Alfred Redl’s impact on World War I, which ended 100 years ago, and his effect on homophobia as official policy, has been understated, and because he was gay and un-heroic, he has been almost forgotten. But his impact on world history has been profound.
World War I was “the war to end all wars.” It was supposed to straighten out the tangled mess of European empire building that had developed. Instead the war began the process of imperial collapse and changed the way the world was organized. At the heart of the conflict between nations was a web of alliances, secrecy, nationalism, revolutionary movements and spying. At the heart of the spying was Col Alfred Redl, head of spies for Austria-Hungary and on the inside of Prussia’s spy system as well. He was the most trusted spy in the Central Powers.
But since 1902 he was also in the pay of Imperial Russia. The Russians found out that young Redl frequented the homosexual underground, beginning in 1889 when he went to Moscow to learn Russian at age 25. In 1901 the Russians began supplying Redl with young men for sex, and in 1902 they presented him with a choice: work for the Czar as a counter-spy or be exposed. They also offered him lucrative stipends for military secrets. The threat of blackmail and the promise of rewards were persuasive to the former villager whose recreational tastes far exceeded his income. He had a young Czech lover at that time, whom he began supplying with luxurious gifts.
With strategic help from Moscow, Redl exposed Russian spies to the Austrians and then set up Austrian spies to be discovered in Russia. This way he rose to the top desk with access to all of Austria-Hungary’s military contingency plans, as well as those of the Kaiser.
It was Berlin that discovered Redl’s counter-espionage activity. When he was positively identified, the Germans informed the Austrian High Command. The panic and consternation that their entire diplomatic and military plans had been compromised cannot be exaggerated. Their first reaction was to keep everything a secret. The High Command sent a squad to arrest Redl in his apartment. “I know why you are here,” he told them. They laid a loaded pistol on the table and filed out to wait in the street. A while later a shot was heard. Another version says that he stood nude before a mirror for 5 hours before he shot himself. Redl had written a note that indicated suicide, and he was given an appropriate funeral.
Meanwhile, the Austrian authorities wanted to investigate his mansion in Prague. It was Sunday and locksmiths were closed. The investigators commandeered one to open the mansion, and inside they found a full set of sadomasochistic equipment, pornography and pictures of cross-dressing by many people in high positions. Quite by luck a newspaperman heard of the discovery and knew of Redl’s suicide. He interviewed the locksmith and quickly put the story on the front page.
From that moment, it was obvious to those in officialdom that being gay made one vulnerable. Doors banged shut to men seeking careers in sensitive positions who were suspected of being gay. The discrimination was not only because sodomy was so horrendous in those days, but because exposure was so apt to compromise a person keeping governmental secrets. The policy swept through the KGB, MI5 and the FBI in due time. Redl’s influence was profound. We have not overcome it yet.
Furthermore, through Redl, Russia learned about Austria-Hungary’s invasion plans for the Balkans, should war break out. The Central Power’s plan was to make quick work of the war. The whole rationale for the war, waiting for a spark to set it off, was to achieve objectives in the course of a few weeks at most. Thanks to Redl, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo in the Balkans on 28 June 1914, Russia and its allies in the Balkans knew the plans and inflicted an unexpected defeat on Austria-Hungary in the battles of Cer and Kolubara beginning on 12 August. What was to be a quick victory turned out to be a humiliating defeat that held an important part of the Central Powers’ army in the Balkans for the duration, rather than making those forces available for the war on the Eastern Front against Russia. The long war in France and the indecisive 5-year agony in the East spelled disaster for all involved, including the victors who had to fight a Second World War to address the unresolved issues of the First, and then a Cold War as a result of the “solutions” agreed to at Yalta at the end of the Second.
According to many historians of the Hapsburg Empire as well as the CIA’s Allen Dulles and Soviet General Mikhail Milstein, Redl was an arch-traitor. The final collapse of the Hapsburg Empire can be traced to the defeats at Cer and Kolubara. Thus began the toppling of empires: Prussia, Russia, Ottoman, and then World War Two which led to the end of the French and British empires. Meanwhile, a century of suppression of gays led to thousands of losses and misplacement of talent, none more tragic than the loss of Alan Turing or more bizarre than the twisting of J Edgar Hoover. Lest we think this era of exaggerated suspicion has passed, we need only click on the Internet to see the rationale for Trump’s continuing campaign to eliminate transgender persons from the military and to prevent same sex spouses from getting diplomatic passports. It’s always “for security.”
Just when you think Donald Trump can’t be more absurd with respect to friends and neighbors of the USA, he tops himself. Who would dream of insulting the Queen of Denmark? What could Trump have been dreaming? “Ah, there’s the rub,” as Denmark’s most famous prince once ruminated.
