The Reason Austria-Hungary Lost

The Reason Austria-Hungary Lost

Passion and levity have destroyed me.  I pay with my life for my sins.  Pray for me.–Alfred Redl

Colonel Redl had good reason to kill himself in spring of 1913; as the head of the Evidenzbureau (counterintelligence) of Austria-Hungary,   he had been selling Austria’s secrets and war plans to Russia for over ten years.  

A young Alfred Redl

How Redl got to the point of suicide is the real story.  The ninth of fourteen children born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (what is now Lvov, Ukraine) to a civil servant family, Alfred Redl never had enough money.  But money was not his only issue – Redl was gay, and being openly homosexual in the Franz Josef era of Austrian history was something that was punished even in Archdukes.  Redl was not an archduke, though, he was a nobody.  And the repercussions for homosexuality in his position would be even more severe.

Redl was certainly aware of his homosexuality by the time he was sent to study Russian in Kazan, where reports are that he was involved with several men.  The Austrians in Kazan were closely watched by Russian intelligence, so it is not hard to draw the line of progression between a young Redl and the older Redl who was selling out his country.  

From 1902 on Redl passed information to the Russians, who paid him quite handsomely and enabled him to keep a series of lovers in high style.  The Russians even provided him with cover; when papers Redl provided the Russians were identified as missing, General von Gieslingen* tasked Redl with finding the perpetrator.  

The Russians believed that Redl was too important to lose, so they arranged for two scapegoats to be caught (by Redl), who then took the kudos for breaking a Russian spy ring.

In 1907 Redl was appointed head of the Evidenzbureau, and his espionage didn’t slow down there.  Neither did his reform plans for the agency, which seemed to be directly at war with his traitorous activities. It was Alfred Redl that created Austria’s first fingerprint database, and who invented “the third degree” style of questioning with a light shined in the suspect’s eyes.  

It was also Redl’s reforms that led to his downfall.  When a suspicious letter addressed to “Herr Nikon Nizetas” was sent back from Vienna General Delivery to Germany, German intelligence discovered a large sum of money and a list of espionage centers in Paris and Geneva.  They immediately alerted Maximilian Ronge, Redl’s protege at the Evidenzbureau and Ronge set up the very sort of surveillance operation that Redl and designed.  

It took several weeks, but eventually a man came and picked up the envelopes being held at General Delivery for Herr Nizetas.  Ronge’s agents then used the very techniques pioneered by Redl to follow the man.

And then the agents figured out who they were following, and the horror began to spread.  They immediately alerted their chain of command, which reacted remarkably quickly.  Men were dispatched to Redl’s rooms at the Hotel Klomser, and Redl admitted that he was a spy when confronted.  He was left alone in his room with a pistol, which he used to commit suicide.  

Alfred Redl

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was informed of the suicide he was livid.  Without interrogation, the Austro-Hungarians could only assume that Redl had given away everything he had come in contact with – there would be no chance to narrow suspicions.  And surely the men who left Redl alone with a pistol must have known that all along – Redl had trained them, after all.

The government tried, and failed, to keep the catastrophe under wraps.  Redl’s obituary in Vienna’s Neue Freie Press attributed his suicide to “overwork”:

One of the most diligent and hard working officers of the General Staff… Col Alfred Redl committed suicide in a hotel in the Inner City during the course of Saturday night.  This gifted officer, ahead of whom undoubtedly still lay a great career, shot himself in the head, probably while the balance of his mind was disturbed.  Col Redl had reportedly been overworking, and it appears the strain on his mind has taken its toll.  The officer is also said to have been suffering from insomnia.

Redl’s various properties were raided and according to official accounts a ledger of payments from Russia as well as a list of items passed to his handlers was discovered, along with erotic photos of Redl and other army officers.  Whether this part is true or not, no further arrests were made among the Empire’s troops.  

The amount of information passed by Redl continues to be argued today, with some minimizing his role and others laying the blame for Austria-Hungary’s loss in World War I entirely at his feet.  Whatever the truth, perhaps his best legacy is that he pioneered investigation techniques so good that they even managed to catch him.

*Gieslingen was also the officer who delivered Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia in July 1914.

To read more about World War I, please click here.


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