Cafe Hawelka. Photo: Veniamin Kostitsin-Teterin
By John A. Irvin
Each individual's lifetime represents a bridge between the urgency and emotion of present events and the eventual transformation of those same events into dry, historical fact.
For some people, their lives also include their personal experience of many of the world's momentous events. These people are essentially living history and their passage marks the loss of something irreplaceable. Leopold Hawelka, owner and operator of Vienna's Café Hawelka since 1938, died at the age of 100 on December 29, 2011. Hawelka's life spanned a period in Austrian history that saw the end of the Habsburg monarchy, two world wars, the Anschluss, the occupation and division of the city into zones by the victorious Allies, the restoration of the Republic and Austria's steady climb back to the prosperity it enjoys today.
His life is also a marker for the inevitable transformation of historic Viennese coffee house culture. The origin of the Viennese coffee house, which predates Hawelka's appearance on the scene by some 300 years, is regarded by many as more legend than fact. As the story goes, the Polish-Habsburg army that defeated the Ottoman army and lifted the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 discovered several sacks of dry, dark brown beans among the booty left behind by the retreating enemy.
Unaware of their purpose or value, Polish king Jan III Sobieski gave the sacks of useless beans to an officer named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki. Whether he shared his information with the king or not, Kulczycki was well aware of just how valuable the beans were, having learned about coffee during time spent in Turkish captivity.
Kulczycki is often credited with adapting coffee to a European taste by adding milk and sugar to the strong, bitter Turkish drink. At any rate, the first recognized Viennese coffee house was opened by Johannes Theodat in 1685. Early coffee houses offered their customers a color chart depicting various shades of brown, lighter or darker, from which the customer chose their particular hue of preference.
It was not until much later that individual coffee preparations were christened with the names familiar to customers today; Melange, Grosser/Kleiner Brauner, Grosser/Kleiner Schwarzer, Einspänner, Verlängerter, the rum-laced Fiaker, and the complex Kaisermelange. As the centuries progressed, the Viennese coffee house evolved into something more than just a place to get a cup of coffee. By the time Hawelka was born, Viennese coffee house culture was at its historic apex.
Although coffee houses were ubiquitous throughout the city, each had its own atmosphere and attracted a distinct clientele based largely on academic, political, or cultural interests, as well as social class. Viennese coffee houses were the favorite haunts of such notables as Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, as well as countless others whose names and lives have since vanished from history. Leon Trotsky was reported to be particularly fond of the Café Central.
The popularity of the coffee houses can be attributed to the unique social function they served. In addition to excellent coffee and small meals, traditional Viennese coffee houses offered their patrons the opportunity to sit in comfortable surroundings and read the news of the world by drawing from racks of local and, frequently, foreign newspapers. This was an important service at a time before radio, television, and the internet. Viennese coffee houses also offered patrons a hospitable atmosphere for meeting with friends and colleagues to discuss issues and exchange ideas. Whether by design or happy circumstance, the prototypical café table comfortably seated about three to five people, which psychologists have since discovered is the best group size for solving complex problems.
The curved wooden chairs and booths of typical Viennese coffee houses were comfortable rather than cozy and, as a result, more inclined to enhance meaningful human interaction rather than narcolepsy. Viennese coffee houses were relaxed rather than casual. Efficient yet aloof waiters in black bow ties were an essential part of the culture and served as constant reminders of this.
Furthermore, while the average coffee house did offer small meals in addition to coffee and pastries, they were not restaurants. Even in the best restaurants the expectation is that the customer will leave within a reasonable amount of time after finishing their meal. While meaningful conversation can and often does occur while seated in a restaurant, the conversation is doomed to end (at least at that location) when the bill arrives. The coffee house patron could read a number of newspapers, converse with friends or colleagues on matters trivial and momentous, or spend their time more or less however they chose for hours on end...all for the price of a cup of coffee.