As I understand it, US President Donald Trump was due to make a state visit to Denmark in less than two weeks. The state visit was, like the recent one to England, to include a state dinner on September 2 hosted by Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark. This was to have been the first such visit since President Bill Clinton visited Denmark. Denmark is one of the USA’s most stalwart allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Then, for some reason, probably to add an agenda item to the talks that go on at occasions like this, Trump floated the idea of discussing a purchase of Greenland. Greenland is the largest island in the world (if you consider Australia a continent). It is an autonomous Danish territory, with its own government. Apparently, Trump has been serious about buying Greenland and thought Denmark might be ready to get rid of it since it costs them a lot to maintain. With Arctic ice melting and shipping lanes opening and with Greenland rich in unexploited minerals, Trump supporters have scurried to defend the purchase as timely and smart. However, the Prime Minister of Denmark was astonished when Trump’s idea reached her. She called the notion “absurd” and mentioned that Greenland’s government was not interested in having a new landlord. So Trump cancelled the visit with just days to go. He was not going to Denmark if they couldn’t talk about a real estate sale, and then he Tweeted that he was insulted, that the entire United States of America was insulted, by the Prime Minister’s rude reply. Most people, including me, thought it was all a joke at first. But it turns out it he was serious and in a fit of temper he insulted Denmark and the Queen. Trump was just rebuked. He hates that.
So this is how US foreign affairs are being handled. The present US State Department and the White House aggravate and show contempt for our historic friends. Almost every time this happens it is because Trump has had a tantrum. Early in his administration the President had a Secretary of State who could handle most of the chaos that resulted when the boss flew off the handle or made some outlandish deal with a party determined to destroy our influence. But Trump fired him, and now has a Secretary of State to his liking.
What this means in the long run is that the moral influence of the USA as a defender of democratic principles and world development is being eviscerated. It is no longer important that the USA lead, as long as the USA can have its way. The word “bully” comes to mind. So far, during the past 3 years, US foreign policy has been highlighted by creating a crisis or creating fear of one, and then solving the crisis while blaming others. US domestic policy has been steered toward the dissolution of the middle class and the increasing of wealth for the elite. It is US foreign policy, however, that will be our first permanent defeat. When it is safe to ignore the USA, rest assured the USA will be ignored.
It will be possible to manage the mess that Trump has made of US relations with Denmark. But some of the destruction in international relations will not be remediable if Trump keeps throwing temper tantrums.
Image above © Metro News UK
What do I as a white, Christian, male, American know about racism?
I have been told that I can know nothing about racism. My white male privilege blinds me to the reality. It’s impossible that I could understand it, so I should keep quiet and make whatever pathetic repentance I can muster.
Allow me to decline the full extent of the indictment, before beginning an indictment of my own about how alarming WORLDWIDE RACISM has become.
I am Caucasian, of European extraction, blue-eyed, and male. What’s more, I am American (of the prairieland type) which means I have privileges that were build on deprivation my ancestors inflicted on others, and advantages I take for granted. But I have been a recipient of enough racism to know about it existentially, after 36 years of residency as one of a tiny minority in Asia.
To be clear and fair, racism in Thailand tends to be so non-confrontational many insist it does not exist. As recently as 1967 the dean of an institution of higher education here declared flatly, “There is no racism in Thailand.” That was the year, however, that biracial babies began to be born to US servicemen and their wives. The Pearl S. Buck Foundation had to find adoptions for many of them because inter-racial children were unwanted. (I hasten to add that has completely changed to such an extent that recent Miss Thailands have been proudly biracial. The shift began with biracial models in advertising campaigns and on TV.)
Long-term residents in Asia testify to scores of assumptions made about us, based solely on our appearance. These assumptions make it difficult for us in many ways, every day. The difficulties include double-pricing based on the belief that all foreigners are rich. More subtle and pervasive is the assumption we are incapable of accurate insight into the heart of this culture, language, or religion. Recent opinion has developed that we are rude, arrogant, and insensitive. On the ledger of advantages, we will treat property with respect, we will cause little or no legal trouble, and we are worth having around in limited numbers.
Personally, I love being in Thailand, and I feel quite accepted and unharmed. But the point is that there is racism here in Thailand and throughout Asia. Skin color matters. It is not something I am too privileged here to know anything about.
Racism varies from culture to culture. In some parts of East and South East Asia it is assumed, based on my race, that I am culturally inferior. There are serious consequences to that if I were to try to live in one of those areas. In other parts of this continent I would be considered a cultural equal, but unquestionably an outsider. In some regions it would be taken for granted that I am culturally advantaged, and feared for that.
