More than 7,000 secret agents and spies are currently working in Vienna, more than in any other city, according to a new book by Austrian investigative journalist Emil Bobi.
Bobi believes the city is popular with spies because “if something strange happens that cannot be explained, and if diplomatic complications and espionage are at play, then it’s just accepted as the Austrian way,” he told the ORF.
His book Die Schattenstadt (The Void) addresses the question of why the Austrian capital became a stronghold for international agents, long before 9/11.
He claims that foreign secret agents hold important positions in embassies, international organisations and corporations in the city – but that they are only here for the purpose of acquiring and transmitting secret information.
He says that Austria’s state police are aware of this, but do nothing to stop it. Spying is only punishable by law in Austria if it is aimed directly at Austria. If foreign governments wish to spy on other foreign states in Vienna that is perfectly legal.
Recently reports emerged suggesting that a US spy who worked for German foreign intelligence had been meeting with CIA agents at the US embassy in Vienna.
Former police officers and politicians, as well as cabaret artists and psychoanalysts are employed as agents, Bobi claims.
Siegfried Beer, director of the Austrian Centre for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies, at the University of Graz, agrees that there are at least 7,000 agents based in Vienna, working in embassies and international organizations.
Bobi says that one reason spies feel so comfortable in Vienna is that “the so-called real Viennese operate in the private sector in the same way as intelligence agencies do.”
“Spies love being sent to work in Vienna, because of the high quality of life, and its geographical location. Some even return here once they retire,” he added.
Austria has been an international spy hub since the late 19th Century, when people from all parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire flocked to the city.
Bobi says that the Viennese are steeped in a culture of espionage. “In the market places and streets one could hear more than 40 languages. The Viennese were always busy getting to know strangers and trying to figure out what they wanted.”
The disintegration of Austria-Hungary and the political turmoil in Central Europe after World War I led to more and more secret services basing themselves in Vienna.