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From baker to millionaire: the story of a man with a remarkable sense of entrepreneurship buried in Wiener Zentralfriedhof

5 min read

Located in the outer city district of Simmering, Wiener Zentralfriedhof, or Vienna Central Cemetery, is one of the largest cemeteries in the world by number of interred, and is the most popular among Vienna’s nearly 50 cemeteries.
It was opened on All Saints’ Day in 1874, far outside city’s borders. The first burial was that of Jacob Zelzer, that still exists near the administration building at the cemetery wall, followed by 15 others that day.
The cemetery spans 2.5 km2 with 330,000 interments and up to 25 burials daily. It is also the second largest cemetery, after the 4 km2 (990 acres) of Hamburg’s Ohlsdorf Cemetery, which is the largest in Europe.
The Viennese joke that the Central Cemetery is “Halb so groß wie Zürich – aber doppelt so lustig ist der Wiener Zentralfriedhof!”, translated as “half the size of Zurich, but twice as much fun” and, interestingly, the it has a dead population of almost twice the present living residents of Vienna.
The cemetery hosts the Feuerhalle Simmering, Vienna’s first crematorium, which was built in 1922,
the the St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery Church, in the centre of the cemetery, and a number of notables graves. Vienna has been a city of music since time immemorial, and the municipality expressed gratitude to composers by granting them monumental tombs. Interred in the Central Cemetery are notables such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, who were moved to the Central Cemetery from “Währinger Ostfriedhof” in 1888, Johannes Brahms, Antonio Salieri, Johann Strauss II and Arnold Schoenberg. A cenotaph honours also Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is buried in nearby St. Marx Cemetery, but this is another story.

Wiener Zentralfriedhof is also the final resting place of a man with vision and a remarkable sense of entrepreneurship, August Zang (August 2, 1807 – March 4, 1888).
He started his professional life as an artillery officer and, despite It was a fine and promising career path for a young man, he soon lost interest in it.
When it was 30, he moved from Vienna to Paris, with the idea to bring Viennese style baked goods to Paris. Though he had no experience in baking, he opened a small bakery called “Boulangerie Viennoise”, hired a baker-assistant and started his business.
Eventually the bakery had a discreet success, expecially because the Viennese steam oven that August brought with him from Austria and was not known in France before. With steam baking method, he prepared many delicious Viennese pastries, including the today very popular “croissants”. In steam baked breads, or pastries, steam is injected into the oven as it cooks. The steam slows the formation of the crust and makes the outside of the bread flakier and thinner and, in the case of croissants it can make a very thin crust with a moist interior.
Interestingly, many people believe that croissants originate from France, but in fact it seems they evolved from the Austrian “kipfel”…

As the bakery began to have success, August’s interest turned to new areas.
He became friends with Emile de Girardin, the Parisian journalist who founded the journal La Presse and learned everything he could about modern journalism from him.
In 1848, revolution spread across Europe and Latin America like wildfire: dozens of countries erupted as the middle class demanded more participation in government, a more free press, and a fairer chance to succeed. Pretty much all of these revolutions failed within a year, but there were lessons to be learned. August learned that daily newspapers, the fuel which fired these revolutions, were the wave of the future of communications and thus, some 10 years after he left, he moved back to Vienna to get into publishing.
In the same year, when censorship was lifted in Austria, August founded “Die Presse”, a daily newspaper for the middle class. He introduced many of the same popularizing journalistic techniques that were already used in France and became the father of modern commercial journalism in Austria. In addition, his newspaper contained shorter, easily understood articles with paragraphs and it was available for a notably low price supported by advertising.
By July 3, 1848, Die Presse had 12.000 subscribers (which was enormously for the time) and within a few years it became one of the Europe’s leading newspapers.

In 1864, a dispute led two key journalists to leave Die Press to found “The New Free Presse” (Neue Freie Presse). The original “Die Presse” was soon known as “The Old Press” and in 1867 August Zang sold it to a consortium of big financiers for millions of dollars: his entrepreneurial spirit needed a new challenge!

In the following years, August founded a bank named the Vereinsbank and became its director. It was only a few years, and once again, Zang knew when it was time to get out: in 1872, a year before the famous financial crisis that triggered a depression in Europe and North America, he retired.
He had safely invested his millions and now he became a landowner and tradesman. He bought a mine in Styria, and the site is still known today as “Zangtal” (“Zang Valley”).
When he died in 1888, he was most known as a wealthy press magnate, banker and mine owner. His obituary in Die Presse said only that he had spent some years in Paris, omitting all mention of his role as a baker.

August Zang`s widow wanted something special for her husband`s tomb, and hired the Tyrolean artist Heinrich Natter to make it.
The idea was to combine the real world with the fantastic and symbolic, and the final result was a magnificent ornate tomb at the Wiener Zentralfriedhof that still attracts visitors and tourist from all over the world.
The base is a pyramidal rock, crowned by an eagle, under which there is a looped palm branch and two portrait medallions of August Zang and his father. The entrance of the tomb is guarded by two old dwarf figures holding lanterns. On the steps sits a young man holding triumphantly broken chains in one hand (for the victorious revolution of 1848) and in the other hand a tablet with the inscription:”Die Presse”, Motto: Equal right for all. Founded by August Zang.

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