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Alfred Redl

Alfred Redl (March 14, 1864 – May 25, 1913) was an Austrian officer who rose to head the counter-intelligence efforts of Austria-Hungary. He was one of the leading figures of pre-World War I espionage. His term in office was marked by innovation, and he used very high technology for the time to ensnare foreign intelligence agents. But he was himself a spy for the Russians. Claims that Redl also worked for secret services of France and Italy have appeared much later but they were neither confirmed nor disproved reliably.


Born in Lemberg, Galicia, Austrian Empire (now Lviv, Ukraine), Redl came from a poor family, his father being a railway clerk. An exceptional intelligence enabled him to rise quickly in the officer ranks of the Austrian army, a position usually reserved for the wealthy and privileged. He joined the counter-espionage service and rose to become its chief. During his tenure in office he greatly improved the methods used by the Austrian counter-espionage service. But at the same time he himself was a spy for Russia, Austria's enemy, and his exposure was largely due to the improvements he had developed himself.

Redl's motives for treason are still unclear. He may have been caught in a compromising position by Russian agents, since he was homosexual[1] and being exposed as such would have been fatal to his career prospects. Actually, Russian military intelligence, based in Warsaw at the time, under the command of Colonel Nikolai Batyushin, had discovered Redl's homosexuality as early as 1901, information that was used to blackmail him into revealing classified information.

He was paid well for his services, and had a lifestyle far above what his official salary could cover. It is not unusual for people to be blackmailed into spying and then being well-paid for it as a means of ensuring that they continue. It would appear that there was also a strong element of vanity involved, as well as a taste for the dangers. A Russian report of 1907 describes Redl as "more sly and false than intelligent and talented", a cynic "who enjoys dissipation."

From 1903 to 1913, Redl was Russia's leading spy. Before World War I he gave the Russians Plan III, the entire Austrian invasion plan for Serbia. The Russians then informed the Serbian military command about Plan III. As a result, when the Austrians invaded Serbia, the Serbians were ready for it.[2] Redl not only gave away all of Austria's military secrets and plans, but he also supplied very incorrect estimations of Russian military strength to the Austrian military. Redl has been called one of history's greatest traitors because his actions were responsible for the deaths of half a million of his countrymen.[3]

Redl is thought to have sold to Russia one of Austria's principal attack plans, along with its order of battle, its mobilization plans (in an age when mobilization could be the key to victory) and detailed plans of Austrian fortifications soon to be overrun by Russia. He is known beyond question to have sent Austrian agents into Russia and then to have sold them out to St. Petersburg. He also had Austrian agents within the Russian Imperial Staff, but sold them out too, to be hanged or to commit suicide. He is also believed to have betrayed various Russian officers who contacted Austro-Hungarian intelligence.


When he left the counter-intelligence service Redl was succeeded by Major Maximilian Ronge, a man trained by Redl himself. Ronge instigated the practice of checking suspicious mail. One suspect envelope — a poste restante letter to be returned unclaimed — was found to contain a large sum of money as well as references to known espionage cover addresses.[4]

On May 9, 1913, a duplicate letter with money was posted to the same cover name, "Nikon Nizetas". Police detectives were assigned to monitor the post office and follow whoever claimed it. When the letter was finally claimed on May 25, police pursued but lost contact when the suspect, who had picked up the letter, left in a taxi. While the policemen stood wondering what to do, they were handed a stroke of luck beyond imagination: the very same taxi that the suspect had taken returned.

The policemen took the taxi and asked to be driven to the address that the previous customer had been taken to. The taxi drove them to the hotel "Klomser" and during the ride there they found a pen-knife sheath in the taxi. Arriving at the hotel, they told the management to ask the guests if any of them had lost the sheath and then waited in the lobby. When a guest arrived to claim the sheath, the detectives were shocked to recognise their former boss, Colonel Alfred Redl.

When informed of his exposure, Redl committed suicide by gunshot,[5] which was regretted both by Emperor Franz Josef, who would have preferred that Redl avoid dying in mortal sin, and by Austrian Intelligence, which would have preferred to interrogate him on the exact extent of his betrayal.


Historians of the Habsburg Empire, as well as espionage historians such as CIA's Allen Dulles and Soviet General Mikhail Milstein, agree in calling Redl an arch-traitor.[6] Redl's treason is thought to have contributed to the defeats Austria-Hungary suffered in the early months of World War I, since the plans for the attack on Serbia were quite complete and could not easily have been changed in the time between Redl's suicide and the onset of the war.

In the end it may have come down to the nature of the Austrian state itself, an anachronistic idea, rather than a fatherland. In the political post-mortem one Hungarian newspaper noted that "the Redl affair cannot be seen as a private matter. Redl is not an individual but a system. Whilst soldiers elsewhere are taught to love their homelands, lack of patriotism is held to be the greatest military virtue in this unfortunate monarchy. With us military education culminates in all national feeling being driven out of our soldiers... In the Redl affair this spirit has had its revenge. The Austrian and the Hungarian soldiers possess no fatherland; they only have a war lord."

In fiction

  • Redl was played by Klaus Maria Brandauer in the 1985 István Szabó film Colonel Redl (see Oberst Redl at the Internet Movie Database)
  • John Osborne's 1965 play A Patriot for Me is based on Redl's story
  • A summary of Redl's career and its effect on the course of World War I is provided by Dennis Wheatley in his historical novel The Second Seal (1950). Redl's successor, Ronge, also appears as himself - chief of Austro-Hungarian Intelligence. He is trying to foil the attempts of British Intelligence to find out what Austria intends for Serbia in 1914.


  1. Lorenz, Dagmar C. G; Weinberger, Gabriele (1994). Insides and Outsides: Jewish and Gentile Culture in Germany and Austria. Wayne State University Press. p. 264. ISBN 0-8143-2497-5. 
  2. Colonel Alfred Redl biography
  3. World War I Russian Spy Col. Alfred Redl
  4. Janusz Piekalkiewicz, World history of espionage: Agents, systems, operations. ISBN 978-3-517-00849-3
  5. "Alfred Redl". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 2 May 2009. Retrieved 6 May 2009. 
  6. RICHARD GRENIER (1985-10-13). "COLONEL REDL: THE MAN BEHIND THE SCREEN MYTH". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 


  • Georg Markus, Der Fall Redl, 1984. ISBN 3-85002-191-2
  • Robert Asprey, The Panther's Feast, 1959. (Jonathan Cape)

External links

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