Lotta Svärd was a Finnish voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organisation for women. Formed originally in 1918, it had a large membership undertaking volunteer social work in the 1920s and 1930s. During the Second World War, it mobilized to replace men conscripted into the army. It served in hospitals, at air raid warning positions, and other auxiliary tasks in close cooperation with the army. The women were officially unarmed except for an antiaircraft battery in 1944. Virtanen argues that, their "accountability to the nation took a masculine and military form in public, but had a private, feminine side to it including features like caring, helping and loving." The organisation was suppressed by the government after the war.
The name comes from a poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Part of a large and famous book, The Tales of Ensign Stål, the poem described a fictional woman named Lotta Svärd. According to the poem, a Finnish soldier, private Svärd - Swedish: svärd means a sword - went to fight in the Finnish War and took his wife, Lotta, along with him. Private Svärd was killed in battle, but his wife remained on the battlefield, taking care of wounded soldiers. The name was first brought up by Marshal Mannerheim in a speech given on 16 May 1918.
During the Finnish Civil War it was associated with the White Guard. After the war Lotta Svärd was founded as a separate organisation on 9 September 1920. The first known organisation to use the name Lotta Svärd was the Lotta Svärd of Riihimäki, founded on 11 November 1918.
The organisation expanded during the 1920s and it included 60,000 members in 1930. By 1944 it included 242,000 volunteers, the largest voluntary auxiliary organisation in the world, while the total population of Finland was less than four million.
During the 1920s and 1930s only Christian Finnish citizens were eligible to join, and two references from persons considered reliable were required. The latter requirement was often ignored after the break of Winter War in 1939. Foreigners could be accepted by special permission. However, in 1940 the first Muslim and Jewish members were accepted, and the first non-denominational member in 1941.
World War II
During the Winter War some 100,000 men whose jobs were taken over by "Lottas" were freed for military service. The Lottas worked in hospitals, at air-raid warning posts and other auxiliary tasks in conjunction with the armed forces. The Lottas, however, were officially unarmed. The only exception was a voluntary anti-aircraft battery in Helsinki in the summer of 1944, composed of Lotta Svärd members. The battery operated the AA search-lights. The unit was issued rifles for self-protection, thus being the only armed female military unit of the Finnish Defence Forces history.
The dire need for labor led to fast recruitment and there was often no time to properly train the new Lottas according to the principles of the organization. In addition, most new recruits were young and inexperienced. This caused some friction between the veterans and the new recruits.
Lotta Svärd suffered relatively light losses, considering the number of women posted to a war zone and the length of the war. During the wars, 291 Lottas died, most of which (140) from diseases caught on duty. 66 were killed near the front, 47 in air raids and 34 in accidents. The fallen Lottas were buried in war heroes' graves in their home parishes.
Post-World War II
When the Continuation War ended, the Soviet Union demanded that all organisations it considered paramilitary, fascist or semi-fascist be banned. Lotta Svärd was one of the groups which was disbanded, on 23 November 1944. However, a new organisation called Suomen Naisten Huoltosäätiö (Support Foundation of Finnish Women) was started which took over much of the old property. This organisation still exists by the name of Lotta Svärd Säätiö (Lotta Svärd Foundation).
Since 4 January 1995 women between the ages of 18 and 29 have had the right to apply for voluntary military service in the Finnish Defence Forces and are free to apply into any form of service, which is granted provided they fulfill the minimum fitness and health requirements.
The Finnish Lotta Svärd organisation has inspired similar organisations in other countries and there is still a Lotta Svärd organisation in Sweden (Lottorna); the same model is also used in Denmark and Norway.
- Thomas W. Zeiler and Daniel M. DuBois, eds. A Companion to World War II (2013) 2:727
- Aila Virtanen, "Accountability to the nation–The Finnish Lotta Svärd organization."
- Seija-Leena Nevala-Nurmi, "Girls and Boys in the Finnish Voluntary Defence Movement." Ennen & nyt (2006): 3.
- Anne Ollila, "Women's voluntary associations in Finland during the 1920s and 1930s" Scandinavian Journal of History (1995) 20#2 pp: 97-107.
- "Ruotuväki" (in Finnish). Mil.fi. Retrieved 2014-04-30.
- Ahlbäck, Anders, and Ville Kivimäki. "Masculinities at war: Finland 1918–1950." NORMA: Nordic Journal For Masculinity Studies 3.2 (2008): 114-131.
- Nevala-Nurmi, Seija-Leena. "Girls and Boys in the Finnish Voluntary Defence Movement." Ennen & nyt (2006): 3.
- Ollila, Anne. "Women's voluntary associations in Finland during the 1920s and 1930s" Scandinavian Journal of History (1995) 20#2 pp: 97-107.
- Olsson, Pia. "To Toil and to Survive: Wartime Memories of Finnish Women," Human Affairs (2002) 12#2 pp 127–138; based on memories of Lotta Svärd veterans.
- Virtanen, Aila. "Accountability to the nation–The Finnish Lotta Svärd organization." (2010) online
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