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social sciences

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Redl, Alfred (1864-1913)  
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Alfred Redl rose from poverty to the highest rank in the Army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the politically tumultuous years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was the Army's Chief of Counterintelligence for many years, and is, by any measure, one of the fathers of modern espionage techniques.

A homosexual in a society that would end his career if his sexuality had been revealed publicly, Redl was blackmailed into becoming a spy for Russia in the critical early years of the twentieth century. For almost a century, his unmasking and subsequent suicide have fueled campaigns about the alleged security risks posed by homosexuals in government and military service and inflamed the imaginations of filmmakers and dramatists searching for sensational plots involving sex, spying, and violent death.

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Alfred Redl was born on March 14, 1864, in Lemberg, Galicia. (Lemberg, now Lvov in the Ukraine, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.) His father was a railway clerk, and Alfred was the ninth child added to a poor family that would grow even larger and more economically challenged.

On March 14, 1881, his seventeenth birthday, Redl joined the Austro-Hungarian Army. He was a good student and eventually won a place in the Imperial War College. Whereas others chafed under the discipline of the all-male army, Redl thrived in the environment. He made the army his true home.

Every Appearance of a Brilliant Military Career

From the beginning of his military career, Redl received glowing reviews: he was regarded as diligent, intelligent, and soldierly. He was singled out for his service on maneuvers and was given the highest grades on fitness reports. His prospects seemed brilliant.

In 1898, Redl traveled to Kazan (Russia), ostensibly to perfect his Russian. There, the Russians paid close attention to him, just as they would any member of the Austro-Hungarian Army stationed under any pretext in their midst. This short stay in Kazan would prove critical to Redl's place in history.

On April 15, 1899, Redl was transferred to the General Staff in Vienna and promoted to Captain First Class. On October 1, 1900, he joined the Counterintelligence Corps. As a 36-year-old protégé of General Arthur von Giesl, he was clearly a star on the rise.

As Chief of the Operations Section, Redl became responsible for recruiting, training, and dispatching agents for spy missions. Redl's contributions and achievements in that position did not go unrecognized: in 1905 and 1906 alone, he was awarded the Military Service Cross, the Military Service Medal, and the Royal Spanish Military Service Order.

In 1907, Redl was appointed Chief of Intelligence for the Army. During a tenure that lasted until 1912, he was known as an innovator: he was among the first to record conversations (on early wax cylinders), to use secret cameras, to adopt a systematic policy to intercept mail, to dust for fingerprints, and to "shadow" suspects. Redl also spearheaded a collaborative exchange of intelligence with Germany and trained an entire generation of Austro-Hungarian spymasters.

On April 18, 1911, Redl received the ultimate award to add to his other decorations: the Expression of Supreme Satisfaction, a personal citation from Emperor Franz Josef. In 1912, when General von Geisl became commander of the Eighth Army Corps in Prague, Redl went with him. On May 1, 1912, Redl was one of only eight lieutenant colonels promoted to colonel. After 31 years of distinguished military service, he had risen into the highest ranks of the elite: there were only 54 colonels in the entire General Staff Corps of the Austro-Hungarian Army.

The Tarnished Reality Underlying All the Brilliance

For all its public brilliance, however, Redl's career was shadowed by two extreme handicaps: money problems and the need to hide his sexuality. The army did not pay its officers well, but nevertheless expected them to live at a level befitting their status. Redl, as it happened, had expensive tastes in uniforms, living accommodations, and everything else. With no family wealth to draw upon, Redl's everyday financial reality was killing debt.

The stress of Redl's situation was exponentially increased because he was homosexual and had to hide that career-ending fact at all costs. One method he used to deflect suspicion of his sexual orientation during his time in Kazan was to pay court to a (supposedly) married woman. Her reluctance to commit while "married" and Redl's need for a "safe" woman made for a perfect match.

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