The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 70th installment in the series.
May 25, 1913: Gay Spy Scandal Rocks Vienna
In late May 1913, Vienna was gripped by revelations of a spy scandal that shook the Austrian military to its very foundations. Lurid headlines splashed across every newspaper told of a sordid intrigue at the heart of the Dual Monarchy: on May 25, 1913 the former head of Austrian military espionage, Colonel Alfred Redl (above), had shot himself after being uncovered as a Russian spy and – almost more shocking, if that were possible – a homosexual.
Redl was unusual all around: the son of a poor railway clerk in the eastern Austrian province of Galicia (now Ukraine), his brilliant intellect propelled him into the top ranks of the army, usually an aristocratic preserve, where he served as chief of counter-intelligence from 1903-1907, then head of all intelligence operations from 1907-1912. In a conservative institution he embraced modern, innovative techniques like telephone and wireless eavesdropping, hidden cameras and recording devices, and dusting for fingerprints.
But Redl had more secrets than anyone could have guessed: in an era when homosexuality was a deviant crime punishable with prison time or worse, Redl’s double life was a huge liability that left him vulnerable to blackmail. During a visit to Russia to polish his Russian in 1889, Russian intelligence discovered his secret via a woman Redl employed as his “beard,” then supplied Redl with a series of young lovers to further incriminate him. Beginning in 1902 the Russians threatened to uncover Redl while also offering him huge sums of money for top secret information. The combination of carrot and stick was enough to convince Redl to turn traitor.
As head of counter-intelligence, Redl won recognition for his cutting-edge methods and amazing success rooting out Russian agents: in 1905 he was awarded the Military Service Cross and Military Service Medal, and in 1911 he was awarded a medal signifying the “Expression of Supreme Satisfaction” by Emperor Franz Josef himself. Meanwhile behind closed doors he led a flamboyant, rather bizarre secret life with his lover, a handsome Czech cavalry officer named Stefan Hromadka who became involved with Redl at age 14. In public Redl introduced Hromadka as his “nephew” and showered him with gifts; in private they attended extravagant parties (read: orgies) with other members of Vienna’s underground homosexual subculture.
The whole time Redl was also selling valuable information to the Russians, including the identities of Austrian agents in Russia, blueprints for Austrian fortifications, and secret codes. He also set up an intelligence-sharing partnership with Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany, which enabled him to sell German secrets to the Russians too. In his crowning betrayal Redl sold Austria-Hungary’s plans for wartime mobilization – then found himself in charge of the search for the culprit when the leak was discovered. To relieve Redl of the burden of searching for himself, the Russians set up several dupes whom Redl duly discovered in 1904, helping secure his advancement to chief of the entire intelligence service three years later. In 1913 Redl was promoted again, to chief of staff of the Eighth Army Corps based in Prague, where he continued spying for the Russians.
By the Letter
Ironically Redl was finally caught thanks to one of his own innovations. In early April 1913 Redl’s successor as head of counter-intelligence – his protégé, Maximilian Ronge – was alerted to several suspicious letters by his German counterpart, Major Walter Nikolai, through the intelligence-sharing channel created by Redl. The letters had been mailed anonymously to a certain Nikon Nizetas, care of the Vienna post office, but were later returned unclaimed and intercepted by German intelligence. One letter contained a large sum of money and references to espionage cover addresses in Vienna, Paris and Geneva, so Ronge decided to flag the name and see if anything else turned up.
Ronge’s diligence paid off: on May 9, 1913, another letter containing cash addressed to Nikon Nizetas was delivered to the Vienna post office. When a mysterious man turned up to claim the envelope on May 24, detectives tailed him to a nearby hotel, where they observed him unobtrusively and identified him as none other than Alfred Redl, just arrived from Prague.
The detectives immediately informed the chief-of-staff of the Austrian army, Conrad von Hötzendorf, who nearly had a nervous breakdown on learning the news. Seized by panic, Conrad’s only thought was ridding the army of the traitor right away: four senior officers were dispatched to give Redl one last chance to spare himself (and the army) the embarrassment of a trial. The officers confronted Redl in his hotel room just after midnight on May 25, and he immediately confessed: “I know why you are here. I am guilty. I want only to judge myself.” One officer put a pistol on the table and they filed out to wait in the street. A few minutes later, around 1 a.m., a gunshot rang out and the officers returned to find Redl’s blood-spattered body next to a note which read: “Passion and levity have destroyed me. Pray for me. I pay with my life for my sins. Alfred…” The following day, Sunday May 26, the press reported Redl’s suicide, supposedly resulting from “mental overexertion.” Redl was gone and the public was none the wiser – or so the officers thought. In fact a strange set of coincidences was about to blow the cover-up wide open.
Denied a chance to interrogate Redl, Ronge was understandably curious to find out as much as he could about his mentor’s career of high treason, and ordered investigators to break into his apartment in Prague. As it was Sunday all the locksmiths in Prague were closed, so the officers waylaid an expert locksmith they happened to know and hustled him into a car, telling him he had a secret, important task – breaking into Redl’s apartment. That’s when the evidence of “deviancy” started to come out: the investigators were stupefied to find the spymaster’s quarters full of pink leather whips, cosmetics, and pornographic photographs, framed in snakeskin, of Redl, Hromadka, and other men (including fellow officers), sometimes dressed in women’s clothing.
Still, Redl’s private life might have gone to the grave with him as well – if only the investigators had picked a different locksmith. As it turned out, their choice, one Hans Wagner, missed an amateur league soccer match as a result of his unexpected tour of duty that Sunday. His team lost the match and the team’s captain, a journalist named Egon Erwin Kisch (above), furiously demanded an explanation for his absence. Wagner told Kisch what he had seen and the latter, remembering the news of Redl’s suicide, soon put two and two together.
The story made Kisch’s career, and probably ended quite a few others: it would be hard to over-state the impact of the scandal, which irreparably damaged public confidence in the army, long viewed as the most functional part of a dysfunctional empire. Indeed, the details of Redl’s personal life are enough to leave a modern observer wondering how he got as far as he did without being detected: even before the revelation of his homosexuality, the extravagant presents Redl purchased for his “nephew” – including a custom Daimler that cost more than his annual salary, purebred horses, diamond rings, and a luxury apartment – probably should have raised suspicions (Hromadka himself, who apparently knew nothing of Redl’s spying, was found guilty of “unnatural prostitution,” dishonorably discharged, and sentenced to three months of hard labor).
The public was right to fear for the empire’s security. The Russians had passed the mobilization plans they bought from Redl on to the Serbs, giving them a preview of the Austro-Hungarian plan of campaign in the Balkans. Consequently the small kingdom’s general staff were able to anticipate their enemy’s moves in 1914 and deliver a humiliating defeat to Austria-Hungary in the opening days of the Great War.