October 15, 2011

Colonel Redl's Knife Sheath


Colonel Redl’s Knife Sheath
by George Berguño


In the autumn of 1941 I left my home in Basel to spend quiet days in Gandria, a remote village carved into the Swiss Alpine cliff that overlooks the southern arm of Lake Lugano. German troops had crossed the Russian border; the Red Army was outflanked; the siege of Leningrad had just begun. And although I lived in a peaceful island amidst a sea of brutalities, the thought of the millions that were destined to die weighed heavy on my mind.

I took a room in the only hotel in the village – a modest place run by a Spanish widow, a woman in her sixties with melancholic dark eyes and a deep-set jaw who, however, was an excellent cook. She had another quality that, in my despondent state of mind, proved to be a gift from heaven: she had little interest in her guests, and her questions were confined to inquiring whether I had slept well or if the meal had pleased me. And so I spent my days wandering along the lake, breathing in the odour of pine and rosemary, and thinking only of my next meal.

There was one other guest at the hotel, a man of about fifty-five or fifty-six, immaculately dressed at all times, who exuded an air of refinement and knowledge. But I soon learned that he too wanted to be left alone, and indeed, although we saw each other at breakfast, lunch and dinner, we made a ritual of eating at separate tables with only the occasional nod of recognition exchanged between us.

One night, the warm damp air pressed down upon my breath such that my bedroom seemed to be shrinking to intolerable proportions. At last, I gave up the struggle for sleep. I wandered down the stairs and onto the long balcony that looked onto the lake. There, I spied my lonely companion sitting at a small table, absorbed in his thoughts. As I had no wish to intrude upon the man’s intimate solitude, I turned to make my exit. Suddenly, he saw me, and to my astonishment, he rose and greeted me.

“I hope you will not think me a bad host,” he said. “Will you join me? I have just opened a bottle of Barolo.”

His speech was accompanied by elegant gestures that gave the impression of old-fashioned manners. I was charmed and intrigued by his invitation; I sat at his table and accepted the glass of deep-red wine. Now that I was sitting close to the man, I took a moment to study his features. Despite his middle age he was dark and handsome. A grim determination pervaded his jaw and forehead; but his hands were restless, suggesting a peculiar nervousness or premonitory fear.

“You strike me as a wanderer,” I said at last, “or a homeless scholar.”

He laughed heartily. “I certainly enjoy my own company and I’m also something of a modern Odysseus. But I have never sought knowledge or erudition. I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me.”

“So you are a man of action?”

“Once upon a time, yes – but what about you?”

“I often wonder about the futility of all action,” I said with profound sadness.

“The futility of all action: an intriguing idea. Perhaps you are the person I have been seeking...”

I shot him an inquiring glance.

“I have wandered the continent and lived in many countries,” he went on, “but my search has been guided by one aim only: to find a confessor. I’ve been observing you for some days and I feel an unaccountable compulsion to tell you my story.”

I turned my gaze to the moon’s silvery light rippling on the lake. I had come to Gandria to escape all tales of death and destruction. Yet, against my will, I felt sympathy for my unknown companion of the night. Taking my silence as acquiescence, he embarked on a long story – the strangest tale of guilt I ever heard.


My name is Ebinger – Carl Josef Ebinger; and I am a native of Vienna.

I completed my military training in 1909; a year later I joined the Intelligence Bureau of the Imperial and Royal Army. My commanding officer and trainer was Colonel Alfred Redl. No doubt, you are familiar with the name: I am referring to the Colonel Redl who was decorated with the Order of the Iron Cross for his outstanding services to Austrian Intelligence and who, perhaps, became the most brilliant military officer of his generation. I might add that Colonel Redl was the most humorous, kind and gentle officer I ever met – a graceful, elegant and compassionate person who launched me on my career and acted as a mentor and spiritual father to me.

