Lotta Svärd – The Women who saved Finland

The Lotta Svärd organization  Emblem
The Lotta Svärd organization Emblem

Since 1809 Finland had been an autonomous state of Russia. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Russian Government began implementing a program designed to bring all States within the Russian sphere of influence under more direct political control.

The Russian Government intended to abolish Finnish autonomy altogether. This led to political unrest within Finland which eventually led to the War of Independence in 1917. Soon after the declaration of independence was ratified at the end of 1917, the newly formed state of Finland found itself embroiled in a bloody civil war between the pro Finnish ‘Whites’ and the Pro Russian/Communist ‘Reds’. This conflict resulted in the greatest loss of Finnish life in any Finnish war.

Tensions between Finland and the Soviet Union escalated from 1918 until the invasion of Soviet Russia on the 10th November 1939. To put the conflict into perspective; the population in Finland in 1940 was 3,695,610. The population of the Soviet Union in 1940 was 110,333. The Finnish Armed Forces were outnumbered 10:1.

The Finns recognized that in order to survive, all elements of their society would have to be involved in the defense of their state. Men and Women became involved in military activities, preparing Finland for the inevitable war with the Soviet Union. The Lotta Svärd was a volunteer auxiliary Women’s organization. The inspiration for using Lotta Svard name came from patriotic book “Vanrikki Stoolin tarinat” (Stories of 2nd Lieutenant Stool”) by J.L. Runeberg. The book contains mostly fictional poems from the Swedish-Russian war of 1808-1809 giving a heroic picture of Finnish the soldiers in it. One of its poems “Lotta Svärd“ tells the story of a soldier’s wife of that name, who follows her husband to war selling drinks to soldiers and boosting moral. Her husband was sadly killed in the war yet Lotta stayed with the soldiers, tending to their wounds, feeding and caring for them.

The Lotta Svärd organization ran from 1920-1944. During its time it provided invaluable service in the defense of Finland and by 1944 at the cessation of hostilities with the Soviet Union had within its ranks 242,000 volunteers which represented 16.1% of the population.

On the 23rd January 1919, the first Women’s association called Lotta Svärd was formed, osasto 1. Osasto 1 or ‘Division 1’ was formed in Helsinki by Swedish speaking women.

The founding of the Helsinki organization gave rise to many locally raised groups and other divisions of the Civil Guards. These organizations were independent groups and on October 29, 1919, Colonel Georg Didrik von Essen, the Commander-in-chief of the Civil Guards, made an appeal to recognise the Lotta Svärd as the definitive organization within the Civil Guards.

The number of Lotta Svärd organizations grew rapidly; however, they lacked a mandate and required a set of rules to follow across all sub-divisional units. This necessitated the formation of a national Lotta Svärd Organization by the General Staff on the 11th May 1920. The organization was entered into the register of associations on September 9 of the same year.

The Lotta Svärd Directive

The primary purpose of the Lotta Svärd was to aid the Civil Guards through medical care, cooking, preparing equipment, raising funds and any other means that would contribute to and support the Civil Guards. Later in the war these duties would expand into national defense. . The most well-known chairperson of the organization was Ms. Fanni Luukkonen, who held the position for 15 years from 1929 until the organization was abolished in 1944.

Fanni Luukkonen was born in Oulu on 13th March 1882and died October 27th 1947. She was chosen as the leader of the Lotta Svärd in 1929, under her stewardship, the organization grew to 232,000 members, which made it the largest Women’s organization in Finland and even the world.

Fanni Luukkonen Chairperson of the Lotta Svärd and recipient of the Mannerheim Cross.
Fanni Luukkonen Chairperson of the Lotta Svärd and recipient of the Mannerheim Cross.

She was awarded the Order of the Cross of Liberty 1st Class with swords, by Marshal Mannerheim in June 1940. She was the first woman to receive this decoration. When the Continuation War ended, the Soviet Union demanded that Lotta Svärd, along with the Suojeluskunta, were to be disbanded. In the Suuret Suomalaiset (Greatest Finns) competition (similar to the 100 Greatest Britons) Fanni Luukkonen was voted for 44th place.

