An hour and a half before dawn on June 25th, 1913 a night clerk walked up to the second floor of Vienna’s Hotel Klomser to awaken the occupant of Room One. The clerk had taken a call from the Army Headquarters instructing him to get the occupant out of bed and have him come to the phone for urgent business. The attendant knocked on the door several times, but silence was the only reply. The lack of a response and orders from such a high authority led the attendant to open an unlocked door. What he discovered inside, was shocking in the extreme. Colonel Alfred Redl lay dead on the floor. Blood, brains and a pistol lay close to his cold, limp body. A day earlier, Redl (acting Chief of Staff of the 8th Army Corps and former head of Military Counter Intelligence in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Army) had been one of the most powerful men in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now he lay dead by his own hand. Soon darker truths would be revealed. Redl was an arch traitor who had sold Austria-Hungary’s most sensitive military intelligence to the Russian Empire. His treachery included providing the enemy with Plan III, the high command’s invasion plan to attack Serbia. The information in Plan III would turn out to be invaluable to Empire’s enemies when World War One broke out just over a year later. Many scholars believe this information was one of the main reasons Serbia was able to repel the Austro-Hungarian invasion.
In exchange for his duplicity, Redl had received large sums of cash and most importantly, his homosexuality was kept quiet (a certain career ender in the conservative Dual Monarchy). Redl had been blackmailed by Russian intelligence due to his sexual proclivities. In the aftermath of what became known as the Redl affair, focus was placed upon his homosexuality and profligate spending habits on male lovers. The fact that he was allowed to commit suicide by the Imperial military authorities was also widely discussed. Later, historians spent a considerable amount of time and energy calculating the damage done to Austria-Hungary’s military performance at the beginning of the Great War by Redl’s treasonous actions. Lost amid both the contemporary and historical discussions of the Redl Affair, was the effect that Redl’s youth and upbringing may have had upon his later behavior. This oversight is not all that surprising since Alfred Redl grew up on the very fringes of the empire, in the distant provincial city of Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine), a world away from the elegance and refinement of Vienna.
The Redls – A Family Affair
Alfred Victor Redl was born on March 14, 1864 to Franz and Mathilde Redl who had recently moved to Lemberg. Alfred was the ninth of a fourteen child family. The father’s work with railways had brought the family to the city, but this had not been his first career choice. He had been an officer in the Austrian Army, ending his eleven year tenure in 1851 as a lieutenant. Franz Redl was unable to continue in the military because he did not have sufficient funds for a wedding marriage bond. Being an officer in the Habsburg Army did not pay well. Many of the officers came from aristocratic backgrounds and were supported by family wealth. This was not the case for Franz Redl. Thus, he left the Habsburg Army to work for the railways which were just arriving in Galicia. Herr Redl now entered a new and lasting phase of his life as part of the working poor.
The most accurate information to be found on Franz Redl’s railway career and wages comes from Robert Asprey’s interpretive biography of Alfred Redl, The Panther’s Feast. Asprey provides hard figures that demonstrate the financial plight of the Redl family. Franz Redl started out making 500 Gulden a year with the state railway agency. (One gulden was worth about 45 American cents at the time). Four years later he was earning annual wages of 700 Gulden, but now had a family of five to support. It is apparent that these meager wages resigned the family to a life of poverty. For this reason, Franz Redl took a better paying position with the private Galician Railway of Archduke Charles Louis which offered him free housing and a raise. It also meant the family would spend the next several years moving throughout Galicia. The entire time, Mathilde Redl was having one child after another. The family moved to Lemberg in the early 1860’s, not long thereafter Alfred was born. Franz was now making 1,700 Gulden a year, but he had nine children to feed and clothe. When the 14th and final child arrived a few years later, Franz Redl’s salary had topped out at 2,400 Gulden a year. Taking into account inflation, it is quite obvious that the Redl’s were scarcely better off than they had been when Franz’s career started.
What does all this have to do with the development of Alfred Redl’s character? The dire financial situation of the family undoubtedly had a pronounced effect upon him. One of the most striking aspects of Redl’s career was his ability to overcome his lower working class roots and rise up to one of the most powerful positions in the empire. This is a doubly impressive feat in a society that was dominated by aristocracy and class. His ambition was certainly fueled by poverty. Redl’s place among his siblings likely also fueled that ambition. He was the 9th of 14 children. It would have been difficult to stand out among so many brothers and sisters. Alfred grew up in the shadow of an older brother, Oskar, who was the first Redl son to follow his father into the military. There is little doubt that Alfred Redl yearned to be noticed, perhaps an overcompensation for a childhood where he was little more than another mouth to feed. Another factor not to be overlooked was the fact that Franz Redl’s career as a Habsburg Army officer had been cut short due to financial difficulties and marriage. Alfred must have sensed his father’s frustration. He could have been so much more, if only he had the money or if only he had not been married. These were mistakes that Alfred Redl was not going to repeat.
The Fringes Of An Empire
Perhaps the greatest influence on Redl’s development and character was Lemberg itself. Redl was a masterful linguist. His talents with language were cultivated at an early age in a city where speaking Polish and Ruthenian (as Ukrainian was then known) in daily life and German at school was a typical experience. Growing up in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic city would help Redl later navigate an empire that was a potpourri of ethnic groups, all with their own languages, customs and cultures. This was a world with which he was intimately familiar. This world was always a large part of him, but also one that he could never quite overcome no matter his achievements. Vanity, both material and sexual, eventually got the best of him. One way of interpreting Redl’s excesses and crimes is as a response to his upbringing. He longed for wealth, for attention, for notoriety. All of these longings lay deep in his childhood. He would do anything, did do anything, to compensate for them. In the end he failed. The rebellion against his youth in Lemberg got the better of him. It was a prison from which he never escaped.