1939 – Kämp during the war

In November–December 1939, the struggle of “gallant little Finland" against the mighty armies of the Soviet Union was front-page news around the world. Europe was not yet quite in flames, but the fighting on the freezing-cold Finnish front was anything but pretense. Finland's official communiqués on the war were published each evening at 8 p.m., and they were pored over intently in the Kämp press room. The war correspondents transmitted to the world an image of a heroic, courageous, and patriotic Finnish people, which was of course an important propaganda weapon for a small country in dire straits. Finland was a European David going toe-to-toe with the Soviet Goliath, and briefly the nation had the sympathies of the entire Western world. The circumstances also allowed the reporters to cast themselves in a heroic light, bravely filing copy from this snowy, frozen northern land. Some did actually manage to get quite close to the front lines, but the great majority of the foreign correspondents waged the Winter War in the Kämp Bar, converted for the duration into an air-raid shelter. Thick timber supports provided some protection in the event of a blast. On the back wall was a bar counter, behind which bartenders mixed drinks for their thirsty press corps clients.

And there was no shortage of clientele, regardless of the war, or perhaps precisely because of the war. The bar had become a meeting-point for Finnish journalists, people from the Foreign Ministry, and other familiar faces about town. It was not just the working pressmen who came to Kämp in search of news and refreshments. State officials, professors, authors, labour leaders, diplomats, newspaper editors, and the managers of Helsinki publishing houses all showed up for a drink and to exchange what information there was to be had.

When the war escalated in the first week of December 1939, the government of the day resolved to arrange an evening reception in Kämp on the 22nd anniversary of the declaration of independence. The traditional Gala Reception in the Presidential Palace was canceled, but the diplomatic corps, foreign correspondents stationed in Helsinki, and leading political figures were invited to the event by the government. Kämp agreed to provide the building, rooms, staff, and tableware, but the hotel restaurant could not stretch to supplying the waiter service and the food. The Social Democrat Minister for Foreign Affairs Väinö Tanner, who was also a leading light in the Finnish cooperative movement, agreed to sort out the arrangements for a light buffet supper. Tanner made some calls from the ministry, and before long a small army of retired waiters, waitresses, and pastry chefs turned up to lend a hand. Notice was short, and invitations were sent out for the most part verbally, using couriers. Owing to the exceptional circumstances, the traditional formal dress codes were waived, and nobody came in tails or a dinner jacket. The then Minister of Education Uuno Hannula nevertheless prompted some raised eyebrows with his interpretation of “informal attire”, as he arrived in a gray woolen sweater and long red winter boots. The man from Lapland protested stoutly to Tanner that this was his normal informal attire, and the Foreign Minister grudgingly had to accept his colleague's explanation. The occasion seems to have gone off well, as the guests appeared to enjoy themselves, at least out of a sense of duty. The distinguished guests quaffed their wartime refreshments with gas-masks close to hand. Just in case.

The stories are compiled from Laura Kolbe's book Kämp – The Hotel and Its City (2015). Get your own copy at the hotel reception.