Management Sub-divisions

Lotta Svärd was managed by a central board which was responsible to the Commander-in-Chief of the Civil Guards. The central board consisted of six members and two vice-members, who were selected at the organization’s annual meetings. The boards Chairperson was then appointed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Civil Guards.

The organization was then further sub-divided into district divisions, run upon similar lines to Civil Guards District Divisions. These were further sub-divided into local districts according to the number of Civil Guards Divisions in that district. In the countryside, the District Divisions were further divided into village divisions.

The Lotta Svärd was associated and worked closely with the Civil Guards. This arrangement was mutually beneficial to both organizations. The Civil Guards provided office space and a supply of raw materials for the work of the provisioning and equipment divisions and the Lotta Svärd provided desperately needed workers.

In 1920 requirements were introduced for new recruits wishing to join the Lotta Svärd. These were:

  • A good reputation
  • Loyalty towards the legal social order
  • Trust

The organization did not set an age limit but applicants under the age of 18 were required to obtain permission from their guardians. In 1921 the rules were amended that those members wishing to join the active group were required to obtain permission to join from their husbands.

According to these rules, the local districts could accept any woman who were loyal to the Finnish Government, and who had the recommendation of two well-known and trustworthy people. In the 1930s the organization started putting new applicants on probation for a period of 3-12 months before they could be accepted as members. During the probation, new applicants were educated in the work of the members and the principles of the organization. At the end of the probation period the applicants were given a test; those who passed it were accepted as new members .These requirements were followed until 1943, when the growing need for new recruits forced the management to start accepting new members on lesser grounds.

Members of the Organisation

The members of the organisation were called ‘Lottas’ and they were divided into two groups: : Toimen-Lotat (acting Lottas) and Huolto-Lotat (supply Lottas). The acting Lottas, after taking the ‘Lotta Promise’, were accepted into the Medical and Provisioning divisions. It was their duty to commit themselves full-time in the event of National mobilisation and to serve anywhere in the country. The supply Lottas consisted of the rest of the active members, who worked in their divisions under the supervision of the Civil Guards regional Command. In addition to these two groups, a third group of supporting members made financial contributions to the organisation by paying an annual fee.

Supply Lottas preparing for the Winter War.
Supply Lottas preparing for the Winter War.

The Lotta Svärd organization was voluntary with each member contributing to help their country survive the war. In December 1939 the Ministry of Defence began supplying the Lottas with a small daily allowance.

The 1921 rules stated that Acting Lottas and Supply Lottas who held a position of trust were required to take the Lotta oath. This required them to follow the rules of the organization. This was at first given in writing but was soon changed to the ‘Lotta Promise’ which was performed in a ceremony. Another important fact of the Lotta Svärd organization was the uniform. This was grey and made from either cotton or wool, with a white collar and shirt cuffs. Each uniform had an organization armband which showed the division that the member belonged to, and a membership badge pin.

Lotta Svärd membership badges.
Lotta Svärd membership badges.

The Lotta Promise

“Minä N.N lupaan kunniasanallani, että rehellisesti ja omantunnontarkasti avustan Suojeluskuntaa sen puolustaessa uskontoa, kotia ja isänmaata sekä lupaan, etten luovu Lotta-Svärd yhdistyksen toiminnasta ennen kuin yksi kuukausi on kulunut siitä, kun olen paikallisjohtokunnalle todistettavasti ilmoittanut haluavani erota Lotta-Svärd yhdistyksestä.”

 “I first name surname pledge with my word of honour, that I will honestly and according my conscience to assist Suojeluskunta in defending creed, home and fatherland. And I promise that I won’t give up working in Lotta Svard Association, until one month has passed from me verifiably informing Local Board from my desire to resign from the Association.”

The Four Divisions of the Lotta Svärd Organization and the Little Lottas

The Lotta Svärd organization fundamental groups of ‘Acting Lottas’ and ‘Supply Lottas’ responsibilities included: 1) Medical 2) Provisioning 3) Equipment  and 4) Fundraising divisions. The Fundraising division was later renamed the Fundraising and Office division. Later, as the organization grew larger and the war conditions changed, these four divisions were improved and also altered.

