Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Spy of the Century: Alfred Redl and the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary
Reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf

Spy of the Century: Alfred Redl and the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary

by John Sadler and Silvie Fisch
Pen and Sword, 2017

1924 Movie Poster
One of the most enduring stories of espionage and betrayal resides in the tales about the Austro-Hungarian colonel Alfred Redl. He was a man of humble beginnings, raising himself from poverty to the pinnacle of his career as the chief of the espionage and counter-espionage departments of the Army General Staff. He was the confidante to many and hobnobbed with the Heir Apparent, Franz Ferdinand, and was personally noted by Franz Josef himself. He brought about the capture and prosecution of many spies, traitors, and nationalist separatists. Yet in May 1913 a self-inflicted gunshot to the head ended his illustrious career. The following day's newspapers carried a brief article that "one of our most driven and efficient officers of the General Staff" (pg. 2) had succumbed to mental instability.

To many journalists in Vienna at the time, this rather brusque description from army censors seemed to have something under it. The following day news broke that in searching Redl's apartments substantial sums of money had been found, as well as indications of abnormal sexual activities. Everyone began to ask who Alfred Redl was and what had he done? Over the next few weeks, stories surfaced about Redl's involvement with unspecified foreign powers and sexual relationships with men and women.

Since that May day, the case of Redl has exuded mystery. It has been the subject of numerous films, stage plays, and books, all of which have endeavored to plumb the mind of Redl as to his intentions, who he sold information to, and what his motivations were for betraying the country that had allowed him such an unparalleled rise to power and prestige. John Stadler and Silvie Fische have added to the plethora of works on the subject with this new book, in which the overleaf states that their overview is "based on information long hidden in Austrian and Russian archives."

To set the stage for explaining Redl's motivation, Stadler and Fische do an excellent job in their first two chapters of describing the pressures that the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and therefore Redl, was under at the beginning of the 20th century. These chapters also explore the personality of the empire's journalistic world which exposed much of Redl's life and, in some cases, went to great lengths to disparage it and embellish on it. Throughout these pages, the authors make very interesting comments as a way of deducing what Redl's motivation was in selling the most prized secrets of the General Staff. Very simply put, and not as a spoiler, he needed the money to support his lavish lifestyle, which included immaculately tailored uniforms, horses, automobiles, and supporting various lovers who ranged from gardeners to young officers.

With this in mind, the authors then try to find who Redl sold the secrets to and who else may have been involved. The speculation in this area is excellently laid out, but, as has happened with other works, it is non-conclusive. Those not familiar with Redl's story may ask at this point why there is such a lack of information. It was because Redl, after being discovered and on the verge of arrest, was given the right to suicide to avoid scandal, such was the esteem his colleagues held for him. He was never questioned nor were incriminating documents linking him with other powers ever discovered.

Spy of the Century is an excellent book for understanding the political and social environment in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the early 20th century. It is also head and shoulders above R. Asprey's work of the late 1950s entitled The Panther's Feast which dealt with Redl. It is more factual, whereas Asprey's work bordered on sensationalism. As for revealing anything new, I would leave that up to the reader. Notably, neither the select bibliography nor the end notes contained any reference to information gleaned from the Russian and Austrian archives.

Michael P. Kihntopf


  1. Ah, that last sentence took the wind out of my sails. Too bad.
    Everything else sounds grand.

    I thought Russia was the primary beneficiary of Redl's work?

  2. Once again, nothing proven. There was speculation that he sold to just about everyone including the Germans,French, and Italians. He was in it for the money. Cheers