Not as monastic as a library nor as boisterous as a Heuriger (wine-tavern), and without the pressure to finish your business and leave, coffee houses were an ideal setting for interpersonal communication. By the time Hawelka opened his eponymous café in 1938, difficult times had come to Austria and to the coffee houses of Vienna. Many of the names associated with Habsburg-era coffee houses had died or left the country after the end of the First World War, the collapse of the Empire, the global economic depression, and the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by Germany).
Hawelka closed his café only a year after it opened when he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and sent to fight on the brutal Eastern Front. He returned in 1945 to find his café mostly undamaged while many other buildings in Vienna had been reduced to rubble. In those days many of his clientele were displaced persons, often without the money to buy a single cup of coffee yet whom he allowed to sit in his café all day rather than force them back into the cold. Some patrons were officers from the victorious occupying armies; confident, well-fed, and wealthy compared to the Viennese patrons. What Hawelka, his café, and his patrons shared was the fact that they were all survivors of a cataclysm that had swept so many others away.
Personality is the combination of history and circumstance, and each coffee house in Vienna has its own personality. Although Hawelka, Vienna, and Austria gradually recovered from the war and occupation, during the following decades until the time of his death, his café would continue to bear hidden traces of the postwar Vienna depicted in the film noir classic The Third Man. Years later, amid animated conversation in a vibrant, prosperous Vienna, if a patron bothered to look they could still find initials scratched into the café's wood-paneled walls, perhaps those made by a desperate war survivor, their world shattered, making a sad, futile effort to leave behind some trace that they had ever existed.
The story of Vienna's coffee houses is, above all else, a human story, and every coffee house tells its own unique tale. In the 1950s the Viennese coffee house faced the first of perhaps its greatest existential threats; greater than wars, famine, disease, or political upheaval. This was, of course, the television. From that time forward, advances in technology had the unintended consequence of slowly undermining the coffee house culture. While their benefits are inestimable and undeniable, the advent of television and later the internet and cell phone technology, also overshadowed the coffee house's traditional role as preferred location for the consumption of news and gathering place for social interaction.
Both the television and internet brought news and information directly to the individual wherever they were, while social media sites took away the necessity for gathering in one location to interact with others. In recent years some Viennese coffee houses have been forced to close due to the lack of patrons. Ironically, the Café Ritter was spared from being replaced by a clothing store only through an effort coordinated via a social media site. Does Hawelka's passing mark the end of the Viennese coffee house? Certainly not. Hawelka would no doubt be pleased to know that in the months preceding his death the Austrian Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), through the National Agency for the Intangible Cultural Heritage, listed "Viennese Coffee House Culture" among its national inventory of the "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Austria".
Nevertheless, what is most likely to guarantee the continued existence of the Viennese coffee houses, is that they still provide a unique atmosphere, one that has literally evolved over centuries. While the benefit of receiving news and information when and whenever you need it, or of contacting others almost immediately over great distances, is obvious, the coffee house provides a venue for human interaction that others can only aspire to. Psychological research suggests that between 60- and 65-percent of all communication is non-verbal.
As a matter of personal experience, quite often more is communicated in a touch, a gesture, a glance of the eyes, the speaker's tone of voice, even the silent pauses between statements, than in the words themselves. Understanding is based on communication, and the best communication occures face to face. If one's goal is to know what a particular person actually thinks and feels, there is no substitute for sitting across from them and talking...preferably over a Melange. The Viennese coffee house developed over centuries into the perfect venue for interpersonal communication and, while adapting to the modern era, will likely continue to be just that.
The unique virtue of the Viennese coffee house today, as always, is that it offers the patron the opportunity to simply sit with one, two, or a handful of people and establish human connections in an atmosphere that lends itself to the personal and intimate, the meaningful, whether emotional or intellectual. The marble tables and curved wooden chairs of Viennese coffee houses are graced by friends, lovers, business partners, students, intellectuals, politicians, gossipers, idealists, conspirators and, of course, tourists. Engrossed in your newspaper or in private conversation, you never know who's sitting at the next table or what they're discussing. If the concept of the romantic emphasizes human emotion and the more intangible elements of personal interaction, then the Viennese coffee house is one of the most romantic elements of an undeniably romantic city. Requiescat in pace Leopold Hawelka.
© John A. Irvin