On the evening of the 24th of May 1913, two detectives of the Austro Hungarian security service are standing in a room at the stately Hotel Klomser in Vienna. They stand in front of the head of their own security service: General Alfred Redl. Just after midnight, the detectives hand a browning gun to Redl and leave the hotel, taking position before the entrance. At five a clock in the morning, an employee of the hotel calls the police to report what looks like a suicide.1
It was supposed that this was the end of a rather embarrassing affair. And it would be the end of it, were it not for a man who already earned himself the qualification of being The raging reporter of Prague. This reporter, named Egon Erwin Kisch, was going to reveal to the public what had happened to cause the events of this fateful night.
The dark alleys of Prague
Egon Kisch was born in 1885 as the son of a wealthy German speaking Jewish family in Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. This empire consisted of Austria, Hungary and parts of the territory of modern Poland, the Balkans, and what are now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. All these different people were ruled by the Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph the Second. Kisch’s father had come to wealth as a dresser, providing the Austro-Hungarian army with uniforms.2 Egon tried his hand at several studies before he became a journalist at one of the German newspapers that were appearing in Prague at the time. Prague had a thriving German literary community, and Kisch became part of that when he explored the nightlife of this city. He came to local fame with his reports from what he called “the nights and alleys of Prague”.3
This meant that all the coleur locale of the city was familiar with this reporter, who kept up his lifestyle by drinking loads of coffee and smoking cigarettes like a chimney. Kisch’s visit to an institution dedicated to the “Holy so-and-so”, which was created to give ‘fallen ladies’ the opportunity to learn an honest trade, provides an amusing example of his fame.4 During his tour through the building, the head of the institution preaches to Kisch that “this institution is a bulwark against debauchery. Even when some of the innerly corrupted creatures arrive here with the only motivation of getting fed for a couple of days (…) that cannot scare us away from our noble cause of helping these wretched women.”5 With pride Kisch is shown a room where these “wretched creatures” are busy praying and stitching. One of the ladies recognizes Kisch and exalts “Kisch, do you have a cigarette for me? We don’t get any here!” After that, havoc breaks loose with Kisch getting the request of sending “best regards to café Brasil” amongst other not very prudish requests. Thereupon the stressed out director sighs “it will be useless for you to stay here, it’s like this in all our rooms.”6
This is one of the more amusing stories that Kisch wrote in these years. Some of them are a bit dated now, but others will still make the modern reader chuckle. But it was the story of a Ruthenian general who also resided in Prague in these years that brought Kisch international fame.
A general without scruples
Alfred Redl was born in 1864 in the city of Lemberg (modern Lviv in Ukraine) as the son of a railway officer. He was an intelligent boy and in this multicultural environment near the border of Russia he managed to pick up several languages. He went to military school and from there his seemingly unshakable loyalty to the monarchy caused him to make a steep career in the Austro-Hungarian army. In the year 1900, Redl was promoted to the position of chief of the counterintelligence corps of the army.7 Several parts of the empire were under the influence of nationalistic and liberal ideologies and strived for independence. Redl had achieved a reputation as a brilliant intelligence specialist and was transferred to Prague in 1912, which at that moment was a hotbed of anti-monarchy agitation.8
At first glance, Redl was the right man on the right spot. Every visitor to his office was offered a drink, a cigarette, or a praline. That seemed to be very cordial behavior of Redl, but after the visitor left, the glass, cigarette, or praline was used to collect fingerprints. Hidden camera’s photographed the face and movements of every visitor and a hidden stenograph registered every detail of conversation.9
When on track of a spy, Redl was a man without scruples. The Austrian and the Russian empire’s had had diplomatic conflicts about each other’s spheres of influence in the Balkans for years. When the Austrian army major Von Wienckowski was suspected of selling army secrets to the Russians, Redl entered his house for a thorough search but was not able to retrieve any evidence. He then turned to the six year old child present in the house, and asked the girl in a friendly tone whether she knew how much two and two was. Redl acted very surprised when the child gave him the right answer, got on his knees and said: “you are such an intelligent girl, would you also know where your father hides his letters?” The child pointed Redl in the right direction and in this way delivered her father to death in jail.10
His style of pursuing his goals made Redl a lot of enemies. But none of them suspected what was going on behind the closed doors of Redl’s apartment. In reality Redl was on the payroll of the Russian tsar since 1902 and received lavish amounts of money for providing the Russian empire with secret documents from the Austrian military. The motivations for Redl’s treachery are still a bit unclear. It is said that Redl needed the money to pay for his lavish lifestyle. He possessed a very expensive limousine and loved exclusive champagne.11 But as we shall see, it is also possible that Redl was blackmailed by the Russians.
