Book Review: The Journalists of the Café Louvre
Plot and Counterplot in Central Europe, by Michael W. Fodor and John Gunther; Inside Europe, by John Gunther; Inside: The Biography of John Gunther, by Ken Cuthebertson
Café Louvre: A Centre for Journalists in 1930s Vienna
News gathering between the wars was dependent on foreign correspondents, and in Vienna, the greatest reporters of the age all frequented one place: The Café Louvre.
Located at the corner of Wipplingerstraße and Renngasse in the 1st District, Café Louvre was the meeting place of Austrian Zionists like Theodor Herzl at the turn of the century, and it was where the Zionist Movement was formed.
Café Louvre’s reputation as a place for radical thinking and the free exchange of ideas was permanently secured when American journalist Robert Best, a stringer for United Press International (UPI), chose the café as his unofficial office starting in 1923, making it the magnet that it eventually became for all Vienna-based foreign journalists. Best, according to legend, attracted other journalist friends and colleagues to his Stammtisch there, until over time, Café Louvre became the main hub used by foreign journalists to exchange information during the inter-war years.
Just across the street from Vienna’s Central Telegraph Office, Café Louvre was ideally situated for international news people to file their stories. In addition, Radio Austria (RAVAG), with facilities for sending radiograms to all parts of the world, was conveniently right next door.
Vienna, much like Paris or Berlin in the 1930s, was a jumping-off point for gathering international news from neighbouring countries. Even after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Vienna was still centrally networked with the new democracies of Central Europe – Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary – as well as the Balkans, making it an ideal place for reporters to get tips and leads for stories.
According to American journalist John Gunther, who worked in Vienna during the mid-1930s, the only way for reporters to cover so much territory as individuals was to make use of contacts, subscribe to news services, and establish friendships with other journalists who were doing the same job. As Gunther himself wrote in a July 1935 Harper’s Magazine article, "[T]he basis of journalism in Europe is friendship…. News gathering in Europe is largely a collaboration, whereby men who know and trust one another exchange gossip, background and information."
A list of journalists who frequented the Café Louvre reads like a Who’s Who of the European press scene in the 1930s. All the greats were there: the Englishman George Eric Rowe Gedye; the Americans John Gunther, William Shirer, Dorothy Thompson, Charles Knickerbocker, and Edgar Mowrer; the Hungarian-American Marcel "Mike" Fodor; and the Austrian Frederick Scheu.
Another Englishman, Kim Philby, also frequented Best’s Stammtisch, and helped the Socialists in their February 1934 uprising against the Austrofascist corporatist state under Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. This was the same Philby who later rose to the top of Britains MI5 and became infamous as a double agent in World War II and a Soviet spy in 1950s England, one of the "Cambridge Five". He eventually fled to the -Soviet Union to avoid prison, and lived out his years in cosseted exile in the land he had chosen.
Even a young J. William Fulbright visited Café Louvre in 1928, and there may be some truth to the claim that this was where he got the idea for the international exchange program that would later bear his name, a lasting testament to the famed U.S. Senator’s time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and his travels throughout Europe in the late 1920s.
It was, of course, the German military and political annexation of Austria in 1938 that made Vienna and the reporters who reported and broadcast from it household names. Bill Shirer’s radio broadcasts of the Anschluss for CBS News made him famous. Viennese correspondents made international newspaper and radio history with their reports of the German invasion and its aftermath.
After the Germans marched into Austria on 12 March 1938, most of the Café Louvre regulars fled. Mike Fodor escaped with his family to Bratislava by automobile, G.E.R. Gedye was deported by the new National Socialist government shortly after the German takeover, and Austrian journalists who worked for American and British newspapers, such as Alfred Tyrnauer of the International News Service, were jailed.
Others, like Shirer, went to Berlin to continue reporting until they were forced to flee. Robert Best continued to work at Café Louvre until 1940, when it was finally and unceremoniously closed by the Nazis. Best remained in Vienna, reporting for UPI, until he was fired for "non-performance" in 1941. He was later arrested by the Germans and interned at Bad Nauheim in Germany with American embassy personnel from Berlin, including George Kennan, and civilians and reporters from the rest of Germany.
Along with the other American internees, Best was scheduled to be repatriated to the U.S. in late 1942. But he refused to go and became a propagandist for the Germans, voicing over 300 anti-American radio broadcasts of Adolf Hitler’s propaganda directed at his own country. After the war, Best was tried for treason, based on his anti-American broadcasts and his tirades against Jews. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1948 and died in captivity in 1952.
Many journalists, including Gedye and Gunther, sought out the Café Louvre upon their return to Vienna after the War, but a bomb blast had destroyed the original building, and the café was replaced by a bank.
Returning to Vienna in 1953, William Stoneman, a journalist who had worked in Vienna in the 1930s, noted "The Café Louvre – hangout of newspapermen in the thirties – seems to have gone with the wind." The golden days of gossip and reporting from Café Louvre were over. Today, the building at the corner of Wipplingerstraße and Renngasse houses a furniture store.
Plot and Counterplot in Central Europe
by Michael W. Fodor and John Gunther
Literary Licensing, LLC
by John Gunther
Harper and brothers (1938)
Inside: The Biography of John Gunther
by Ken Cuthebertson
Bonus Books (1992)
For extended background about Café Louvre, see Dan Durning's research here.