How real is race? A popular trope is that “there is just one race … the human race.”
But superficially race is real enough to be immediately recognizable. It shows up as skin color, eye shape, hair texture. It shows up in DNA. The other ways race may manifest itself are cultural signals like costume, language, and sometimes body treatment, or cuisine. These distinctions do not hold up under scrutiny, of course, because they are artificial indicating some set of characteristics that apply to only a fraction of those assigned to any particular race.
Assignment to one race or another might be imposed, inadvertent, or voluntary. Tiger Woods with African-American father and Thai mother chose to be American and therefore Black. That is, he integrated into American culture. He could have been Thai (he wouldn’t have been alone here as a bi-racial Thai person) and he would not have been thought of as Black. On his first trip back here as a sports hero he disappointed his sponsors and Thai fans by paying almost no heed to his Thai heritage. Barack Obama is Black, too, with a white mother and African father from Kenya. In the USA, the choice is not entirely free. In Australia there is a substantial group of mixed-race citizens who are oblivious of their distant aboriginal ancestor. Others know and are bemused or nonplussed by it; recently it has become a matter of pride. Mongol blood runs in the veins of a lot of Central and East Europeans.
Assignment may be calculated or capricious. “Red and yellow, black or white, we are equal in His sight…” so goes the Sunday School song. But the fact is almost nobody is really any of those colors. Almost all of us are some shade of brown, with tinges of pink or pallor. Hair color is more dramatic, and entirely unreliable as a racial indicator these days. Indeed, racial assignment is so haphazard that pseudo-races are simply invented. It is a red-flag warning when one of these terms emerges into acceptance. “Jewish” has been used for millennia, but when “Jewish race” began to be bandied about trouble was close at hand. When 19th century anthropologists began to try to differentiate types of Caucasians as separate races, they described the Alpine, Dinaric, Iranid, East Baltic and Mediterranean races. The Nordic race, they thought, was superior. Eugenics and racial harvesting were on the way. Just recently the term “Mexican race” has made its way back into the US national discourse. That will not lead to anything good.
This morning I was reminded of racism at its worst.
President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson wrote, “… I made the mistake of pulling James Cone’s 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree' off my shelf — a book designed to shatter convenient complacency. Cone recounts the case of a white mob in Valdosta, Ga., in 1918 that lynched an innocent man named Haynes Turner. Turner’s enraged wife, Mary, promised justice for the killers. The sheriff responded by arresting her and then turning her over to the mob, which included women and children. According to one source, Mary was 'stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.' God help us. It is hard to write the words. This evil — the evil of white supremacy, resulting in dehumanization, inhumanity and murder — is the worst stain, the greatest crime, of U.S. history. It is the thing that nearly broke the nation. It is the thing that proved generations of Christians to be vicious hypocrites. It is the thing that turned normal people into moral monsters, capable of burning a grieving widow to death and killing her child.”
That’s what racism will do, and it’s on the rise. It occasionally rises to that crescendo, as in the pogroms in Russia, the riots in Nazi Germany, rampages in Bosnia, and the unfinished elimination of Palestinians in Israel. That’s what is at risk when US politicians play the race card in the run-up to the national election in 2020.
Racism is a cultural invention. It includes acts of appalling atrocity, beguiling paternalism, absurd disrespect, and sometimes abject neglect. But it is subject to cultural intervention. What a culture does it can stop doing, although it takes the power of a mass movement of almost consensus proportions to stop it. That or a catastrophe.
These are somber times again when sun alone is not enough to warm our frigid spirits.
How ironic we are cold when kings and presidents are ripe with malice that is crafted fire.
All around us anger boils about the migrants swarming in, ruining our peerless race. “Hell! Are all our elders blind?” a youngster yells with guns galore while hooded Klansmen clap and laugh. “Now’s the time to start the war that starts by killing all in sight and stirring up the will to fight.”
We, however, are not stirred. Sheltered in our vague despair we’re chilled within our thoughts and prayers. Though we scarcely fear or hate, and wear our humor as a cape, we’ll never be heroic. No! We are kind and gentle souls who stay at home and cool ourselves with hopes for better times ahead.
Leaders, heaven help us, order, “Burn the jungle. Spoil the soil and waste the water. What it’s all about is oil.”
Tundra thaws and glaciers melt while penguins, polar bears and whales begin to disappear in droves. “That’s a shame,” is all we pant. Because we live so far away we never really see a panther.
Strangely, we can stay so cool as global warming steams ahead of all those terrors that we dread.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.