In 1912 I was appointed to the rank of Detective Sergeant. But my story really begins in the spring of 1913, when, together with Detective Sergeant Steidl, I was assigned to a mysterious case, one that had baffled Austrian and German counter-espionage agencies since 1911: someone in Austrian Intelligence was relaying vital military secrets to Russia. But there were as yet no clues with which to launch an investigation.

Then – it was in April 1913 – we got our first lucky break. A letter arrived at Vienna’s General Delivery Office on Fleischmarkt Square, addressed to a certain Herr Nizetas. The postmark was from Berlin and as the letter went unclaimed, it was returned to Berlin, where it was opened by German secret police. At that time Germany and Austria were in agreement to exchange information that might be crucial to the security of both countries. On inspecting the contents of the letter, German police concluded that it was imperative to contact Austrian Intelligence; for the envelope contained 6000 kronen and two addresses – one in Switzerland, the other in France – addresses which had, moreover, been identified as contact points for Russian spies.

This was the break that we had been waiting for and Austrian Intelligence conceived a plan that was brilliant in its simplicity. The letter was resealed with its contents intact and returned to General Delivery. Detective Sergeant Steidl and I were appointed to stake out the post office; we took up residence in a small room across the square. We waited and watched. Sooner or later the recipient of the letter would turn up. We had instructed the post manager: as soon as Herr Nizetas collected his letter, he was to contact us by means of an electric bell whose wire ran from under the counter of the post office right into our room.

Days, weeks trickled by and Herr Nizetas did not appear. Meanwhile, two more letters arrived in his name. We opened both letters and found 6000 kronen in one and 8000 in the other, along with mysterious notes that did not further our knowledge of the case. But the new letters gave us an incentive to continue our long siege. We resealed the new letters and returned them to the post office.

Six weeks later, a few minutes before six o’clock on the evening of May 24 1913, our patience was rewarded in a way we could not have foreseen.

When my mind flies back to that magnanimous day, I remember details which, over the years, have taken on an importance that I cannot fathom. I remember that it was a Saturday evening and a cold one at that. It was the coldest May evening that I can recall, and yet, it was a clear day with a sky so blue it had the effect of mesmerising me into forgetfulness. I remember also that, for once, we had not been expecting anything to happen. But it did. The bell rang and we nearly missed it. Steidl had gone downstairs to relieve his bladder, while I had gone to the kitchen to prepare coffee. So when the bell sounded there was only an empty room to greet its warning. Steidl had just emerged from the privy and I was carrying my cup of coffee in one hand when we met in the corridor and heard the bell ringing through the door. The cup slipped from my grasp and splintered on the floor, coffee splashing my shoes and staining my trousers.

We shot down the stairs, bolted out the building and raced across the square, arriving at the post office with our arms flapping. Herr Nizetas had arrived, yes, but he had already departed. We ran outside in time to see a cab speeding around the corner and I was granted a miraculous fraction of a second in which to make a mental note of the license number – A3313. There was a moment of near-silence between Steidl and I; the only sound to reach our ears was the sound of our rapid breaths.

“We have him!” Steidl exclaimed.

“Our man has got away!” I cried.

“But we have the cab number. We can track him wherever he goes.”

“It may be hours before we find the cab and by then – who can say where our fugitive will be? We don’t even know what he looks like.”

We ran back to the post office and quizzed the clerk for vital clues, but there was little in the way of information. Herr Nizetas had entered General Delivery wearing a hat pulled over his face so that it had been impossible for the clerk to get a glimpse of the man’s features. The hat itself was a typical one – of medium brim – and the man’s height was medium too. The man’s voice had no distinguishing characteristics: a typical male voice with a typical Viennese accent. In brief, we had nothing to go on and nothing to show for our six weeks of waiting.

