The Complications of Nature and Heritage: Archaeologies of World War II in Lapland

In 1811 Carl von Linne (Linneaus) toured Lapland, the northernmost region of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and in his study Lachesis Lapponica, or A Tour in Lapland he warned his genteel European readers that “A divine could never describe a place of future punishment more horrible than this country, nor could the Styx of the poets exceed it. … I wished for nothing so much as to be able to go back by water to the place from whence I came.”  Unlike the tourist guides that would wax poetic over Lapland two centuries later, Linne indicated after traversing a cold marsh that “Had our sufferings been inflicted as a capital punishment, they would, even in that case, have been cruel. … I wished I had never undertaken my journey, for all the elements seemed adverse.”

The environmental spectacles of Lapland like the Northern Lights have fueled a massive tourism to northernmost Finland (Courtesy Visit Finland).

Joseph Acerbi’s Travels through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland painted a somewhat less harrowing picture of Lapland, intoning in 1802 that that if his reader “desires to see a country different from any that he has ever seen, and to contemplate the manners of a people unlike, in every particular, to all the inhabitants of Europe, he must proceed northwards, and leave behind him the great towns, and all notions of a civilized state of society.”   Few visitors embraced Acerbi’s challenge to venture into Lapland in the 19th century, deterred by the harsh and remote picture visitors painted of this most barren of all wildernesses.  Three years before Linne’s book was published, for instance, the New Gazetteer of the Eastern Continent sounding a comparably bleak picture of Lapland, describing it as being “full [of] rocks and mountains, fens and morasses, barren heaths, and sandy deserts.  Besides these inconveniences, the long and severe winters, the cold, dark, and tedious nights, the vast depth of snow, seem sufficient to deter every living creature from fixing his abode here.  The heat of summer generates such swarms of gnats and flies, as obscure the light of the sun.”

The urban center of Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi is today home to a series of Santa Claus attractions including Santa Claus Village (courtesy Tarja Ryhannen Mitrovic).

Despite such proclamations, two centuries later tourists have cured their fear of the wilderness and flock to Lapland for a breadth of experiences including midnight sun summers, hiking and canoeing, ice swimming and saunas, breathtaking winters, and some curiosities clashing somewhat with the picture of Lapland as untouched wilderness, like Santa Claus’ village, Jouloukka (the Elf school near Rovaniemi), and Santa Park (home of Santa’s caves).  Much of this discourse now revolves around the “staged authenticity” of experiences in nature, the very nature that Carl von Linne warned his early 19th century readers against.  Two centuries later spaces like Lapland, Yosemite, or the Masa Marai Nature Reserve are social constructions that Dean MacCannell argues are “the `good deed’ of industrial civilization” that “quietly confirm the power of industrial civilization to stage, situate, limit, and control nature.”  Like many other international representations of nature tourism, the official Lapland Finland Tourism web page promises that “Meaningful experiences that stimulate all the senses and feelings, leaving permanent memories are very easy to find in Lapland.  Unique weather conditions and the power of nature make the senses much more sensitive to stimulation.”  Finland’s national travel page likewise celebrates raw wilderness, 203,000 reindeer, and snow.

Among the most interesting and challenging dimensions of Lapland heritage is the region’s Nazi history.  During World War II the Germans spent 1941-1944 as co-belligerents with the Finns against the Soviet Union, and the Germans and Finns built supply bases and prison camps throughout Lapland.  In September, 1944, though, Finland signed a treaty with the Soviets, and the Germans retreated, abandoning the Lapland bases, discarding equipment throughout the retreat route, laying scores of mines, and destroying everything they crossed from livestock to buildings.  Consequently, the Lapland landscape throughout Finland and reaching into Norway is covered with material remnants of that period including ephemeral soil features, abandoned vehicles, and mines covering much of the landscape now visited by numerous tourists.

Metsahallitus, the Finnish state-owned enterprise administering the forests, is conducting surveys of its archaeological and cultural resources over more than 5 million hectares of state-owned forest.  Taisto Karjalainen presented preliminary findings from this research at the European Archaeological Association meetings September 1st, raising the question of how such material culture will be preserved in places like Lapland.  His discussion illuminated the challenge of how such heritage will be interpreted in Finland—a challenge much of Europe has faced since the end of the war–and potentially even marketed to tourists now being encouraged to come for hiking, Northern Lights, and visits with Santa.

