A Short History of Coffee and Café Culture in Europe

For most writers the legal drug of choice is caffeine and it is often administered through a hot cup of coffee. Because of this, it’s no wonder why so many writers fall in love with Viennese coffee houses; so much so that it even spawned a genre of writing called “coffee house literature.” In addition to coffee houses being a place to read, write and unwind, café culture can also foster wide range of valuable social interaction that only costs the price of a cup of coffee to participate in.

In February of 2016, a “Starbucks on the go,” opened in the newly renovated train station in Graz, Austria. This coffee stand sits lonely, unstaffed in a book and magazine shop in the center of a city in a country that is obsessed with its café culture; it is not hard to see how little a brand-name stand has to offer the coffee house scene in Austria.

The 2014 The Local article, “92 percent of Austrians drink coffee,” reveals that three-quarters of the 92 percent of coffee drinkers from a survey of 500 Austrian participants said that they drank one or more cups of coffee per day. They drink coffee at home, work, and in quaint coffee houses. The article lays some historical pipe:

“Coffee and Vienna both have a long mutual history, with tradition suggesting that the world’s first coffee house was founded in Vienna by an Armenian merchant named Johannes Theodat in 1685. Surprisingly, given its long tradition of café culture, most coffee is drunk at home (88 percent)” (The Local 2014).

The Local article has a nice “Guide to ordering coffee” towards the end, which explains the different names for the many types of coffee you can order in an Austrian coffee house: from the un-Italian cappuccino to the Türkischer (aka Turkish coffee) which is, “finely ground coffee boiled for a long time in water, sugar is added and it is served as a very hot, strong coffee with the grains still in the cup” (The Local 2014).

In contrast to The Local article, Wien.at’s, “History of Viennese coffee house culture,” suggests that 1683 was the beginning of coffee house culture in Vienna, which took place after the Battle of Vienna, and that it was:

“closely linked to the end of the Siege of Vienna in 1683. Legend has it that the Viennese citizen Georg Franz Kolschitzky (1640 – 1694) was the first to obtain a licence to serve coffee in the city following his heroic actions during the Siege of Vienna. The coffee beans left behind by the Turks were the basis of his success” (Wien.at 2017).

Wien.at also acknowledges that Vienna was not the first city in history with a coffee house, that there “were several coffee houses in Mecca as early as the 12th century. The first coffee house in Europe opened in Venice in 1647. The first coffee houses in England were opened in 1650 and 1652” (Wien.at 2017).

With such a long history of café culture in Europe, something was bound to go wrong eventually.

Nazis Brought About a Dark Age in Viennese Café Culture:

The Viennese café culture isn’t without a dark side. As Lonely Planet summarizes in their, “Lonely Planet Pocket Vienna,” guide:

“The darkest chapter in Vienna’s Jewish history began on 12 March 1938 when the Nazis occupied Austria; with the them came the persecution and curtailment of Jewish civil rights. Businesses were confiscated (including some of Vienna’s better-known coffee houses)” (Lonely Planet 2017).

The seizure of Jewish coffee houses was only the beginning of the brutal mistreatment and humiliation of the Viennese Jewish population during this “reality challenged” period of human history.

According to the author, Illana Offenberger, of the new book “Changes in Daily Life During the Pre-Genocidal Period,” countless written accounts detailed this systemic abuse:

“Contemporary reports (newspapers, letters, and US State Department records) document the strange and barbaric acts Nazis forced Jews to perform in public venues like the Prater (Vienna’s largest park), the streets, and cafés” (Offenberger 2017).

A man by the name of Wallenfells, who was a treasury representative at the US consulate in Vienna, “witnessed the madness that followed the German takeover. He watched Nazis publicly humiliate Jews in parks, cafés, and on the streets of Vienna” (Offenberger 2017).

On April 25th, 1938 Wallenfells and his wife were in the fourth district visiting friends and witnessed more brutality at a café in the middle of the day:

“Again he could not fathom how such behavior could be tolerated in the twentieth century. His wife and he saw a group of Sturmabteilung (SA) men, mere boys, enter a café opposite Favoritenstrasse 18 and force all the Jews inside to clean the café—with all the curtains drawn back so the crowd outside could watch. The SA ordered the Jews to move furniture, pile up chairs, wash the floors, and clean the silver. Moreover, they instructed the victims to chant insulting and humiliating words and demanded middle-aged un-athletic men to do knee-bending exercises and jump over tables and chairs” (Offenberger 2017).

Mandatory work orders were to be obeyed by any Jew in public, these tasks could take hours and if not performed to the liking of the Nazi overseer the victim would often be brutalized and humiliated further; these work orders occurred as the Jewish citizens were on their way to work or school.

