Passion, Levity & Treason – Alfred Redl & the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary

“Passion and levity have destroyed me. Pray for me. I pay with my life for my sins. Alfred…” – Suicide Note of Alfred Redl, Chief of Staff Eight Army Corps, Austro-Hungarian Royal Army

In those two sentences and eighteen words, Alfred Redl concisely summed up his own demise. The above words were the last of a man who rose from poverty in that prototypically backward Austria-Hungarian province of Galicia to the very height of power. The brilliant career of a man known for his extraordinary work ethic, innovation and charm was shattered an hour after midnight on May 25, 1913 in Vienna. The end may have been quick, but the demise had been coming on for many years. It had been a matter of if, not when, Redl would be “discovered” as the man who was selling the Austro-Hungarian Royal Army’s most sensitive military secrets to the Russians.

The Price Of Love & Vanity
Redl’s short note was a fabulously tragic explanation of why? His guilt was so vast, his fall so dramatic that it would not have done for him to have given a drawn out explanation. The details of his actions were left to the empire he had betrayed to work out. In that moment before his death, he gave them only what he wanted them to know, just like he always had in life. He could not control what would be known or unknown after his suicide. That was left to his fellow officers. Later they would unearth his secrets, countering his counter-intelligence. Secrets he left behind were to be found in his luxurious apartment in Prague. Pink leather whips, pornographic photos with snakeskin frames showing fellow officers involved in acts considered at the time to be criminal. Why they, including Redl, were even dressed in women’s clothing and wore cosmetics.

These were the secrets he had hidden from his colleagues for over a decade. Yet his vanity and excess had been in full view. How could they not have noticed? Redl had so often been accompanied by his “nephew.” This false relation was a dashing, young, Czech calvary officer, Stefan Hromadka. He had been a mere teenager of fourteen when they first met. Hromadka became Redl’s lover and the man whom he would lavish with affection and most importantly, luxurious gifts. Covering his fingers with diamonds, purchasing for him a mansion in Prague and supplying a Daimler convertible, Redl bought Hromadka’s love. The price for this romance and so many others was treason. He sold the Empire out to the Russians. They had first confronted him and threatened to expose his scandalous behavior unless he secretly worked for them. Redl became their man in Vienna.

Alfred Redl - arch traitor

Alfred Redl – arch traitor

The Deadliest Secrets
As head of first counter-intelligence and then intelligence for the Monarchy, Redl was uniquely positioned to sell out the spies and secrets he managed. His treason, like the payments he received, was enormous. The mobilization plans for the coming war with Serbia were given to the Russians. They passed them on to their allies. When the World War began, the Serbs were prepared. Redl’s influence on the course of the Empire was profound, it outlasted even him. The Empire and its Royal Army retrospectively deplored Redl’s homosexuality, was puzzled by his coarse vanity, sickened by his deadly duplicity. It would all come much too late, after the fact. And what were facts in a man who would betray anyone and everything, including himself. This was Alfred Redl, a man who charmed everyone into trust. He had used his cleverness to carry out the most nefarious of activities.

How could he have done it? They thought they knew him, but he knew them much better. After all, he was the one whose innovative ideas to collect intelligence helped preserve (and destroy) the Empire. He bugged phone and wireless conversations, dusted for fingerprints and recorded visitors, including his closest confidants, by image and audio. He had it all covered. The Empire upheld him as a sterling example of the self-made man. The old Emperor, Franz Josef even awarded Redl a medal for “Expression of Supreme Satisfaction.” In an empire where legacies were almost always born and rarely made, Redl was the ultimate exception to the rules. In fact, it would turn out that he was making his own rules.

Honor, Tradition & Treason
When he was finally “discovered” Redl’s traitorous actions scandalized and weakened the Army. It had been the one institution in a rapidly fading empire that upheld honor and tradition. As the scandal broke, it was not so much Redl who had been exposed, as it was the Army’s and by extension the Empire’s image which was irreparably tarnished. Here was one of its most decorated officers, who had ascended from the ranks of the commoners, to hold an exalted position. Now the word was out, the Army was riven by decadence and corruption, the rot was pervasive, it was no different from the rest of the monarchy. The damage to Redl’s reputation did not much matter since he was already dead. Redl after all was just a man. The Army was an institution, a symbol of the Monarchy, and the Monarchy was everything. Just over five years after Redl’s death it would be nothing.

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