Some wartime sites are interpreted in northern Finland.  For instance, Jarama (known in German as Sturmbock-Stellung) was a fortified defensive line built mostly by Soviet prisoners over 50 kilometers of northwestern Lapland.  Oula Seitsonin and Vesa-Pekka Herva have documented a wartime landscape of nearly 100 Lapland prison camps with over 30,000 Soviet prisoners who transformed Lapland for the German and Finnish military effort.  Yet most of Lapland and indeed much of Europe includes a broad range of wartime sites scattered across the landscape, many un-interpreted and un-protected and in threat of being destroyed.   Certainly some proponents of Lapland tourism probably see the landscape of German military remains as “junk” detracting from the environmental purity that defines Lapland symbolically, and such materiality does risk undoing the constructed picture of Lapland as uncorrupted nature.  The Finnish Tourism Board confirms that the primary reason international visitors come to Finland is for nature tourism, with 238,000 coming specifically to Lapland.

This wreckage is from a German Junkers that crashed in February, 1944 in Lapland (courtesy s. niemelainen)

Nevertheless, much of the Lapland wartime landscape remains well-preserved but relatively untouched by archaeologists of the most recent past.  There is an especially bold contrast between that heritage and the region’s Santa Claus symbolism, which certainly is not presented as “authenticity” in the same way as the Lapland wilderness.  Santa Claus’ Rovaniemi village “works” symbolically in part because of Lapland’s own association with untouched wilderness, but Rovaniemi has its own complicated wartime heritage.  Often referred to as the “capital of Lapland,” Rovaniemi was the central garrison for Germans in Lapland between 1941 and 1944, including a Luftwaffe base that is today Santa Claus’ official airport.  In September 1944, though, Finland signed the Moscow Armistice with the Soviet Union and the Germans were compelled to leave Finland.  As the Germans retreated they destroyed Rovaniemi as part of a broad scorched earth withdrawal through Finnish Lapland, so Rovaniemi today is the reconstruction done in the wake of World War II.

Certainly many places have social and political challenges interpreting such complicated heritage, but Lapland has exceptionally well-preserved if somewhat prosaic material evidence of wartime landscapes that includes prisons, work camps, and virtually every possible sort of military operation.  To American eyes this landscape is fascinating and not at all distant historically, but for many Finns it is simply a historical fact and a dimension of experience that is not especially self-conscious.  I grew up amongst Virginia trenches dug in the American Civil War and around many of the war’s bloodiest battlefields, which likewise became simply an accepted if rather invisible part of the landscape, so I understand the tendency to overlook the heritage around us.  Yet much of Finland and certainly Lapland provide an exceptionally well-preserved wartime landscape and a rare if not unique opportunity to document the most prosaic dimensions of wartime.  The fit of this heritage with Santa Claus is difficult, but it can certainly accommodate and even strengthen the pictures painted of Lapland as a stark wilderness and perhaps even be one of the region’s lures to tourism.


Joseph (Guiseppe) Acerbi (1802) Travels through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland, to the North Cape in the years 1798 and 1799.  2 vols.  John Mawman, London.

Alaine A. Grenier (2007) The Diversity of Polar Tourism: Some Challenges Facing the Industry in Rovaniemi, Finland. Polar Geography 30(1-2). (Subscription access)

Carl von Linne (1811) Lachesis Lapponica, or A Tour in Lapland.  2 vols.  White and Cochran, London.

Dean MacCannell (1973) Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist SettingsAmerican Journal of Sociology 79:3):589-603. (Subscription access)

Dean MacCannell (1990) Nature, Inc. Places 6(3):24-26.

Jedidiah Morse and Elijah Parrish (1808) New Gazetteer of the Eastern Continent. 2nd edition.  J.T. Buckingham, Boston.

Michael Pretes (1995) Postmodern Tourism: The Santa Claus Industry. Annals of Tourism Research, 22(1):1-15.  (Subscription access)

Jarkko Sarrinen (2004) Tourism and Touristic Representations of Nature.  In A Companion to Tourism, eds. Alan A. Lew, C. Michael Hall, and Allan M. Williams, pp. 438-449.  Blackwell, New York.  (Subscription access)

Oula Seitsonin and Vesa-Pekka Herva (2011) Forgotten in the Wilderness: WWII German PoW Camps in Finnish Lapland.  In Archaeologies of Internment, edited by Adrian Myers and Gabriel Moshenska, pp. 171-190.  Springer, New York.

Junkers JU-52 image courtesy s. niemelainen

Northern Lights image courtesy Visit Finland

Santa Claus Village image courtesy Tarja Ryhannen Mitrovic


One thought on “The Complications of Nature and Heritage: Archaeologies of World War II in Lapland

  1. Thank you, Paul for your refreshing aspects about Finnish culture and history ! Maybe you and some readers are interested about my folk-medicine (ethnomedicine) and music studies in Ostrobothnia, Finland, too.

    Best regards,

    Antti Hernesniemi
    Dr Med Sci
    Musicology master-line student

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