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Alfred Redl – one of the greatest arch-traitors of all time

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, Politics on Thursday, 13 February 2014

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This edited article about espionage first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 550 published on 29 July 1972.

Colonel Redl,  picture, image, illustration

The Austro-Hungarian intelligence chief, Colonel Alfred Redl

You could not have wished for a more devoted servant of the State than Alfred Redl, the Austro-Hungarian Director of Intelligence, whose whole life seemed to be devoted to bringing about the destruction of the enemies of his master, the Emperor Franz Josef. His headquarters in Vienna were run with staggering efficiency. No matter where a suspect chose to sit, two cameras could be focused on him. Every word he spoke was recorded on a gramophone disc, and his fingerprints obtained by various subtle methods, the most popular being for Redl to press an electric button underneath his table, which made his telephone ring. After answering it, Redl would politely excuse himself for a few minutes – leaving a file marked SECRET on his desk. Few, if any, of the suspects could resist looking at it, thereby leaving their prints on the folio, which had been treated with a special preparation.

Considering that he had managed to claw his way up the ladder of a class-ridden society in which to have any major staff appointment was akin to being allowed to join the most exclusive club in Europe, Redl had done very well for himself. He had managed to do it because he had countered snobbery with intellect and a lack of influence in high places with unflagging industry.

General Baron von Giesel, the Head of the Secret Service, and Redl’s immediate superior, was as bedazzled as everyone with Redl, so much so that when he was transferred to Prague, he insisted that Redl should accompany him as his chief of staff. Redl’s place in Vienna was taken over by a Captain Maximilian Ronge, a zealous and highly ambitious officer, who was well aware that if he was to make his mark with his superiors he would have to show them that he was even better than Redl. He was to achieve this aim by unearthing a story, which ironically, was so startling that no newspaper dared to print it.

Redl spent eight years in Prague, returning regularly on leave to Vienna. Quite unknown to him his successor had instigated a secret postal censorship of all letters coming from the other side of the border. It was this censorship which was finally to unmask Redl as one of the greatest arch-traitors of all time.

In the March of 1913, two envelopes were opened by the censors. The letters had been sent from a small town in East Prussia, on the Russo-German frontier, and were addressed Opera Ball, 13 Post Restante, General Post Office, Vienna.

They were found to contain a large amount of money in Austrian kronen. As neither of the letters contained any covering note, the censors decided that they had stumbled on something.

The letters were passed on to Ronge, who examined them and then returned them carefully sealed, to the Post Office. At the same time he arranged for a wire to be installed between the Post Office and a small police station nearby. The clerks on duty were ordered to press a button which would set a bell ringing in the police station as soon as someone appeared to collect the letters. All that Ronge had to do now was to wait.

The police had to wait for eighty-three days before the bell rang. The two detectives on duty raced to the Post Office – only to see their quarry disappearing around the corner in a taxi. To make matters even worse, there were no other taxis in sight.

Frightened to report their failure to Ronge, the two detectives lingered aimlessly in the area for more than twenty minutes. Then they had an incredible piece of luck. The taxi which had sped away reappeared and leisurely cruised past them. Halting it, they asked the driver where he had taken their “friend.”

“We are anxious to contact him as quickly as possible,” one of the detectives said. “We have something important to give him.”

On being told that the cab driver had taken his fare to the Cafe Kaiserhof, the two detectives jumped into the taxi and ordered the driver to take them there. On the way there they searched the taxi and found a little pocket knife sheath in grey suede. It was not much of a clue, but at least it was something.

On reaching the Cafe Kaiserhof, they found to their chagrin that it was deserted, and they realised that their “man” must have doubled on his tracks. Seeing a taxi rank nearby the two detectives hurried over to question the drivers.

Once again they were in luck. Yes, one of the drivers informed them. He had picked up a passenger from there about half an hour ago. A well spoken gentleman who had asked to be taken to the Hotel Klomser.

Jumping into a taxi again, the two detectives went to the hotel, where one of the detectives handed the porter the pocket knife sheath.

“Please take this and ask your guests if any of them has lost it. Don’t make it too obvious, or they might get suspicious.”

The two detectives then settled down in the lounge, hiding themselves behind newspapers. Presently a distinguished looking man in a well-cut suit appeared and made his way towards the door. “Pardon me, Colonel,” the porter called out. “Would you by any chance have lost this?”

“Why, yes,” the man said. “Thank you very much.” Pocketing the sheath he went out into the street. The two detectives gazed after him in stupification. The man who had just disappeared through the swing doors was the famous Colonel Redl, a man who had been held up to them as a model and inspiration to all intelligence officers.

Colonel Ronge was equally dumb-founded when one of his men phoned in what they had unearthed. His mind in a whirl, he hurried over to the Post Office to collect the form which Redl had filled in when collecting the two letters. The name and address were obviously false, but if indeed they had been collected by Redl, he would soon know. Taking the form back to his office, Ronge compared the writing with Redl’s handwriting in the records. There was no doubt about it. They matched.

But Ronge knew that this was not enough. If taxed Redl would no doubt bring forward some plausible story to explain away the money. Some other, more concrete evidence was needed to prove Redl’s guilt.

Redl himself supplied the evidence. After he had left the hotel, he had been overcome with a nagging doubt about the penknife sheath. Had he really lost it in the hotel? Or had he left it in the taxi when he had used the penknife to open the two letters? If the latter had been the case, he was obviously already a hunted man.

It was then that Redl remembered that he had no less than three incriminating receipts in his pocket for letters he had sent to known foreign agents abroad. Realising that these alone were enough to condemn him, he stopped and tore them into pieces before casting them away. As soon as he had disappeared, one of the detectives who had been following him came forward and scooped up the pieces. He then took them to Ronge, who set to work, piecing them together. When he had finished, he gave a heavy, contented sigh. He now had all the evidence he required.

Late that evening, four officers in full uniform visited Redl and gravely informed him that his treason was now known to the authorities. White-faced but calm, Redl asked if he might borrow a revolver from them, and a Browning was placed on the table for his use. The four officers then left him. Some time after they had gone Redl stood in front of the mirror and fired a shot in his brain.

Although the newspapers were threatened with police action if they published the story, the facts eventually leaked out. It was a tale of unparalleled treachery. Redl had been a spy for Russia for more than ten years. During that time he had denounced many of his personal friends who were acting as spies in Russia, and he had supplied the Russians with a great mass of military information of the highest importance. In exchange for his treachery he had been paid enough for him to live like a multi-millionaire.

One of the surprising aspects of the case was that Redl had always openly lived in a manner which was officially far beyond his means. In the circumstances it seems surprising that the authorities had to wait for two chance letters to fall into their hands before they caught him.

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