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The Lotta Svärd Movement

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By Leena Lambert

The following introduction was provided before the viewing of the Finnish film Lupaus (The Promise) by Canadian Friends of Finland in Vancouver January 2007.

The three young women, whose story we are going to follow in our film presentation, were fictional members of the Finnish women’s volunteer national defence organization called the Lotta Svärd which, at its height during the war years of 1939 to 1944, was the world’s largest women’s volunteer organization of its kind. The Lotta Svärd had 240,000 adult members in a country whose population was under four million. In addition there were 50,000 junior members – pikku Lotta or Lotta girls as they were called.

The Lotta Svärd movement had its roots in the women’s auxiliaries that supported the Skyddskår (Suojeluskunta)—the Finnish Civil Guard organized before the Civil War. Initially women’s associations had mainly provided food during field exercises, sporting and other communal events, but activities soon included fundraising, and providing suitable clothing and other needed items. When the Civil War started in 1918, the Civil Guard became the core of the Finnish White Army and the women volunteers were given specific tasks such as providing clothing and food for the fighting units and acting as telephone operators, messengers, and even guards. They did not, however, have any combat role although several lost their lives or were wounded in course of their duties.

After the Civil war, various volunteer groups started to organize into independent associations with names and operating rules. The first group to use the name Lotta Svärd was the one in Riihimäki in November 1918. As is well known, the name comes from the poem “Lotta Svärd” by J.L. Runeberg. Private Svärd, fighting in the war of 1809, took his wife along and after he was killed in battle she stayed with the troops keeping a sort of canteen and boosting moral. Runeberg is said to have based his poem on three different persons. The nation-wide Lotta Svärd Association was established, and common rules adopted in September 1921. Its mission was to invoke and reinforce the Skyddskår-ideology and assists that organization in defending faith, home, and fatherland. The organization expanded during the 1920s and by 1930 it had 60,000 members from the Karelian Isthmus to Lapland and its work had diversified into ever more fields. Every 17-year-old Finnish woman could join after a probationary period. There were three categories for the members. Acting Lottas served in nursing and provisioning sections, and once given the Lotta-pledge they had to be ready to serve when called. Supplies Lottas were the other acting members and worked in their own communities. Supporting members paid membership fee but did not actively work in the Lotta Svärd Association.

Training of Lottas for various tasks became an essential part of the activities. The time varied from a few days to 2-3 weeks. The 6-month nurse’s training was started in 1928. Workshops and demonstrations were organized countrywide, and Tuusula Lotta College became their training centre in 1936. When the winter war started, there were thousands of women who were trained for their duties and knew their tasks. In the early 1930s, the Lotta Svärd was recognized as a part of Finland’s defence organization and was given responsibilities in the fields of provisioning and medical services among other duties.

The strength of the Lotta organization from the beginning was its well qualified and dedicated leadership. The women involved were able to create a well functioning organization while providing well planned and effective training to its members. Most notable was Fanni Luukkonen who was the organization’s chairwoman from 1929 until it’s dissolution in 1944.

The Finnish Lotta Svärd organization inspired the founding of similar organizations in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Estonia in the 1920s and 1930s. The Lotta Svärd proved its worth during the Winter- and the Continuation wars of 1939 and 1941. In the summer of 1939, Lottas were The Lotta Svärd Movementprovisioning volunteers who were building defence lines on the Karelian Isthmus. Once mobilized, a total of 90.000 Lottas assisted the armed forces, freeing some 100,000 men for the front. They helped evacuees, worked in field hospitals and hospital trains and in air surveillance and communications, ran canteens near front lines, and worked in clothing maintenance depots and in other auxiliary tasks in the armed forces. Perhaps the hardest task for Lottas was working in the morgues of the evacuation centres for the fallen where they washed and prepared the fallen soldiers before sending them to their homes for burial. As a rule, Lottas were unarmed and non-combatant, but some 300 Lottas lost their lives in the course of duty during the two wars.

In the year of the interim peace following the winter war, the fortifications at the new border were started. Again the Lotta Svärd organized the provisioning for the builders of the main defense line —the Salpa line. When the hostilities started in 1941, Lottas were mobilized for duty again. When the Continuation war ended, the Soviet Union demanded that organizations like the Lotta Svärd were to be disbanded. The Lotta Svärd was disbanded under the terms of the armistice treaty of November 23, 1944. However, a new organization called Suomen Naisten Huoltosäätiö—Support Foundation of Finnish Women—was founded immediately to continue the organization’s work assisting war-invalids, war-orphans and former Lottas.

For decades following the war years, the work of the Lotta Svärd organization was unrecognized and its reputation intentionally vilified and cheapened, but since the early 1980s as its true role has become known to younger generations through unbiased historical research, the dignity of the Lottas has been restored and their contribution to a free and independent Finland has been recognized.

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