There was an interesting exchange of articles recently about Pope Pius XII and Finnish WWII leader Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. A book some years ago called Hitler’s Pope portrayed Pius as an enabler and perhaps even collaborator with the Third Reich. Other scholarship rebuts these claims, but in popular imagery, Pius is commonly portrayed as suspect.

Mannerheim is less well known but remains a hero to Finland, which few non-Finns contest, although he was de facto an ally to Hitler, whom he met several times. Stalin’s Soviet Union, having negotiated a virtual alliance with Germany dividing Poland, attacked small Finland in the 1939 Winter War. Instead of the anticipated quick conquest, the severely outnumbered Finns under Mannerheim resisted ferociously. Initially Great Britain had pondered sending troops to help democratic Finland, which the other Scandinavian countries blocked. Finland inevitably in 1940 had to negotiate peace while surrendering vast territories.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1940 he sought Finland as an ally. Mannerheim and the Finns, not sympathetic to Nazi Germany but knowing neutrality was impossible and anxious to retrieve lost lands, negotiated a careful co-belligerency. The Finns recaptured their lost territory, going somewhat beyond, but refused Hitler’s pleas for an attack on Leningrad, which stubbornly resisted against a German siege.

In 1942 Hitler insisted on visiting Mannerheim at the front on his 75th birthday. The Marshal was unenthusiastic about his guest so hosted him in railway cars for a couple hours. He and the other Finns smoked cigars while the German officers studiously abstained, knowing Hitler hated smoking. Mannerheim had had a full and colorful life, which had included service in the Russian Czarist army before Finland’s independence. He was not intimidated by Hitler. A Finnish journalist recorded the meeting, producing the only audio of Hitler in conversation, on which actors portraying Hitler still rely, as with the outstanding movie The Bunker.

Mannerheim and the Finns didn’t allow Nazi ideology to encroach on Finland, as did other German allies. Finland remained a parliamentary democracy, and Finnish Jews were unmolested. Jews served in the Finnish army, in effective alliance with Germany, although obviously they fought for their own country. When Jewish soldiers received medals from their Nazi allies they reputedly tossed them. Mannerheim attended a service at a Helsinki synagogue honoring Jewish soldiers.

When Mannerheim again saw that Finland could not win against the Soviets he negotiated a peace once again ceding territory but preserving Finnish sovereignty. He also effectively declared war against German troops in northern Finland, who were forced to retreat into occupied Norway. Thanks to his adroit diplomacy, Finland, although consigned to a required neutrality, remained democratic during the Cold War while other Soviet neighbors were less fortunate.

Pope Pius, who also loathed Nazism, arguably like Mannerheim also had to play a smart diplomatic game with Germany. Nearly all of European Catholicism, including the Vatican, was living under direct or indirect German control. Pius had condemned Hitler’s racial theories and quietly helped escaping Jews but had little maneuver room for open confrontation, somewhat similar to Finland, the recent article explains.

America under FDR had to play its own strategic game, condemning Stalin’s 1939 attack on Finland but then effectively siding with the Soviets against Finland after Finland aligned with Germany. Churchill, who had sought to help Finland in 1939 and admired Mannerheim, declared war on Finland later, but the war declaration was mostly a symbolic solidarity with the Soviets. Churchill and FDR sought personal rapport with Stalin, one of history’s greatest monsters, because Hitler’s defeat required it.

Then as now nations and leaders, even when noble, must operate within proscribed parameters of strategic reality. Britain and America needed Stalin against Germany and perhaps Japan. During the Cold War America similarly had to align with unsavory regimes to contain the Soviets. Recently President Obama visited repressive, communist Vietnam, promising arms, to retain Vietnam as a strategic partner against China, while also commending human rights and meeting dissidents. America has a multi-trillion dollar trade relationship with China despite its own repression. One of America’s most important strategic allies is Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, a deplorable theocracy, but almost certainly preferable to any of its likely successors.

The list of distasteful but necessary strategic relationships is nearly endless. A challenge for America and for democracies is how to transact needed business with despicable despots while retaining integrity and fidelity to our notions of human rights. Maybe Mannerheim smoking a cigar in Hitler’s presence and honoring Jewish soldiers offers a limited model of how even small nations in calamitous historical circumstances can both survive and retain some honorable decency.