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Spy of the Century: Alfred Redl and the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary, by John Sadler & Silvie Fisch

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Pp. x, 172. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1473848709.

The Spy Who Destroyed an Empire

The authors, respectively British and German, both widely published in history or cultural heritage, take on the case of Alfred Redl (1865-1913). Although some spies – Mata Hari or Sidney Riles – are more famous, even having their adventures – real or purported – turned into movies and television series, and several have been tagged with the title “Spy of the Century” – notably Reinhard Gehlen, who arguably was not particularly effective – Redl far more certainly merits the book’s title.

Redl was a rare Austro-Hungarian officer who came from quite modest roots, virtual poverty in fact. Gifted with a brilliant mind and with a little luck and influence, Redl secured a commission, and eventually became a staff officer and rose to colonel. At some point Redl began spying for Russia. As the authors note, his motives are unclear, certainly his fondness for high living may have played a role, but he may also have been blackmailed into espionage, as the Russians were early aware of his homosexuality.

Over a good many years Redl used his various staff assignments to supply the Russians with vital intelligence. Remarkably, for a time he was even head of Austro-Hungarian counter-espionage, and arranged for the Russians to allow him to “capture” some of their less able agents. Meanwhile, he managed to grow rich, amassing a fortune that, by his death, apparently exceeded that of Imperial-and-Royal chief-of-the-general staff Conrad von Hotzendorf himself.

Eventually caught, in 1913, remarkably, rather than grill Redl upon his arrested, the military authorities encouraged him to shoot himself, which he promptly did; this was either a manifestation of serious ineptitude in high places, or, because Redl’s sources of information may have included junior officers with whom he had affairs, among them Conrad’s own son. As a result, the full extent of Redl’s treason is unknown. He certainly revealed Austro-Hungarian war plans to the Russians, and despite learning of this, the General Staff failed to make more than minor changes to their dispositions, so that the resulting disaster on the Eastern Front probably cost the empire as many as a million casualties in the opening months of the Great War, a disaster from which the Imperial-and-Royal Army never recovered.

During the postwar years, much of the evidence about Redl’s activities held by the Austrian Army was apparently destroyed or “misfiled” lest it prove an embarrassment, while paperwork from the Russian side seems to have disappeared during the Revolutions of 1917.

Thus, because evidence of Redl’s activities is spotty, Spy of the Century is also rather spotty. Nevertheless, the authors have, managed to give us what is probably the best account of Redl’s life and military career so far, while throwing some light on the military, social, cultural, and intelligence milieu in which he thrived.

 

Note: Spy of the Century is also available in several e-editions,

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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