A female taste that outed itself everywhere
Redl was caught, somewhat by accident, in 1913. Two suspicious letters containing huge amounts of cash money were intercepted, and the security officers decided to wait and see who would fetch them at the post-office. To their utter astonishment Redl showed up to ask for the two envelopes. After a wild chase through Vienna, Redl was confronted with this in his hotel room where he stayed during a visit to army officials. The next morning, he was dead.12
When Redl’s apartment in Prague was searched, the officials were surprised by the “female tastes that outed itself everywhere”. The furniture was red, the four poster bed was covered with pink plush, and the apartment had a pungent perfume-scent.13 And when they opened Redl’s cabinet, they not only found incriminating evidence about his spy activities, but also love letters to a young soldier named Stefan.
The last letter Redl wrote to his male lover was a plea not to leave him. Stefan had announced that he was going to marry a woman and in consequence would end his relationship with Redl. Redl, in his turn, promised him an Austro-Daimler touring car and a holiday in Davos if only he would stay with him.14
This was enough to make the cheeks of 1913 Austrian army officers turn red with indignation. All this was supposed to remain secret; the official news stated that Redl committed suicide after a mental breakdown. And this would have stayed the official version, were it not for Egon Kisch and his contacts with Prague locals.
A missed soccer game
Kisch himself stated that he came into contact with the local locksmith who had forced open the door to Redl’s apartment by sheer coincidence. The locksmith had missed a soccer game with his team because of this chore, and he confided this to the captain of his team who also was a journalist and a friend of Kisch. Not long after that, details of the Redl affair appeared in the Prague newspapers. “And all because an end-back missed a soccer game. Against Union Holeschovice.”15 It forced the Austrian army to explain what had happened. Had they forced Redl to commit suicide to prevent a loss of prestige for the army? The minister of defense Georgi was forced to comment on the rumors and stated that Redl had himself chosen to commit suicide. According to Georgi the spy activities and the subsequent suicide probably had been the result of “his physic abnormality”. “In our profession there is no room for anything that is inferior, whether physically or morally.”16
In the secret service some heads rolled, but for the rest the matter did not have many consequences. Redl was buried without ceremony and tombstone in the central cemetery of Vienna, leaving the Austro-Hungarian army in confusion. A little more than a year later the First World War would make an end to the monarchy. Kisch went to fight as a soldier in this war and returned from the battlefield a convinced communist. He died in a communist Czechoslovakia in 1949.
Today there is severe doubt whether Kisch really had gotten his information from a Prague end-back who missed a football game. It is presumed that this was fiction to make the story a bit juicier. But Kisch did manage to put the Redl affair on the map. Five movies were made about the life of Redl, and it is still debated to what level Redl’s espionage caused the downfall of Austria-Hungary in the Great War.17
Anyway: the book that Kisch wrote about the affair still gives a fascinating insight into the doings of intelligent services at the dawn of World War One. Kisch became the hero of investigative journalism. A hundred years after publication his book about the Redl affair is still a good read. And we can ask ourselves whether figures like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden will manage to reach that.
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E.E. Kisch, Der Fall des Generalstabschefs Redl (Berlin 1924) 33-37 ↩
M.G.Patka, Egon Erwin Kisch. Stationen im Leben eines Streitbaren Autors (Vienna, Cologne 1997) 31 ↩
E.E Kisch, Aus Prager Gassen und Nächten (1905, Berlin/Weimar 1980) ↩
E.E. Kisch, Magdalenenheim in Prager Kinder (1913, Berlin Weimar 1980) 309-313 ↩
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M.G.Patka, Egon Erwin Kisch, 35 ↩
V.Moritz, H. Leidinger: Oberst Redl. Der Spionagefall, der Skandal, die Fakten (Vienna 2012) ↩