Nazis targeted Jewish cafés because this was where Jewish intellectuals and artists would assemble; the Nazi occupiers wanted to dehumanize the thinkers who would be the most critical of their methods going forward.

The assault on the intellectual café culture, and art in general, wasn’t just about aesthetics, it was about publicly shaming the opposition. In the article, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 review – What Hitler dismissed as ‘filth,’” author Jason Farago points out that, “Attacks on art began almost immediately after Hitler’s accession in 1933, often in spontaneous, private Schandausstellungen (‘shame exhibitions’)” (Farago 2014).

By 1938, however, brutal acts against the Jewish population were becoming the new norm and were taking place in broad daylight in public places across Nazi occupied Austria. Author Illana Offenberger offers more detail in her book:

“The public display of cruelty and injustice that Wiley encountered in the Prater, and Wallenfells witnessed in parks, cafés, and on the streets of Vienna, reflected the collapse of the social contract and foreshadowed the violent and dehumanizing treatment of Jews that would later play out during the genocide” (Offenberger 2017).

Shame exhibitions with the intention of publicly humiliating and dehumanizing the opposition is something that’s still lurking around today and typically takes the form of “online shaming.” While it is not difficult to come up with contemporary examples of public shaming these are a topic for another blog post.

Closing Remarks: Vienna Café Culture Back on Top

Even after such a tumultuous history, Vienna still contains one of the most diverse café cultures in the world. According to the article, “World’s 10 best cities for coffee,” Vienna even has UNESCO stats to boast for quality of their café culture:

“In 2011, Viennese Coffee House Culture received the organization’s rank of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Since the 17th century, cafés full of marble tables and iconic Thonet chairs have set the scene for savoring a cup. With more than 20 coffee drinks to choose from at most establishments, there’s a science to coffee in Vienna, but waiters are patient and willing to walk curious first-timers through the options.”

It’s not just Vienna. Austrian café culture is a big part of everyday life in any Austrian city. All you need is that black-golden ticket and you’re in:

“Your entrance ticket is a cup of coffee, just as it has been for generations. Once you have ordered, be it a Kleiner Schwarzer, Kapuziner, Einspänner or Melange – and these are just some of the specialities – sit back, relax and do just what you like: read from the selection of complimentary newspapers or browse the book you brought with you” (Austria.info 2017).

Drinking coffee in a café can be a stimulating experience, not only physically but mentally. A deep conversation or a revealing passage from a book can be enlightening; anything that gives us a better perspective of the human condition is invaluable.

It’s necessary to reflect on the history of café culture in Vienna, and to realize just how important it is as human beings to nourish our artistic and intellectual sides in the face of adversity created by nationalism, bigotry, racism, and public shaming.


Boda, Barbara. “The Best Coffee Shops In Graz, Austria.” The Culture Trip: November 06, 2016. Website(Source of Featured Image: Barista at work, ©Frettie; wikicommons).

Carolyn. “Life in Austria. Part 1. Coffee Drinkin’” Life in Graz: January 07, 2010. Website: http://lifeingraz.blogspot.co.at/2010/01/life-in-austria-part-1-coffee-drinkin.html (Info-graph “kaffee in Österreich)

Farago, Jason. “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 review – What Hitler dismissed as ‘filth.’” The Guardian: March 13, 2014. Website: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/13/degenerate-art-attack-modern-art-nazi-germany-review-neue-galerie

Hoeller, Sophie-Claire. “Here’s why coffee is such an important part of the culture in Vienna.” Business Insider: October 07, 2015. Website: http://www.businessinsider.com/coffee-culture-in-vienna-history-2015-10?IR=T

Lonely Planet. “Lonely Planet Pocket Vienna.” Lonely Planet Publications: 2017. Website.

Offenberger, Illana Fritz. “The Jews of Nazi Vienna, 1938-1945: Rescue and Destruction.” Palgrave Macmillan: 2017. Website.

Sarkis, Christine. “World’s 10 best cities for coffee.” Taste of Austria: March 23, 2015. Website: http://www.tasteofaustria.org/in-the-news/2015/3/23/z7tpzedn0a0gx4ew4nu576j9nxxhst

The Austrian National Tourist Office. “Coffeehouse culture in Austria.” Austria.info: June 18, 2017. Website: http://www.austria.info/us/activities/culture-traditions/cherrished-traditions/coffeehouse-culture-in-austria

The Local. “92 percent of Austrians drink coffee.” The Local.at: November 18, 2014. Website: https://www.thelocal.at/20141118/92-percent-of-austrians-drink-coffee

Wien.at. “History of Viennese coffee house culture.” Wien.at: June 18, 2017. Website: https://www.wien.gv.at/english/culture-history/viennese-coffee-culture.html

Author: Reality Challenged

I have created this blog to record, analyze, investigate and report on the ideas, events, and people that would otherwise mislead you and waste your time.

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