dictatorship back home after fighting against it abroad." After their return, they were determined to transform the government of their homeland and lead Hungary towards a new, brighter future where the grievances of Trianon could be finally rectified.
Kémeri Nagy Imre, a native son of Érdely, was not one of these men. He did not like the Horthy régime any more than many of his countrymen on the front did, but his own personal vision of the alternate government which should replace it stood in stark contrast to all democratic ideals. Kémeri Nagy Imre was a member of Szálasi Ferenc's infamous and forbidden Arrow Cross movement, founded eight years before as an umbrella organization for the various militant and extreme right-wing Magyar political groups at home and abroad. The Arrow Cross had not only survived the aftershock caused by the fall of the Röhm régime in Germany, but even experienced a reinvigoration, partly fueled by the succesful example of Bołesław Piasecki's National Socialist Party in Poland. Compared to the farcical Polish "Duce" and his tragicomical blackshort minions, however, Szálasi's followers were far more fearsome. Their iron discipline, their racialist mysticism and their sense of an occult historical mission not only in Hungary and Europe, but in the entire world, had made them the terror of the ruling conservative-aristocratic clique in Budapest.
Before the war, Nagy had served the movement as the leader of the "Rongyosgárdá", a Magyar paramilitary organization within the Czechoslovak borders, which President Beneš had labeled as a terrorist group. But as soon as he had heard of the Soviet attack on Poland, he had left his post and signed up as a volunteer. What better way to build up his skills for the eventual battle against the enemies of Hungary than to participate in the defence of European civilization against Stalin's hordes? But as much as he loved Poland and the Polish nation -- who in Hungary did not? -- he had found the idea of fighting alongside so many Jewish soldiers far too repulsive. Instead, he had travelled to Finland, to fight together with the one people who were united to the Magyar nation by sacred, ancient tribal ties of blood, language, and race.
And ironically enough, of all the possible officers in the Finnish army, he had ended up dealing with one who was Jewish. And not just any Jew, but a Zionist who had resided in Palestine and fought in a Jewish military organization.
Lieutenant Salomon Klass had spent nine years as a volunteer in the Jewish settlements of northwestern Palestine, and placed the training he had received as the reserve officer of the Finnish Army in the service of the Haganah. During the fateful autumn of 1944, he had seen action as a squad leader in the newly-established Palmach in the bitter fight against Haj Amin al-Husseini's insurrectionaries, and witnessed the eventual suppression of the Mufti's rising by the Arab Legion. Shortly after the defeat of the rebellion, the war between Finland and the Soviet Union had broken out and Klass had left Palestine, returning to defend the land of his birth. He was a Jew, he was a Zionist, and he was ready to work, live, fight, and die for Eretz Israel -- but he was nonetheless also Finnish, and in spite of his experiences of petty anti-semitism in the Helsinki Civil Guard, he still felt a sense of obligation towards the small northern country where he had been born and raised.
Nagy had fought side by side with Klass for almost two months, and in the course of the campaign, the background of the lieutenant had continued to perplex him. He held a deep, principled contempt for his race, but he could not help but respect him as a soldier and a fellow officer. At times, he had wondered whether the war might be considered an example of a conflict between the ideologies of ethnic, national and racial self-identification against the Marxist ideologies of class and social distinction. And in this context, were the Zionist beliefs of the lieutenant all that different from Nagy's own convictions of the natural sublimity of the Magyar people? Weren't they both adherents of racial ideologies, fighting together against the Bolshevik aggression threatening their core beliefs? And if they prevailed this ordeal, wouldn't it inevitably prove both of their worldviews to be correct?
Nagy couldn't help but to think of the words he had heard from the leader of the Academic Karelia Society: "A nation that is willing to fight to the death for its survival cannot be defeated by any power -- whoever doubts this, should remember the history of the Jewish people." Was an actual confrontation between their races truly desirable, especially if it could never be won by either side? Since they had established a coexistence in war, could they not also find a coexistence in peace?
Klass, for his part, could not have cared less about Nagy's ideology, and maintained a cool, professional, but also polite attitude towards his Hungarian comrade-in-arms. As far as he himself was concerned, he was defending the independence of Finland against the tyranny of Stalin, plain and simple; he was willing to accept Nagy's participation as one of the prices of success, but he would not bother to justify himself to an anti-Semite. Curiously, in spite of their personal differences -- or perhaps because of them -- the two officers had managed to establish a perfectly functioning professional relationship, based on confidence, understanding and trust. Both Nagy and Klass sensed that today, this comradeship would perhaps be more important than ever before.
The rumbling, crashing sound of the advancing enemy was now very close to them, and the men could already hear the shouts of the Russian soldiers. Nagy noticed Klass giving a quiet signal to his men, who prepared swiftly and silently. The Jewish lieutenant grinned in delight. Six months ago, he had fought against the Mufti in the sunburnt hills of Palestine; now, he was fighting against Stalin in the snowy forests of East Karelia. Nagy saw the lieutenant's enthusiasm for battle, and felt the same emotion taking over himself. At that moment, he felt a complete sense of unity with Klass; in the battle, they were one, part of the same organic community of men and fighters, and they shared an unbreakable bond of sentiment, a mystical kinship of fellow soldiers that extended far beyond their races.
"For your freedom, and ours," Nagy thought to himself as he looked at the flag beside him, and raised his rifle. "A brother beside a brother."
* * *
Nagy lay in a shelter hole, trying to regain his sense of the events around him. The ground heaved and swayed under him; on his left, he heard Klass shouting orders and further away Linna's machine-gun steadily chattering against the attacking enemy. The battle had raged for over an hour, and the Soviets were relentlessly pressing on and on, with an intimidating confidence in their victory. Quickly, Nagy raised his head, and seeing the scene in front of him, cursed aloud.
