The Redl affair
They were interesting times, those last decades just before the total collapse of the 800-year-old Habsburg empire. After many ups and downs in a 68-year rule, emperor Francis Joseph II was now quite utterly senile. Afraid of his imminent end, he had followed rigid rules more than ever. His administration obsessed over law and order that provided the people with a kind of illusory stability.
The truth was that by 1900, Habsburg authority was reduced to a mere shell. Reality was a bitter pill but greedily sugarcoated and enjoyed as the famed Sachertorte in a Vienna that seemed to know no tomorrow.
The fact was that Vienna, the imperial capital, was faced with economic depression. Unemployment and bankruptcies were steep. There was rise in food prices and financial equilibrium was endangered by new loans. The army was in bad shape.
But what did the Viennese do to cope with the severe crisis? They found a scapegoat in a homosexual. And they waltzed.
A few concerned observers spoke of the Viennese passion for dance as a pathological need to escape the harsh realities of daily life in the city of dreams. Acute fear of suffering more pain prevented people from discussing issues raised by thinkers like Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis. Social satirists who attacked the hypocrisy and sham of the day in brilliant, witty and masterful prose styles were shunned.
Freud’s views about the role of sexuality in human life offended the twisted sensibilities of middle class Viennese. The word ‘Freud’ was infrequently used in public. The city was described as gay Vienna in the same breath as the providing ground for world destruction.
“The scant confidence of the Viennese public in anything under bureaucratic control was further shaken by the affair Redl,” writes Ilsa Barea in Vienna: Legend and Reality.
Colonel Alfred Redl, deputy director of the imperial army, was charged in May 1913 with treason. It was discovered that this high official in the Habsburg government was a double agent. He had spied for arch enemy Russia and was threatened with exposure as a homosexual. When his sexual orientation became public, the bourgeois in Vienna reacted as if they had heard the word homosexual for the first time in their lives. In Redl, the troubled people felt that they had found the culprit responsible for all their woes.
The very respectable Redl was also resented in those times full of hate. Arrogant Austria had already looked down upon Redl for his humble Slav and Jewish origins. Now there was more reason to hate him because he was homosexual too!
There was much oohing and aahing over the Redl affair because it had forced open the closet door of imperial Vienna. The scandal threatened all those who were gay but who pretended they were not, at a time when sexuality begged to become more liberal.
The Redl affair was a mirror to the deceptive aspect of the monarchy. The emperor’s closest confidant had turned out to be a traitor because he wanted to continue to live a life of homosexual debauchery!
He was, then, the reason for all the problems that the Viennese faced!
Another important aspect of the Redl affair is that the man had reached the peak of social success precisely because he was able to fool everyone. He had mastered the art of deception and had succeeded in veiling his real personality for decades. Redl was a man of his times when artificiality and pretence were the rule of the day. In every aspect of life, it was appearance that mattered. Society was forced to respect Redl because of the high office he had enjoyed. Once the state stripped him of office, society felt free to lynch him and to hold him responsible for everything that was wrong.
Evidence of Redl’s homosexuality had struck at the very core of bourgeois morality. But by cornering Redl, Vienna had found an imaginary solution to very real problems. The Viennese forced Redl to choose between suicide or public disgrace. Redl did shoot himself but did his death lessen the growing woes of the Viennese?
World War I still broke out in 1914, and was followed by tragic conditions suffered by people during the inter-war period, leading to a rise in nationalism and fascism, the fallout of which the entire world continues to suffer.