Often Lottas were required to undertake additional roles such as operating the 14. Valonheitinpatteri (14th Searchlight Battery) in the defense of Helsinki during the Continuation War. The weapon used by the women should they be attacked by Soviet units was an Italian Terni military rifle that was also used by other anti-aircraft units. The battery was the only armed unit in Finnish Army made up from women that was organized as a military unit fit for combat duty.

Searchlights in the anti-aircraft museum (Ilmatorjuntamuseo) in Hyrylä of Tuusula, Finland.
Searchlights in the anti-aircraft museum (Ilmatorjuntamuseo) in Hyrylä of Tuusula, Finland.

The Medical Division

Members of the Lotta Svärd Medical Division.
Members of the Lotta Svärd Medical Division.

Acting Lottas were assigned to aid in the care and transportation of sick and wounded soldiers in addition to arranging bandaging stations and sick rooms and preparing the necessary equipment for them. They were also responsible for replenishing the Civil Guards stock of drugs. During the Winter War and the Continuation War, the Medical division took part in setting up many more field hospitals, stationary war hospitals and medical trains. When the Winter War broke out, the main purpose of the division was to train medical Lottas, who assisted the real nurses in the stationary and field hospitals and also in first aid stations and medical trains.

Lotta Nurse.
Lotta Nurse.

Their other responsibilities included civil defence duties, setting up hospitals and sick rooms for evacuees and tending to convalescents. In addition they prepared bandaging material and took care of the medical supplies. Lottas washed and fixed the wounded soldiers clothes, with the aim that every soldier would have clean and mended clothes or, if needed, an entirely new set of clothes when they left the hospital. The Medical division also included a special veterinary division which took care of the horse’s welfare.

A Lotta taking care of a War Horse.
A Lotta taking care of a War Horse.

The Provisioning Division

The work of the Provisioning division was from the beginning the most extensive and visible form of Lotta work. Provisioning was also a priority in the organizations main duty: supporting the Civil Guards. The Lottas responsibilities ranged from providing coffee to the Civil Guards to organizing full provisioning for large camps and exercises. Although the Provisioning division carried the heaviest workload, on the other hand it also had by far the largest number of members. In addition, Lottas from other divisions took part in the work of the Provisioning division during events which required extensive provisioning. According to the rules set in 1926, the purpose of the Provisioning division was taking care of the provisioning for the Civil Guards and training the divisions Lottas during peace, as well as providing the Civil Guards with the necessary number of provisioning Lottas in the event of national mobilization.

Lottas in the Provisioning Division.
Lottas in the Provisioning Division.

The Equipment Division

The main work of the Equipment division was preparing, maintaining and keeping a list of the equipment for both Lotta Svärd and the Civil Guards. Their main duties and responsibilities were to prepare materials needed for the Lotta Svärd sewing circles and organizing rummage sales. Since its foundation, the Lotta Svärd organization had been aiding the invalids of the Finnish Civil War, along with their families. This work was especially the Equipment division’s responsibility. This division consisted mainly of elder Lottas, who carried out their Lotta duties by doing handiwork; it also had the smallest number of members.

The Fundraising Office Division

Accordingly to its original name, the Fundraising division was mainly responsible for collecting funds for both its own operations and the Civil Guards. This division was traditionally also responsible for organizing parties, rummage sales and all sorts of other events. The reference to office was added to the divisions name in 1925 when its operations were changed to include providing office help for the Civil Guards. As the Lotta Svärd organization assumed new forms of operating, these were added to the Fundraising and Office division because the operations of the other divisions were much more clearly defined, and the Office division had traditionally taken care of all the leftover tasks. These new forms of operating included sea and air surveillance and the information service.

The division raised funds in various ways, including organizing events, gathering supporting members and selling Lotta publications. Even though the division mainly worked with financing and fundraising, it also had an important role in morale building: to spread patriotism and the will to participate in national defence not only among the Civil Guards but also the whole nation. Naturally, the whole organization participated in this work; its sheer number of members made it possible for the organization to give the people strength simply by setting an example. In practice, however, the main responsibility fell on the Fundraising and Office division, which organized parties and educational meetings.

