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Fri 26 April 2019
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If you’ve followed any of my comings and goings on Twitter, you’ll know that, just after Christmas, I fulfilled a dream of spending some time in Vienna. Mostly I went for the history, but a great deal of it was for the coffee culture…

The Viennese take coffee very seriously – nigh on a religion. If you go, you’ll undoubtedly hear about how coffee was introduced to the city in the late 17th Century.

The story goes that, during the great Siege of Vienna in 1683, a Polish nobleman, Georg Franz Kolschitzky, was able to escape the city to rally help from his countrymen. Following the defeat of the besieging Ottomans, he took the sacks of strange beans found in abandoned encampment and, after experimenting with them, asked for the license to open the city’s first coffee house. Kolschitzky’s brew, of course, turned out to be a massive hit, and he died a very wealthy man.

This sounds incredibly dramatic, right? Quintessentially European? There’s even a statue to the bloke, erected in the late 19th Century on Favoritenstraße.

The story is, of course, complete rubbish.

“With a background as a diplomat and (some say) a spy, he knew full well of the craze for the drink sweeping across different parts of Europe.”

Research tells us that the very first coffee house in Vienna was opened by an Armenian gentlemen, Johannes Diodato, in early 1685 – two years after the siege. With a background as a diplomat and (some say) a spy, he knew full well of the craze for the drink sweeping across different parts of Europe. He simply cashed in on a trend – no great discovery here.

It’s funny how the stories a village, town or city tells about itself can differ massively from what we find out to be the truth.

The Siege of Vienna itself is an example of a narrative that has warped, shifted, and come to signify something else over time.

Clash of civilizations?

“From cannonballs still lodged or displayed outside buildings, to triumphant baroque friezes, the story is everywhere”

These days, the months-long 1683 Siege of Vienna by invading Ottomans is used as a foundation stone, a totem of the Counter-Jihad movement. There’s even a popular blog named after it. Furthermore, across the Far Right, the event is viewed as a massive clash of faiths – the occasion when the forces of Christianity triumphed against the forces of invading Islam. From cannonballs still lodged or displayed outside buildings, to triumphant baroque friezes, the story is everywhere.

However, the reality is far less clear than that.

For example, among the Polish forces that helped save the day on the 12th of September were Tartar cavalry, feared riders that had served the Polish crown for decades. They were also Muslims, of the Sunni sect.

Furthermore, along with the Ottomans who had made their way from the east, European converts and Christian mercenaries sat encamped outside the city walls, and participated in attempts to undermine the city’s defences.

Hell, the Ottomans were also allied to, or in the process of allying with, both the Kingdom of France, and those part of the Low Countries that had thrown their hat in with Protestantism during the siege. Neither lent any aid to the Habsburgs in lifting the siege.

“The Siege of Vienna, that brutal clash, that turning point in the struggle against the Infidel was far more about territory, geopolitical manoeuvering and ambition than it was about jihad or holy war”

The Siege of Vienna, that brutal clash, that turning point in the struggle against the infidel was far more about territory, geopolitical manoeuvering and ambition than it was about jihad or holy war.

We all understand and appreciate that histories are moulded and shifted over time, for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s relatively harmless, as in the case of the owner of Vienna’s first coffee house.

However, sometimes it’s a lot more dangerous.

History as recruiting tool

Events like the Siege of Vienna are often co-opted by those looking to draw recruits, helpers for a variety of agendas, many nefarious. They shape history as a glorious struggle that is irresistible to many – why not partake in the legacy of one’s forebears?

Certainly sounds good to those who have joined the worrying number of Far Right groups sprouting across Europe in recent years.

Those who follow, however, end up serving a lie – or at least something far from the reality of what actually occurred. Their acts nothing more than violent echoes.

“We all have the responsibility of critically analysing the tales we tell ourselves, especially the ones we tell about ourselves”

We all have the responsibility of critically analysing the tales we tell ourselves, especially the ones we tell about ourselves. Not necessarily to tear them down, or refute them, but to ensure that we’re not simply playing the role someone wants us to play.

By the way, if you’re in Vienna, my recommendations for a fantastic Franziskaner or Melange are the Cafe Schwarzenberg, near the Karlskirche, or the Cafe Bellaria, near the Naturhistorisches Museum.

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