Here's the story behind the spy story

By all indications, my recent column about the Colonel Alfred Redl Affair, the espionage tale that rocked the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, “hit the spot.” So many of my readers wanted to know how and when did I learn about Egon Ervin Kish’s exploits, and about how he broke the story as a young reporter.

A reader, in a note to the Last Word wrote, “What happened to the talkative locksmith who blabbed after being sworn to secrecy? Please, Mr. Shatz, tell us!”

As far as I know, nothing happened to the locksmith. The Empire was too busy to clean up the mess caused by Kish’s revelation and the locksmith escaped retaliation.

I have learned the details about Kish’s involvement in breaking the Redl story straight from the horse mouth. It was told to me by Kish himself during an interview at his luxurious villa at the Barrandov district of Prague.

By the time I met Kish in 1947, he was an internationally known writer with more than 30 books to his name, who fashioned himself as the “raging reporter.” He was regarded as one of the most outstanding journalist of the 20th century and was credited with defining reportage as a form of literary art.

“Accuracy of observation and fidelity to facts, combined with creative narrative, defined Kish’s writing,” noted one critic.

But it was not the only attribute that was assigned to Kish. He was known to be deeply committed to decency and justice. After studying journalism in Berlin, he returned to Prague in early 1900 and became a police reporter. He wrote muckraking features that explored Prague’s underworld.

Then, by sheer chance, he got his first major scoop. It was the story behind the sensational forced suicide of Colonel Alfred Redl, the former chief of the counter-intelligence service of the Austro-Hungarian army. A homosexual, Redl had been blackmailed into spying for Czarist Russia.

At the onset of World War I, Kish was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. He was wounded in action, kept a diary of the misery of war and was radicalized. In 1918, he participated as a Red Guard in the failed Communist putsch in Vienna.

Journalism having been his lifeblood, he settled in Berlin, Weimar Germany, and traveled all over the world. In 1924, his book, “The Raging Reporter,” became a bestseller. He visited North Africa, Central Asia, the Soviet Union, China and the United States. Here, he traveled around the coasts as an ordinary seaman and made friends with Charlie Chaplin and Upton Sinclair.

He fashioned himself in the image of a 20th-century, reporter-adventurer who also became a political activist. He joined the Communist Party and volunteered for the republican forces during the Spanish Civil war.

While serving as an anti-war activist, using his unique style, dramatic life and choice of subjects, he wrote books. In one, he described his search for the legendary Golem, in Prague’s Old New Synagogue.

According to Jewish folklore, the Prague Golem was constructed by Rabbi Low in the form of a human being and brought to life by magic means. He created the Golem to protect the Jewish ghetto during anti-Semitic riots. The Golem was seen as the prototype for the robot.

Kish lived to see Nazism defeated and in 1946, returned to his birthplace a hero

I was a contributor to an international news agency based in Vienna and was assigned to interview him. Our conversations produced several feature stories that were published in magazines all over Europe.

To my astonishment, Kish, the world famous journalist, wanted me bring him copies of each published article; he always needed affirmation of his fame.

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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