As we walked out of the post office my mind was already working on an explanation to give headquarters for our failure to catch our man. Imagine our surprise when, upon exiting onto the square, we saw a cab rolling along with the license plate A3313! We lost no time in hailing the cab and showering the driver with questions. Our emotions had run away with us: we were screaming and gesticulating, pushing our badges into the driver’s face. All these emotional expressions on our part only served to astonish the driver and delay our search. When the driver had finally understood what we wanted, he informed us that the gentleman that we were searching for had not gone very far: he had stopped a few blocks away at the Café Kaiserhof. And it seemed that the passenger had been anxious to get there as soon as possible, for in his haste he had left the sheath of a penknife with which he had used to open the letters.

We confiscated the sheath and made our rapid way towards the café and within minutes we were facing what seemed like another dead end. The headwaiter assured us that no one had entered the Kaiserhof in the last fifteen minutes. But having got this far we were not going to admit defeat without a struggle. We began asking questions, and, as chance would have it, a cab driver waiting outside was able to identify our man. A gentleman with a grey hat over his face had got out of one cab and immediately into another and had asked to be taken to Hotel Klomser.

At Hotel Klomser we asked the concierge to direct us to Herr Nizetas.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you, gentlemen,” he said, “we have no one staying with us by that name. And I can assure you that I always remember our visitors” names.”

“Has anyone come into the hotel in the last half hour?” asked Steidl.

“Yes, certainly – at least half a dozen persons have asked for their keys. We are a very busy – “

“We need the names of everyone who has entered the hotel in the last thirty minutes,” I commanded.

“Well, if it’s absolutely necessary…about half hour ago Herr Felsen asked for his keys, as well as two ladies. What were their names? Ah yes, there was Frau Kleinemann, who is the wife of Bank President Kleinemann, with Frau Lüchow, who is married to Director – “

“Forget the ladies,” I snapped, “– we’re just interested in the men.”

“I see. Well, after Felsen there was Herr Doctor Widener and Professor Zank and Colonel Redl…”

When Steidl and I heard that name we gave each other a significant look, but I was the first to recover my wits.

“Did you say Colonel Redl?”


“Colonel Alfred Redl?”

“I don’t understand why you find that surprising. Colonel Redl has stayed with us before. In fact, he always stays with us when he arrives from Prague and always in Room One.”

“Let’s talk to Redl,” Steidl suggested, “I’m sure he’ll be able to clear up this coincidence.”

I turned to Steidl and gave him a severe look. “We’re under strict instructions to consult no one except our contact at headquarters. Besides, we need to determine for ourselves whether Colonel Redl…”

I couldn’t finish the sentence.

Steidl and I stood gazing at each other for some time before we recovered our composure and made further enquiries of the concierge. We soon learned from him that Colonel Redl had entered the hotel in civilian clothes some fifteen minutes earlier, holding a grey hat in one hand. He had asked for his keys and gone up to his room. As the concierge assured us that Colonel Redl always dined out in the evenings, we decided to wait in the hotel lobby.

“When the Colonel comes down,” I instructed the concierge, “would you ask him if he has lost this knife sheath?”

An hour later, we spied the Colonel as he came down the stairs, dressed in his officer’s uniform and with a well-groomed moustache. As he handed his keys at reception the concierge carried out our orders.

“Good evening, Herr Colonel. Did you, by any chance, misplace your knife sheath?”

“Why yes, as a matter of fact, I was looking for it only a moment ago,” said Redl, reaching for the sheath.

At that moment, I witnessed the gesture that has haunted my life ever since. The Colonel’s hand hovered over the knife sheath like a bird of prey that senses a trap. All at once, he pulled back his hand as if he had been burned by the Trojan gift. He glanced at the concierge and swung round and swept the lobby with fearful eyes. Then, with bowed head, he walked out of the hotel.

“He didn’t take it,” said Steidl.

I shook my head. “His hand betrayed him. Colonel Redl is Herr Nizetas.”