"Goddamn it. Now we would need more rockets."
Six massive "Josef Stalin" tanks were rolling across the snowdrifts, their guns raking at the volunteers' positions. The tank crews were well aware that a reconnaissance force which had slogged through the forests could not have brought along more than a token force of heavy anti-tank weapons. The tanks drove brazenly towards the volunteers, firing freely at will, as if on a practice range. Nagy recognized the large, red Cyrillic letters "SHMYERT MANERGEIMU" -- "Death to Mannerheim" -- emblazoned on the white hull of the first armor, which was approaching his position fast. Hearing the clattering of the treads getting louder and louder, the Hungarian captain gritted his teeth together and grasped the satchel charge with grim determination; his chances were slim, but if he didn't act, the tank would roll over him in a few minutes.
Hearing a sudden, low humming from above, Nagy turned his eyes towards the sky and saw small, black shapes closing in from the southwest. As the shapes drew nearer, the sound of motors grew louder, the roar of an organ-like sound over the frozen landscape.
"Thirteen, with nine fighters behind them . . ." the Hungarian captain muttered. "It's too large a formation, it has to be the enemy . . . hey, wait a moment! They're Elks! They're Elks! The Poles are here!" In a moment's notice, the men had taken up the cry, and were already climbing out of the trenches and foxholes, dancing and waving their arms at the planes. "The Elks! The Elks are coming!"
The attacking Soviet soldiers had also recognized the red-and-white square emblems on the aircraft, and were now busily diving for cover. The tanks halted, their crews seemingly unsure what to do, and then shifted on reverse, while the leaders turned their machine-guns against the fast-approaching Polish planes. Sprays of bullets crackled in the snow-covered juniper branches as the fighters returned the fire and strafed the ground around the Soviet vehicles. Nagy saw the leader of the second tank take a hit and collapse motionless on the top of the turret. At the same time, the Polish bombers -- the famous "Elks" -- commenced a long, steady dive, the sirens in their motors screaming at a high pitch. The hit of the first bomb on the first tank, followed by an entire salvo of bombs and rockets, was greeted with loud cheers from the Finnish and Magyar soldiers on the ground.
Exultant from the feeling of survival and victory, Nagy sprang up, seized the Hungarian banner from the tree and waved it at the Polish aircraft. One of the fighter planes circling over the volunteers' positions noticed the green-red-white tricolour on the ground and responded by waving its wings before turning and diving once again towards the now-retreating Soviet soldiers. "Long live Poland! Long live Hungary! Long live Finland!" Nagy cried to his men. "Follow me! Remember 1849!" From a distance, he heard Klass shouting "Let's go, lads! Hack them down!" The men joined in the battle cry, and launched their attack.
* * *
The counterattack had lasted until the late afternoon, and brought them still further eastwards on the road. The arrival of the Polish aircraft had shattered the enemy offensive once and for all, and after the rest of the Division had reached the forward units, they had commenced an even more determined advance with full artillery and rocket support. In the course of the battle, Nagy had been wounded as a short burst from a light Soviet machine-gun had pierced his left calf. Linna's squad had quickly dragged him out of the danger zone, and the Finnish corporal had bandaged his leg before turning him over to the medics. "Take it with loose wrists," Linna had said to him as they had lifted him on the stretchers. "You'll be back on your legs soon enough."
Nagy had left the command of his battalion to Lieutenant Szátmary-Király, and expressed his gratitude to Klass, who had come to see him immediately after having heard that he had been wounded. Moved by the concern of his fellow officer, Nagy had shaken the hand of the Jewish lieutenant, and made Klass promise that he would come to see him again as soon as possible. Now the Magyar captain lay inside Doctor Gosztola's field-dressing tent; he felt the stinging scent of disinfectant all around him, saw the flickering light of Petromax shimmering from the corner of the otherwise dark tent, and heard the crackling sound of the radio from the doctor's table. Outside, the sound of the battle continued to dominate the surroundings, overwhelming everything.
The radio crackled again, as the doctor turned the volume louder. The tango had ended, and Nagy could hear the Finnish words clearly, though he didn't understand them. He heard the newscaster translating them into Swedish with an enthusiastic voice, and immediately afterwards, another reporter reciting the same in Hungarian, for the volunteers on the front.
"-- thus, after almost a fortnight of negotiations in Helsinki, the Soviet delegation has finally accepted the peace terms of the Finnish government today. Ambassador Sokolnicki has informed President Tanner that the government of the Polish Commonwealth will not oppose the armistice between Finland and the Soviet Union. The Soviet forces will commence armistice and cease their fire on the Finnish forces at five o'clock. The Finnish forces and all other Warsaw Pact forces stationed in Finland will follow their example an hour later." The newscaster paused, her voice shaking with emotion. "The war is over. Our forces have prevailed. The victory is ours." Nagy turned his head on the pillow, and sighed in relief. The sound of the radio was once again fading under the noise of the battle, and he could barely hear the following speech by a Hungarian field pastor: "Hála Istennek; legyen béke és jóakarat a népek között új európánkban éss az egész világon . . . "
They had won, but the moment of triumph would only bring a new burden. For victory would also entail responsibility; responsibility for actions that would inevitably have to be accounted for someday. For as long as human history is written will one event always be the cause of all that which follows afterwards. And in the cause lies responsibility. He, in whose hands lies the power of cause, will also have to answer for the consequences. Consequences that will always demand a satisfaction . . .
The thunder continued outside the hospital tent. The very crust of the earth was shaking with the tremor. Blending into one mighty roar, the rumble of the artillery barrage and rocket fire travelled far in the clear, cold winter afternoon. Up to the very last second it welled forth as though proclaiming, drunk with its own power, not only a condemnation of those who had lost, but also of those who had triumphed.