The UN’s Relief and Reconstruction Work in Finland after World War II By Debra DeLaet (Executive Director, Iowa United Nations Association)
I recently spent a month as a visiting researcher at the Tampere Peace Research Institute (TAPRI) in Finland. TAPRI is an international research center focused on examining the causes of war, the non-violent resolution of conflicts, and the conditions for peace. My time at TAPRI gave me the opportunity to learn more about Nordic perspectives on peace. I also had opportunities to learn about Finland’s experience in World War II, including the important role the United Nations played in helping to rebuild Finland in the aftermath of the war.
An unexpected discovery in Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, highlighted the lasting influence of the United Nations in the region. We stopped at Santa Claus Village, a popular tourist destination in Lapland, to walk across the Arctic Circle, which runs through the resort. As we were walking towards the Arctic Circle marker, we walked by an unassuming wood cottage. I almost didn’t notice the signage above the door describing the building as the Roosevelt Cottage.
Roosevelt Cottage, also known as the Arctic Circle Cabin, was built with funds from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), a UN body that provided critical aid, including food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, to countries that had been devastated by World War II. UNRRA also helped coordinate the repatriation of millions of displaced people and refugees after the war. Notably, UNRRA was established in 1943 both before the official end of the war and prior to the formal establishment of the UN in 1945. This example shows the centrality of humanitarian aid and peacebuilding as cornerstones of the UN system that emerged after World War II. The UNRRA was disbanded in 1947 and ultimately replaced by other UN bodies, including International Refugee Organization (later succeeded by UN High Commissioner for Refugees), the World Health Organization, and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF, now known as the UN Children’s Fund) that took up various aspects of its critical work.
The history of Roosevelt Cottage sheds light on the broader history of the important role the UN played in reconstructing Europe after World War II. The cottage is just outside of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. This city was devastated by World War II. It had been occupied by the German army, which destroyed most of the city’s buildings and infrastructure when it withdrew in October 1944. The German army also placed deadly mines in the forests surrounding the city. (On hikes through the gorgeous Lapland forest, you can still encounter signs noting the historic presence of militarization in the area.) The UNRRA played a critical role in the reconstruction of Rovaniemi and in the removal of landmines from the Lapland region.
As a goodwill ambassador for the UN, Eleanor Roosevelt travelled to Rovaniemi in June 1950 to monitor UNRRA’s reconstruction work. In preparation for this visit, Uuno Hannula, the governor of Lapland, facilitated the building of the cottage on the Arctic Circle to honor Mrs. Roosevelt at the reception for her visit. The building of the Roosevelt Cottage served as a symbol for the broader goal of reconstructing the Lapland region. Fittingly, it is now on the site of a popular tourist destination, with tourism being one of the driving forces of postwar economic recovery in Lapland. Rovaniemi has been rebuilt and is the administrative and commercial center of a now-thriving region.
The story of the UNRRA’s work in Finland is part of a larger story of the role that the United Nations played in rebuilding Europe after World War II. Caught between major powers, Finland shifted its alliances over the course of the war. Initially, the Finnish government actually allied itself with Nazi Germany during the war, partly to regain territories it had lost to the USSR during the Winter War (1939-40) between the Soviet Union and Finland. In 1944, a new Finnish government secretly negotiated a peace agreement with the Soviet Union that led to the Lapland War between Finland and Germany in 1944-1945. Throughout the timespan of the World War, Finnish citizens fought on both sides of the conflict. The effects of the war were devastating for Finland. Roughly 86,000 Finnish citizens died during the war. Approximately 500,000 Finns became refugees during the war. Countless homes and public buildings were destroyed. The UNRRA played an essential role in reconstructing the country. In 1955, Finland joined the United Nations.
Finland is a parliamentary democracy that has become a global political leader. Martti Ahtisaari, Finland’s President from 1994-2000, has been a prominent diplomat and mediator for the UN who played a lead role in UN initiatives that helped resolve violent conflicts in Namibia, Indonesia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Iraq. He received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Finland also has emerged as a leader on many indicators of human development. Finland ranks very high on the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite indicator developed by the UN Development Program, which measures a country’s achievement in three areas: life expectancy, educational attainment, and standard of living. In recent decades, human development trends in Finland have steadily risen, and Finland has been consistently among the countries with the highest rankings on the HDI. The UN played a critical role in helping the country move from the devastation of World War II to one of the most highly developed countries in the world today.
The tiny Roosevelt Cottage at a tourist destination on the Arctic Circle in Lapland reflects a rich history of the role of the United Nations in postwar reconstruction in Europe after World War II. The UNRRA was essential to rebuilding Finland. It helped by providing humanitarian aid, resettling refugees, and reconstructing cities. The UNRRA and its successor UN bodies helped to usher in an era of peace and prosperity throughout Europe.
In subsequent decades, the UN has continued its lifesaving work across the globe. A range of UN bodies, including by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, carry on the historic work of the UNRRA by providing essential humanitarian aid to populations in conflict zones and helping to create the conditions for peace in war-torn countries.