Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Coffee and Jihad

Both in cliche and in reality, a visit to Berlin or to Vienna includes pleasant afternoons in a cafe or in a Konditorei - a cafe which also serves excellent pastries and cakes. An entire subculture and set of rites is organized around the consumption of coffee.

How did it come to be that we associate coffee with - and that coffee is such an integral part of - life in these European capital cities?

The answer lies in events which are almost four centuries removed from the present. Berlin was at that time the capital city, not of Germany, but of the kingdom of Brandenburg. Germany as a unified nation-state would not be formed until 1871, when a number of such kingdoms merged to form it. Brandenburg was ruled from 1640 to 1688 by Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. He was called 'elector' because he was one of the kings who together chose the Holy Roman Emperor. As the leader of that group of kings, he was called the 'Great Elector' and was known as Friedrich Wilhelm. The Holy Roman Empire, as the old joke tells us, was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. It was a Central European Defensive Coalition. The Emperor had no autocratic power, but rather had the task of forging a consensus between the kings. These kingdoms in the Empire usually behaved independently of each other, uniting usually only for the purposes of mutual defense. That came to pass in the 1680's, for example, when the Islamic armies attempted to conquer Hungary and Austria, with the goal of establishing a caliphate - a Muslim military dictatorship - and imposing Islam on Eastern Europe.

The Holy Roman Emperor himself lived in Vienna - or Wien as the city is more commonly known - and summoned to his aid the armies of the empire when the Muslims surrounded the city. Historian Uwe Oster writes:

Berlin was not yet the capital of Germany but only the residence of the electors of Brandenburg. The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire resided in Vienna. The city on the Danube River was in great danger. Once again, the Turks were standing before her gates. But after the Battle of Kahlenberg in 1683, the had to break off their siege, and the West remained Christian. During the hasty retreat of the Turks, they left behind not only weapons, expensive carpets, and silverware, but also sacks and sacks of coffee beans. So if more coffee is drunk today in Germany and Austria than anywhere else in the world, then we have to thank the hasty retreat of their one-time Turkish enemies for this delicious treat.

And so it was that not only were the Christians of Europe saved from mass murder and from the forcible imposition of Islam, but coffee - previously a rarity - became common and cherished beverage in Eastern Europe. The consumption of coffee is nearly universal in Europe, and cafe culture of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany is a pastime unto itself.