Steidl and I realized that we had to act fast; a decision would have to be taken about Colonel Redl that same evening. And it was a painful decision for us to make. You see, Colonel Redl had trained us; he had made us what we were; he embodied all that was worthy and respectable about our profession. Colonel Redl had betrayed his country, yet Steidl and I experienced his betrayal as if it had been directed at our very souls. Thus, we contacted headquarters at eight o’clock and two hours later the course of history had been forged. When Colonel Redl returned from dinner and asked the concierge for his keys, he was approached by four men who requested to speak with him on an urgent matter.

I was one of those four men.

The Colonel invited us to his room and there we sat and discussed his dealings with Russian Intelligence. At first, he denied our accusations, speaking in an agitated fashion. But when I pulled the knife sheath from out of my jacket, I saw him turn pale and weak. Shortly before midnight Colonel Redl resigned himself to the inevitable: he admitted his guilt. We made it clear that in the interest of public morale and the honour of the military, it was imperative that his actions remained a secret. And so, we struck a deal: we promised to preserve his honourable name in exchange for his immediate signed confession and self-execution. Accordingly, we left the Colonel’s room at one in the morning, leaving a loaded revolver and his knife sheath on a small mahogany table by his side.

Twenty minutes later, the concierge brought me a confidential message in the form of a sheet of paper folded in a triangle and carried on a silver tray – it was from Redl. I read the message in the lobby and reflected on the wisdom of a private parley with the Colonel. At length, I made my way to Room One, knocked once and entered.

Colonel Redl was sitting in the armchair where I had left him. A cigarette was balanced delicately between the second and third fingers of his trembling left hand.

“What do you want?” I said, in a hostile tone.

“I want to warn you against the sin of pride, or, as the ancient Greeks called it – Hubris. I take it you have read Herodotus?”

“I didn’t have the privilege of a classical education.”

“In that case, let me refer you to Book One, Chapter Thirty-Two of The Histories. It’s the section in which Croesus, the king of Lydia, demands to know of Solon why he holds happiness in such contempt.”

Crushing his cigarette in an ashtray the Colonel continued, “And Solon replies that anyone who lives for a long time will sooner or later experience forces beyond his control. Placing the limit of a man’s life at seventy years, Solon calculates that such a life comes to 26,250 days.”

“Is there a point to your little history lesson?”

“Ah, spoken like a true Croesus. As a matter of fact, the point is plain for anyone to see: since no two days bring with them events that are exactly the same, it follows that human life is entirely determined by chance.”


“So, if I do not congratulate you for discovering my secret activities, it is because in this matter of spy against spy you have been favoured by a series of lucky breaks and nothing more.”

All at once, the Colonel leapt to his feet and shot me a defiant glance. He went on, “If you want to know how I feel about this moment, in which I stand at the brink of the end – I feel relieved. Yes, relieved that I no longer have to live like a hunted animal. Oh, I behaved foolishly – like a gambler on a winning streak who keeps betting, all along knowing that it cannot last. Well, if there is one lesson that spying has taught me, it is that the individual is always crushed in the end.”

“Herr Colonel, I was under the impression that you called me to make one last request.”

“Yes, that is still my intention. I want you to give me your word of honour that you will do all you can to defend my good name.”

“But – we have already agreed on this!”

“We have made a formal agreement – that is correct. But I do not trust the other officers who came here tonight. I trust you Ebinger, and I’m asking you for the sake of our old friendship if you will give me your word of honour to preserve my reputation as an Imperial Officer.”

We were standing close to each other; I could feel Redl's breath; I saw the faint quiver of his lower lip and – I gave my word of honour. No sooner had I made my promise than a strange, elusive feeling of disquietude assailed my being. But I could not give this emotion a name.

Suddenly, the Colonel thrust an object into my hands and said, “I believe this belongs to you now.”

I saw to my horror that he had forced the knife sheath into my grasp. I looked up at him and there, written on his countenance, was an expression I had never seen before, but one that I now recognize as infinite despair. Then, with brutal swiftness he grabbed me by the shoulder with one hand – with the other he flung open the door – then he hurled me into the hallway.

I heard the slam of the door and the click of the lock.

