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.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.