Café de Flore, 172 boulevard Saint-Germain (Paris, 6e). Photo: Celette. CC BY-SA 4.0.
The habits and language of clandestinity can intoxicate even its own practitioners.” — William Colby
Coffee shops and espionage may seem like an unlikely combination, but they have a long and intriguing history that spans across continents and eras. Coffee shops have been the meeting places of spies, informers, revolutionaries, and conspirators for centuries. They offer a convenient and discreet location to exchange information, recruit agents, plan operations, or simply observe the surroundings. Coffee shops also provide a cover for spies, who can pretend to be ordinary customers while carrying out their clandestine activities.
Some of the most famous coffee shops in espionage history include:
- Café de Flore, one of the oldest coffee houses in Paris, where the French Resistance plotted against the Nazi occupation during World War II. The café was frequented by intellectuals, artists, and writers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, who supported the resistance movement. The café was also a target of Gestapo raids and surveillance.
- Café A Brasileira in Lisbon, where British double agent Kim Philby met with his Soviet handlers and passed on secrets from SIS/MI6. Philby was one of the Cambridge Five, a group of British spies who worked for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He used the café as a rendezvous point with his contacts, such as Konstantin Volkov and Anatoliy Golitsyn.
- Café Central in Vienna, where Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and other communist leaders discussed their revolutionary ideas before the Russian Revolution. The café was a hub of political and cultural activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It hosted many famous and infamous figures, such as Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, and Adolf Hitler.
- Café de la Paix in Algiers, where Charles de Gaulle announced the formation of the Free French Forces in 1940. De Gaulle escaped from France after the German invasion and arrived in Algiers to rally the French colonies against the Vichy regime. He gave a speech at the café that inspired thousands of French soldiers and civilians to join his cause.
- Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires, where Nazi war criminals hid after fleeing from Europe after World War II. The café was a favorite haunt of German immigrants and sympathizers, who helped some of the most notorious Nazis escape justice. Among them were Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, and Klaus Barbie.
Coffee shops continue to play a role in espionage today, as modern spies use them to access public Wi-Fi networks, communicate with encrypted devices, or blend in with the crowd. Coffee shops are also a popular setting for spy novels and movies, such as John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or the Jason Bourne series. Coffee shops and espionage are a fascinating and timeless pair that show how ordinary places can become extraordinary venues for intrigue and adventure.
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