Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Assassin's Cafe

by Paul Doolan
This article first appeared in Cream: urban lifestyle magazine, September/October 2004

Alone among European cities Zurich can boast a restaurant named after a political assassin. It is, one must admit, an unusual phenomenon – imagine Kabul with a Cafe bin Laden. Café Orsini, on the corner of the Waaggasse and the lovely Munsterhof, is named after a political radical who, even in failure, managed to change the course of European history and caused Italy to be born.
In 1848 the entire continent of Europe was convulsed in a series of violent revolutions. Like most revolutions, they failed, and in the conservative fallout that followed young radicals from all over Europe, including members of the republican Young Italy movement, fled to that bastion of liberalism, Switzerland. Some of these left wing asylum seekers, like the German “Poet of Freedom” Georg Herwegh, hung out in a café that belonged to the luxurious Hotel Baur en Ville next door, where they enjoyed singing Herweg’s popular revolutionary hit of the time “We have loved long enough. At last we want to hate…”
A decade later an Italian nationalist called Orsini, lobbed a few bombs at French Emperor Napoleon III in Paris. He had been a member of Young Italy and a devotee of its founder Mazzini, a man described by the leader of Austria as “the most dangerous man in Europe”. Like all followers of Mazzini and Young Italy, Orsini had sworn to defy every form of monarchy. To kill a monarch would always have been a good day’s work, but Orsini was particularly unhappy that Napoleon (who, by the way, was brought up in a country house, Schloss Arenenberg on the Bodensee, not far from Zurich) had not liberated the Italians from the Austrians who dominated the peninsula. Orsini’s bombs missed their target but did kill a number of bystanders and wounded scores, including himself. His trial and consequent execution was the news of the time. Here in Zurich the anti-monarchist patrons of our café declared their support for revolution by raising their glasses to Orsini. Georg Herwegh than hung a portrait of Orsini prominently in the café. This would have been like hanging the hammer and sickle on the wall during the hottest days of the Cold War. Gradually the café came to be referred to as Café Orsini. The portrait has been removed but the name remains.
With Orsini dead Napoleon III, who I am convinced was a bit of a softy with an incredible desire to be liked, decided to come to the rescue of the Italians after all. He made a pact with the Italian King of Piedmont and together they cold bloodedly tricked Austria into war in 1859. To make a long story short, (and believe me, that is difficult for an Irishman) the war led to Italian unification in 1860. That war gave us a new word for ‘red’ – ‘magenta’ after the colour of Italian, Austrian and French blood spilt in the Battle of Magenta. The war also led to the setting up of the Red Cross by Swiss man Henri Dunant, who is buried in Sihlfeld Cemetery in Zurich. Appalled at the terrible shedding of blood that he had let loose, Napoleon III, giving ear to his soft heart again, brought hostilities to a premature cessation. Peace negotiations were held in, of all places, Zurich. The French and Austrian delegates were housed in the Hotel Baur au Lac, where the negotiations took place. The representatives of the Kingdom of Piedmont however, thoroughly despised by the Austrians, took separate lodgings, at the Baur en Ville. We can only wonder how they felt when they discovered that next door was a café with a portrait of the would be killer of kings!
Today Café Restaurant Orsini is an upmarket eating establishment. You won’t find many left wing radicals hanging out there any more, at least not any poor ones. And the cuisine? Why, Italian of course.

12 comments:

  1. I found this article very interesting and also funny. It was easy to read and to understand. The article was also really useful for me to read because it made everything clear about what we had discussed in class, and with the funny remarks it was also enjoyable to read.
    Very good written!

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, especially the connections that I can now make between the things we learned in class and the cafe.
    Next time I go into Zurich, I will go see it for myself.

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  3. I agree with "Anonymous". I enjoyed how the article was written with the author's own opinions and side notes :) It is very similar to and includes the points in which we learnt about earlier today in our History lesson and so provides a good review of some of the important facts provided in the lesson. I found the story about the word Magenta particularly interesting.

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  4. This was a very interesting, and enjoyable article. I am pleasantly surprised to discover more about Switzerland's, however small, involvement in european history.

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  5. I enjoyed reading this story, and learning how an old Zurich Cafe can have so much history behind it. It is interesting to see how the foundation of the Red Cross and the creation of the word Magenta came around at the same time, and to realize that suicide bombers existed so long ago. I suppose people have always despised those in power.
    I also agree with the two posts above- it connects it to everything we learned today in History Class.
    -Ines

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  6. I very much enjoyed learning from this article, reiterating some of the points that had been mentioned in today's history class. During the past few years at our school, the history department is the one that has taught me most about the city of Zurich, including information about small cafes, such as Cafe Orsini with such interesting stories. I am now able to point out the history of many unknown sites in the city, and now Cafe Orsini can be added onto that list. The article is very cleverly written, and I enjoyed the humor that you never fail to use in and out of class.

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  7. tis a very interesting article. I liked how the article was at parts funny and at parts gave some good facts. This article has the capability of showing the people that the Orsini Cafe is history and not just a cafe

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  8. The blog post was told in a very amusing way, giving facts and information in small parts which made it easier to understand. It is always interesting to find out how many things have happened right here in Zurich, which appears to be the direct center of Europe. Almost all the decisions and negotiation have been taking place 20 km from here which is very cool. I am not that surprised that Orsini has a cafe named after him though as there is a difference between killing thousands of people, Bin Laden and the government of USA for example, and trying to assassinate just one man.

    Ika

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  9. The blog post was told in a very amusing way, giving facts and information in small parts which made it easier to understand. It is always interesting to find out how many things have happened right here in Zurich, which appears to be the direct center of Europe. Almost all the decisions and negotiation have been taking place 20 km from here which is very cool. I am not that surprised that Orsini has a cafe named after him though as there is a difference between killing thousands of people, Bin Laden and the government of USA for example, and trying to assassinate just one man.

    Ika

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  10. Interesting article. I've enjoyed reading it. I also find it quite ironic what kind of social class hangs out in the cafe. Informative and interesting article

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  11. I enjoyed the fact that the article expanded upon what you told us in class about Orsini. I agree with Ika, it's interesting to see how many things have happened in Zurich, such as treaties, etc. but also unrelated phenomena such as Dadaism and the Cabaret Voltaire. Enjoyable article, congratulations Mr. Doolan!

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