The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

The Sacher Café and Viennese High Society

Traditional coffee-culture was very much a bourgeois culture. Most Viennese coffee-houses catered for their usual clientele – middle-class, almost exclusively male, intellectual, and overwhelmingly Jewish (the last two often overlapped). In this sense, the café at the Sacher Hotel, founded in 1876, was a notable exception. It was at the Sacher that one could come across members of the old aristocratic families, who wouldn’t, as a rule, frequent cafés.

The aristocracy of the Habsburg Empire, like anywhere else, had their own salons, which had a long history (longer than that of the coffee-house, as a matter of fact). Eventually, the super-rich among the bourgeoisie would organize their lives in a similarly aristocratic fashion. The Wittgensteins, a remarkably cultured and talented family – it is telling that Ludwig Wittgenstein, the future philosopher, was considered in no way exceptional among his siblings – hardly ever left their palace in Vienna. The children of Karl Wittgenstein, one of the wealthiest industrialists in Europe, had their private tutors, Brahms himself and Gustav Mahler, the great composer and Director of the Opera, would perform for the family at their palace. Understandably, they had little reason to leave their home to seek culture. Culture, so to speak, came to them and was happy to wait on them.

In other words, the bourgeois coffee-house was the counterpart of the aristocratic salon and the two rarely mixed. This is why the Café Sacher was so remarkable in attracting aristocratic society. This was so much so that Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular Austrian-Jewish writers of the first half of the twentieth century, remembered how his father would avoid going to the Sacher, even though he could very well afford it. The elder Zweig found it “distressing” and “unbecoming” “to sit at a table next to a Prince Schwarzenberg or a Count Lobkowitz.”

The lobby of the Sacher hotel.

It struck me that nothing could be more revealing of the prejudices of the class-divided society of old. That a hard-working, affluent and very successful middle-class man could believe himself to be unworthy of being in the same room as a Prince, who in many cases could be best described as “an unemployed person who doesn’t need to work,” seems astonishing from a present-day perspective. By the way, it would have been better for the original owners of the Sacher to stick to clients like Zweig’s father. The Princes, who may have been more ornamental, didn’t always bother to pay their bills and it was not considered good manners to ask them to do so. The hotel and the café were, as a result, brought to bankruptcy and acquired another owner during the inter-war period.

These days, the good news is that the Sacher – there is not one, but several cafes within the hotel building – has kept its aristocratic surroundings minus the aristocrats. Or, more precisely, nobody seems to care who is sitting around. The Sacher Café is simply the place where you go to have the legendary Sacher Torte (the Sacher cake). Once you find yourself in what is one of Europe’s grandest cafés, though, the very concept of simplicity flies out of the window – this happens almost right away when you are welcomed by the stern-looking waiter, better-dressed than most of the customers.

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