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social sciences

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Redl, Alfred (1864-1913)  
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Political and Artistic Legacies of the Redl Affair

The political fall out of the Redl Affair has by no means been limited to Austria. Redl quickly became a symbol of the vulnerable high-level government official ripe for blackmailing and enlisting in nefarious foreign plots. More specifically, he became the exemplar of the particular susceptibility of homosexuals to blackmail.

During the Cold War, the Redl Affair, along with the Whittaker Chambers-Alger Hiss affair of 1948 and the 1951 flight to the Soviet Union of gay British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, helped justify the suspicion that homosexuals could not be trusted. Their examples justified the denial of security clearances and other forms of discrimination against homosexuals.

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Senator Joseph McCarthy harangued that homosexuals in the State Department were national security risks bent on undermining democracy, freedom, and the American way. During the 1950s, the association between homosexuals and Communism led to a dramatic increase in harassment and persecution of homosexuals in the United States and Europe.redl_a00.jpg

If the Redl Affair has always been a political hot potato, it has proven a gold mine for the entertainment industry. It has sex, spies, and treachery. It ends with a spectacular fall from grace, a shaming confession, and a blaze of suicidal gunfire.

At least three German films took on the subject before the highly publicized premieres of John Osborne's play A Patriot for Me (1965) and István Szabó's film Colonel Redl (1984), freely adapted from the Osborne play. Significantly, both Osborne and Szabó used the sensational outlines of Redl's story as a springboard for pursuing quite separate personal themes.

A Patriot for Me traces a dramatic arc covering 23 years, as Osborne's Redl advances from lieutenant to colonel and from patriot to traitor. Redl is depicted as duplicitous and cautious, while Osborne explores his own interests in the decline of empire and the perils of the nonconformist. The second act gave the hungry-for-scandal public a spectacular coup-de-théâtre: a (highly unlikely) drag ball supposedly attended by the closeted homosexuals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's government and army.

The play was a scandal and a success in 1965. Revealingly, however, it now appears that even as Osborne dramatized Redl's secrets, he was engaged in a project of hiding some of his own. In 1995, soon after Osborne's death and coinciding with a revival of the play, actor Anthony Creighton revealed that he and Osborne had a long-running love affair during the 1950s.

At the time, Creighton said, "I think people should be able to appreciate that Patriot for Me, which stigmatizes homosexuality, is a projection of [Osborne's] own self-hatred." Buttressed by Creighton's statement, some reviewers of the 1995 revival remarked that the play's portrait of homosexual repression could now also be seen as a self-portrait. The revelation of Osborne's affair with Crighton was especially telling since Osborne had made a habit of denigrating homosexuality, once famously declaring, "Whatever else, I have been blessed with God's two greatest gifts: to be born English and heterosexual."

Whereas A Patriot for Me focused almost exclusively on Redl's homosexuality, Szabó took another tack in his film. He has said, "What drew me to the Redl story was that Redl didn't like himself. He wanted to be someone else. He was a poor Ukrainian and wanted to be an Austrian nobleman."

Szabó and co-writer Péter Dobai took liberties with the story in Colonel Redl and constructed Redl as a nearly perfect product of a corrupting, repressive social system, in effect rendering him a victim of the society he betrayed.

In the absence of absolutely reliable sources of information, many of the details of the life of Colonel Alfred Redl remain open to interpretation. We can, however, marvel that the Redl Affair, in rumor, fact, and fictionalized projections like those of Osborne and Szabó, continues to fascinate, even poisoning the air we breathe 100 years later.

John McFarland

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social sciences >> Overview:  Austria

A small German-speaking country in middle Europe, Austria is now home to a thriving glbtq subculture.

social sciences >> Overview:  McCarthyism

McCarthyism, which attempted in the late 1940s and early 1950s to expunge Communists and fellow travelers from American public life, made homosexuals the chief scapegoats of the Cold War.

social sciences >> Overview:  Military Culture: European

Attitudes toward gay and lesbian personnel in European militaries vary widely, from the acceptance of the Dutch to the laissez-faire policy of the French to the rejection of the Greek and Turkish forces.

social sciences >> Overview:  Prague

The capital and largest city of the Czech Republic, Prague is the hub of the country's gay and lesbian life and the center of its glbtq political movement.

literature >> Overview:  War Literature

From ancient times, homoerotic writing has been a notable part of the literature of war.

social sciences >> Casement, Roger

Irish patriot Roger Casement was executed by the British, who also used his diaries to expose him as a homosexual.

social sciences >> Chambers, Whittaker

An aura of homosexuality permeated the case in which former communist Whittaker Chambers accused former U. S. State Department official Alger Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union and helped perpetuate the connection in the public mind between homosexuality and treason.

social sciences >> Leopold, Nathan F. (1904-1971), and Richard A. Loeb (1905-1936)

The case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who gained notoriety for the murder of a fourteen-year-old boy in 1924, has since become a staple of popular culture, inspiring numerous books, films, and plays.


Asprey, Robert. The Panther's Feast. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1959; rpt. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1986.

Grenier, Richard. "Colonel Redl: The Man Behind the Screen Myth." The New York Times (October 13, 1985): A13

Osborne, John. A Patriot for Me. London: Faber & Faber, 1965.

"Osborne's Anger." The New Yorker (Feb 20, 1995): 86-88.

Palmer, Alan. Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994.


    Citation Information
    Author: McFarland, John  
    Entry Title: Redl, Alfred  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated May 8, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  


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