During the war the work of the Fundraising and Office division directly benefited the defensive forces. The Lottas who were assigned to the defensive forces were usually in positions where they replaced men assigned to the same tasks; thus they helped free soldiers for the front lines. These Lottas worked as typists, cartographers, telephone operators and weather observers, among other positions.

The Little Lottas

The Little Lottas was the organizations youth division, which consisted of girls aged 8 to 16. The main point of the division was to raise new members for Lotta Svärd. The only requirement for new members was that they had to be at least 8 years old and have permission from their parents. As it did not matter whether the girl’s parents were members of Civil Guards or Lotta Svärd or not, there were many girls joining the division whose parents belonged to neither group. To make the divisions operations easier, the girls divisions were separated into two age groups: 8-13-year-olds and 14-16-year-olds. When a member turned 17, she had the opportunity to request to become a member of Lotta Svärd. By the end of the 1930s, most of the new members came from the girls divisions.

Ideology of the Organisation

According to the rules, the purpose of the Lotta Svärd organization was to invoke and strengthen the ideology of the Civil Guards and to aid the Civil Guards in protecting religion, home and country. The organization carried out its purpose by attempting to raise the people’s morale and will for national defence and also by working for national defence in various fields of activity. At the same time the organization aimed to raise Finnish women to be model citizens. A Finnish woman was supposed to be patriotic, self-sacrificing, brave, enduring, responsible and skilled. The organizations ideology was based on Christianity, morality and patriotism, which was also engraved in the organizations Golden Words, which were an essential part in the crystallization of the Lotta spirit. The Golden Words were as follows:

  • May the fear of God be the greatest strength in your life!
  • Learn to love your country and your people!
  • Value your Lotta ideals. Only when you are righteous, pure and sober can you be a true Lotta!
  • Always demand the most from yourself!
  • Be good!
  • Be loyal even in the smallest things!
  • When you encounter misfortune, remember the greatness of our goal!
  • Respect your Lotta sisters and aid them in their work, thus you can strengthen the feeling of unity!
  • Remember the work of the past generations. Respect your elders, for they have done more than us!
  • Be modest in the way you behave and dress!
  • Submit to self-discipline in order to raise the discipline of the organization!
  • Lotta, remember that you represent a great, patriotic organization. Be wary of doing anything that may hurt it or damage its reputation!
Lotta Svärd Volunteers during the Winter War of 1939.
Lotta Svärd Volunteers during the Winter War of 1939.

The Lotta Svärd disciplinary regulations and the Golden Words obliged every Lotta to remember that they represented the whole organization. The discipline was absolute concerning the use of alcohol and tobacco: the organization forbade the Lottas from using alcohol while on duty and while wearing the Lotta uniform and smoking was not allowed in public. Lottas were also not allowed to use make-up while wearing their uniforms, and the use of jewellery was restricted so that only wristwatches and wedding and engagement rings could be used Improper behaviour could result in disciplinary measures or in the worst case expulsion from the organization

Although the rules were usually strictly followed, some problems did emerge. The tense wartime atmosphere gave rise to all sorts of negative rumours about the behaviour of Lottas on the front lines. There were of course some actual cases of rule-breaking, for example drinking or smoking in public, but in most cases the rumours proved to be baseless. Additionally, most of the rule-breakers were young women who had only recently been accepted into the organization during a time of great need for new recruits, and who had not had time to adopt the organizations ideals. All in all, only 346 Lottas, comprising only 0.38% of the 232,000 members, were ever expelled from the organization for breaking the code of behaviour.

Post World War II

When the Continuation War ended, the Soviet Union demanded that all organizations it considered paramilitary, fascist or semi-fascist be banned. Lotta Svärd was one of the groups which were disbanded, on 23 November 1944. However, a new organization called Suomen Naisten Huoltosäätiö (Support Foundation of Finnish Women) was started which took over much of the old property. This organization 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 organization has inspired similar organizations in other countries and there is still a Lotta Svärd organization in Sweden (Lottorna); the same model is also used in Denmark and Norway.


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