Several hours later, and shortly before sunrise, a shot rang out from Room One: Colonel Redl had kept his side of the bargain.



If you had bought the Neue Freie Presse on Monday, May 26 1913, you would have perused on its front page a series of articles discussing the tension between Serbia and Bulgaria, as well as a long and detailed account of the wedding ceremony of Kaiser Wilhelm’s daughter to Prince Ernst August von Braunschweig. But you would have had to turn the page to read the short paragraph announcing Colonel Redl’s death from a gunshot to the mouth. The Colonel was described as a talented officer on the verge of a great career; a man who had gained popularity in the military; but a man who had been suffering from mental overexertion and severe neurasthenia. There were no other details – not even the name of the hotel where he had met his end.

I wish I could tell you that the story of Colonel Redl’s treachery ended in this quiet manner. It had been my intention to spread a mantle of respectability over Redl’s painful deeds. It is my great regret that there was one event I overlooked; if my attention had not wavered for that critical moment, the course of history would have flowed along a different path. This is how it happened.

I had left the Colonel’s room at about two o’clock, but hours went by before he swallowed the fatal bullet. In that time, the Colonel must have paced his room and looked back upon his life. When a man surveys his life he oftentimes reflects on the persons he has loved. Our love is embodied in the objects that we treasure and seek to preserve from the ravages of time: letters, photographs, gifts. In those silent hours between our ultimate conversation and his death, Colonel Redl brought forth the private embodiments of his many loves and left them for the world to see.

At sunrise and in another part of the city, a locksmith named Hans Wagner was preparing to play halfback for the Club Sturm soccer team against another amateur team, the Club Union Holleschowitz. But the match was scheduled to take place a hundred and thirty miles northwest of Vienna. Wagner was about to leave his home and make his way to the Westbahnhof when a convoy of soldiers arrived at his front door and commanded him to accompany them to Hotel Klomser. Having gathered his tools, he was thrown into a military car and driven at an unprecedented speed across Vienna to the hotel where I was standing guard to Room One.

“Force the lock,” I said to Wagner when he arrived, “but be quick and do as little damage as possible.”

He was an efficient little man this Hans Wagner, for he forced the lock with a minimum of effort and at lightning speed. I was the first to dash into the room; the first to see the lifeless body of the man who had been my mentor; I was the first to glimpse the secret current of Redl’s past – for scattered across the room were bizarre objects: heavily-perfumed garments, photographs depicting men in erotic poses, hair dyes, scents, cosmetics and letters – love letters – that revealed all. I gave orders to my men to remove the body and commanded the concierge to gather the strange objects littered about the room into one bundle. On everyone I impressed the need for secrecy.

Suddenly, a vague feeling of something-not-quite-right began to oppress me.

“Where’s Wagner?” I asked a soldier standing at the door.

“He’s gone, Sir.”

“Why did you let him leave?”

“We only brought him to break the lock. I thought – “

“You blundering fool!” I cried.

I plunged out of the room, raced down the stairs and out into the street – Wagner had vanished. Would he speak about what he had seen? I reassured myself that even if he were to reveal what he had witnessed, it would never amount to more than a cheap rumour.

The next day Wagner paid a visit to Egon Kisch, the captain of the Club Sturm soccer team, and gave his apologies for having missed the match. He also surrendered an explanation for his absence. Kisch was in a foul mood, for Club Sturm, a strong team and the favourite to win, had lost to the challengers and Kisch waved the blame at Wagner. At first, Kisch threatened to throw Wagner out of his office, but as the locksmith insisted in giving his account of the strange call-out to Hotel Klomser, the captain gradually became pacified.

To Wagner’s surprise, Kisch extracted a notebook from his jacket and began taking copious notes and asking questions.

“So, the man who shot himself was in uniform?”

“Yes. It was an officer’s uniform. You know: sky-blue with gold choke collar, three stars…”

“A Colonel! Wait a moment…” said Kisch, flicking through the pages of the Neue Freie Presse.

