Sunday, 5 October 2014

Life as a café: Vienna

In the Café Landtmann for the first time since the first week of January, 1990. I find myself liking Vienna, for the first time. I was going to say despite it's never having been Communist but some people say Austria is the last Communist country in Europe.

Or is that Greece? How hateful are English voices in a foreign city. An Englishmen is sitting behind me. His voice is nasal and of course I detest him.

Of course, one third of Vienna was ruled by the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1955, something future generations will remember only because of The Third Man, the greatest film so far ever made, which will always continue to be watched with delight. 

Khrushchev gave up the Russian sector of Austria in 1955 in return for Austrian neutrality and proposed the same solution for  Germany. The Americans were unforgivably foolish to turn down this opportunity. Ulbricht was greatly relieved. His tyranny thus continued in the misnamed German Democratic Republic.

I can't help feeling that Austrians, who caused the First World War and the Second, escaped rather lightly from the debris. This is worth remembering when you see how much fuss they make now of the Emperor Francis Joseph who declared war on Serbia and caused the nearest we have so far come (fairly near) to the end of civilisation. Someone famously said that Austria's greatest achievement was to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German. An even greater achievement was to
 reinvent themselves as Scandinavians.

The food is at best passable in the Landtmann but the waiters are wonderful and they have the slicked back hair one associates with Viennese. The Monarchy is gone but the cafes remain and have been duplicated in Budapest.

In 1990 I came to the Landtmann by accident. It was only last week that I discovered it was famous and that Freud was a regular until he fled the Germans. I also stumbled by chance on the famous Hotel Orient and stayed there, not knowing it was a house of ill fame. It was a very charming, pretty old fashioned hotel. When I looked it up on my last visit in 2006 It rented rooms by the hour. Books had been written about its cupidinous history. Graham Greene stayed there while writing The Third Man.

In 1990 I didn't think of Freud or Hitler or Strauss or Francis Joseph but Harry Lime. There was three feet of snow underfoot then and snow fell heavily and spying was heavy in the air but I was very impatient for Budapest which then seemed the most exotic place on earth along with Bucharest.

1990 is very recent but another age without mobile telephones or Wi-Fi. People smoked in restaurants. Yet it felt just as repellently modern and up-to-date as now.

A friend told me that the Landtmann was the favourite hangout of the British historian, David Irving, who spent his last freemoments there before being arrested by the Austrian police for minimising the numbers dead in the holocaust. It sounds from all I read that he is a pretty useless historian, which is a shame because a good historian who had some sympathy for the Nazis, repellent though this would be, might add to the sum of human knowledge.

The next day I discovered another famous but very different café, the Hawelka, founded just as the Nazis took over. It is untidy and slightly shabby, warm and very MittelEuropa. Young Mr. Hawelka, in his early 60s, greets visitors like old friends which many are and exudes warmth. Quite properly he had not heard of Wi-Fi though in fact they have it. I love the place. 

Prague was long ago ruined by tourists but Vienna isn't, is its own place, not nearly so globalised as you would expect, full of characters, but nevertheless heartless. Not a place that permits itself to be loved easily but I now like it. But it is artificial, the artificial capital of three artificial countries: the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire and now the (second) Austrian Republic.

A very intelligent Jewish-American historian, Jeremy Friedman, with whom I once by chance shared a sleeping wagon on the night train to Belgrade, told me that all the cities of Europe seemed to him museums with the exception of London. In Vienna one feels this acutely. Odd though that he was travelling from Bucharest but did not make it another exception, because Bucharest is certainly no museum. It is certainly utterly alive in its curious way.

It's not beautiful, though it has beauty in it, but it is always a joy to return home, when coming back from what is still 'the West'.

Embedded image permalink
Curious tomb by Canova of Marie Christine of Habsburg, in the Augustinerkirche.


  1. I'm going back to Vienna in a couple of weeks with my 17 year old daughter, having visited for the first time, with her, last year. I enjoyed it, but she loved it. Even the musak in shops is classical music. The Spanish Riding School performs to classical music. The Kunsthistorisches Museum is an unreconstructed, unapologetic celebration of awesomeness. The equine statuary looks realistically equine. It was a time travel trip back to a time when western civilisation believed in itself.


  2. glad you didnt enjoy same experience as Irving at Cafe Landtmann. Chased by Austrian police down the motorway, arrested, imprisoned, tried, and spent almost 2 years in an austrian jail!!!
    John O'Brien

    1. I don't think bad history should be a crime but do with holocaust denial in Germany and Austria - NOT elsewhere

  3. Oh well, needless to say I don't really agree with much of that. haha. My first visit to Vienna was in 1977 and I loved it, and I have returned 5 times since, the last being 2 years ago. I thought THE place all the rather odd philosophers met was the Central Café? I also think that David Irving is possibly one of the very best historians on Germany during WWII, whether or not disputing the holocaust figures actually makes him a "denier".

    Vienna still has its charm and the restoration and stone-cleaning of many of their great buildings since my first visit is stupendous. I will report one thing. On my first trip there I stayed in a pension in the suburbs. Hugh Franz-Joseph time house and with the obligatory portrait of the great Emperor on the stairwell wall. We guests were not supposed to go into the kitchen but one day I had to go and ask for something and I knocked on the door and then opened it before receiving an answer. Large picture of Hitler on the wall. Not knowing what to say I asked the lady which zone this suburb had been in and she replied "the Soviets". Maybe that's why she has clung to AH? I do rather like the Austrians. They have a certain independent spirit which is probably why they were the first country in Europe to elect into government a raving anti-immigrant party. A
    nation greatly wrongly belittled and ruined by the so-called Allies in 1919.

    1. Woodrow Wilson was the most disastrous American after the younger Bush, I agree. You might agree with this:

    2. I'm really not following you at all. No argument about Bush and I'm no big fan of Wilson but he ultimately failed in his efforts at the Paris 1919 peace conference. Lloyd George and Clemenceau were just as short sighted although they probably did the best possible with what they knew at the time.

  4. What do you mean Austrians reinvented themselves as Scandinavians?

    1. Perhaps I meant Swedes, neutral, small, good at design.

    2. David in Banja Luka23 October 2015 at 15:35


      Now that is a label :).

  5. You absolutely must visit Demel's cafe. Like stepping into 1908. Wonderful coffee and conditerei. Go to the Naschmarkt.

  6. David in Banja Luka23 October 2015 at 15:45

    I like Vienna.
    I'm not one for coffee shops.
    But I love the kunsthistorisches museum - 2/3 of worlds Breughels, Vermeer's the Art of Painting, super café/restaurant.
    I too am a Third Man fan - it was a memorable treat for me to ride on the Riesenrad in the Prater.
    A very convenient underground system.
    And lots of opportunities to wander and explore by foot.
    People watching too.
    My only dislike - the damned cyclists!