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Research Trends

Celebrity Suicide of a Pre-World War I Spy

Colonel Redl and the Werther Effect

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000762

Abstract.Background: Alfred Redl, a colonel in the Imperial and Royal General Staff and Deputy Director of Military Intelligence for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a leading figure of pre-World War I spying. The "spy of the century," as he has been called, died by suicide in Vienna on May 25, 1913. It was a big news story based on espionage, sex, and betrayal. Aim: We aimed to test whether this celebrity suicide elicited an increase in suicides – a phenomenon consistent with the "Werther effect." Method: Given daily suicide numbers were not available, we conducted archival research. Civil death registers for the city of Vienna were used to identify suicides before and after Redl's suicide. Results: The analysis indicated that more people died by suicide in the immediate aftermath and that the quantity of news reporting on Colonel Redl predicted the number of suicides per day – a pattern that is consistent with the Werther effect. Limitations: Causal interpretations are limited. Conclusion: Given the fact that the "Redl affair" is relevant for many scientific disciplines, we discuss multiple contributions to suicide research, history, media research, and research on intelligence and counter-intelligence.

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