Kisch was a shrewd investigator and it didn’t take long for him to gather the pieces of this mystery. True, he couldn’t be sure that the man who had died at Hotel Klomser was Colonel Redl, but Kisch was also a professional journalist and he knew how to tease the truth out of the most unpromising materials. Realizing that Redl’s obituary was a carefully crafted narrative lie, he wrote his own very subversive account and published it in a Berlin newspaper. Before long, questions were being raised at all levels, like hound dogs in pursuit of an elusive fox.

Three days later, on May 29 1913, the War Ministry was forced to print a new official statement of events in the Military Review: Colonel Redl had been in severe financial difficulties for several years because of his outlandish homosexual activities. Moreover, Austrian Intelligence could now confirm that Colonel Redl had sold official secret information to a foreign power.

The revelation that Colonel Redl had betrayed his country sent scandal scurrying through every echelon and corner of the military; and shame descended on the Austrian nation like the plagues of biblical lore. In time, it became apparent that Redl’s career as a spy for Russia had extended some ten years and that his name would be chiselled into the pantheon of the greatest traitors that history would ever know. Egon Kisch's ruthless investigations uncovered the horrific facts that Redl had informed the Russians of Austria’s military designs on Serbia; that he had given false accounts of Russia’s military plans to the Austrian generals; and that all these actions had brought death to hundreds of thousands of Austrians.

I could supply you with the names of those who were crushed under the weight of this national disaster, from Redl’s lover, Lieutenant Stefan Hromadka, who was found guilty of unnatural sexual practices, to Colonel von Urbanski, chief of the Intelligence Bureau, who was forced to take early retirement. What matters are not the minor casualties that swept the military but the verdict that history would pronounce if my story ever came to light; for if there was one person who could have spared Austria the moral catastrophe that Colonel Redl had set in motion, that person was none other than Detective Sergeant Ebinger.

In recognition of my guilt I have carried Colonel Redl’s knife sheath with me all these long years and I carry it still. I know you have been watching me; now and then you have caught me looking at some object that I pull from out of my jacket. No, it’s not a book, not a wallet, not a diary. It’s a battered piece of leather in worn-out beige and despite its age you can still distinguish the letter R stamped in red on its back. I carried that knife sheath on the day I offered my resignation in June 1913 – a resignation that was rejected. An Imperial order arrived granting me unlimited leave to reflect upon my decision and after months of wandering the gloomy streets of Vienna, I left home never to return.

Of my life from that day forth there is not a single event worthy of recounting; I have travelled the continent like the Wandering Jew of legend. As for Redl’s knife sheath, it is the only material possession that links me to Austria’s past; it is the sole remaining visible manifestation of the person I once was. And now, as I approach the end of my story, I fear you might extend me a word of kindness; that you might attempt to appease my guilt; or that you might wield logic to demonstrate that Austria’s downfall was not my doing. I beg you – do not speak! Still, I have one last request to make of you: that you sit here with me a moment longer. The sun will soon be climbing over that mountain peak – there – and the light, you’ll see, will dart across the lake, painting red and orange waves in a conflagration of startling beauty, the kind of beauty that jolts the soul into forgetfulness. Perhaps I may forget my tragic past for a breath or two; and together we may forget that beyond the mountains war still rages.

* * *

George Berguño was born in Princeton, New Jersey; and grew up in Virginia. He has lived and worked in many countries, including Chile, France, England, Austria and Russia. He has published extensively in a wide variety of forms, from academic articles on psychology and philosophy to short stories, narrative nonfiction and personal essays. As a writer of fiction George is particularly fond of writing historical-fantastic tales in the tradition of Herodotus, Leo Perutz, Danilo Kiš, Jorge Luis Borges and Ryunosuke Akutagawa. George’s debut collection of short stories, The Sons of Ishmael, was published by Ex Occidente Press in 2010. This was followed by a second collection, The Exorcist's Travelogue, also published by Ex Occidente Press in 2011.