The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

The Café Central: Plotting Revolution in Grand Surroundings

The Café Central: Plotting Revolution in Grand Surroundings

The Café Central in the Herrengasse is certainly where one starts when it comes to Viennese coffee culture. The Herrengasse is a rather short street in the very heart of the city, which was one of the most prestigious addresses in imperial Vienna. The street ends in the square facing the Hofburg Palace and so it gave easy access to the emperor.

The Café Central with the sculpture of Peter Altenberg

The Café Central with the sculpture of Peter Altenberg

The Café Central is housed in a beautiful nineteenth century building, the Palais Ferstel, named after the architect Heinrich Ferstel, who was responsible for some of the landmark buildings in Vienna, including the MAK (The Museum of Applied Arts), the Votive Church, and the University of Vienna. Once you enter the café, you will notice the painted statue of Peter Altenberg (1859-1919), a writer of short stories and poems and a famous bohemian of his time. In his life and in his work, Altenberg epitomizes the spirit of fin-de-siécle Vienna. His first collection of short stories in 1896 was, tellingly, described as a book, which cannot “possibly be German”, it was “truly Viennese.” Just like many of the Viennese intelligentsia at the turn of the century, Altenberg was a regular visitor at the Café Central. He brought the bohemian attitude to a whole new level, as he seems to have hardly ever left the Central, except to go to another café. He famously gave the Café Central as his postal address.

Interestingly, some of the bohemian crowd at the Café Central are well-familiar names not so much as literati, but as practising revolutionaries. It is, in fact, intriguing to think of the coffee-house as the background of revolutionary ideas that would, in many ways, end up destroying the world that made possible the fin-de-siécle bohemian culture of Vienna. The anecdote about Trotsky and the Café Central in Vienna is revealing on several levels. When the Habsburg Minister of Foreign Affairs during the First World War was told that the situation in Russia was getting dangerous and it might lead to a revolution, he was undisturbed: “Who would lead the revolution? Herr Trotsky from the Café Central?!” Leon Trotsky, who was to become one of the most prominent leaders of the October Revolution in 1917, the person who reorganized the Red Army, which eventually won the Civil War, was among the regular clientele of the Café Central. It was, as history proved, a mistake not to take him seriously and to assume that leaders of revolutions didn’t come from among hangers-on in cafés.

On a different note, revolutionaries seem to be almost infallible guides to good coffee-houses, particularly of the high-end type. They appear to have an excellent taste when it comes to luxurious surroundings. Just as Marx had penned down The Communist Manifesto in the lavish Swan restaurant in the Grand Place in Brussels, his followers would choose the magnificent columned interior of the Café Central, the bohemian café par excellence, as a favourite meeting place. Not just Trotsky, but Lenin too, as well as Tito were known as permanent fixtures at the café. Plotting revolution requires its appropriate surroundings and they are typically, from what I can see, grand indeed.

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