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Cultures of Intelligence – How nations see their intelligence agencies

Prof. Dr. Sönke Neitzel

Prof. Dr. Sönke Neitzel. Photo: Thomas Roese

The first spy novel was published in 1903. “The Riddle of the Sands” by Irish author Robert Erskine Childers is the story of a young Englishman who thinks he is being invited to go duck hunting at the German Baltic Sea. He and a former classmate are instead supposed to map the terrain for the United Kingdom, given that the Germans seem to be planning a war against the British. The novel’s initial publication excited more than just literature enthusiasts; the British Admiralty supposedly established three naval bases, and the German Empire removed a stone wall near Norddeich to prevent the British from taking cover behind it in case of war. 

The research project “Cultures of Intelligence” analyzes the connections between pop culture representations of intelligence agencies, and their actual practices. “We focus on the cultural-historical discourse in literature, film, and mass media,” says military historian Prof. Sönke Neitzel. The project also offers insight into the unique features of intelligence cultures in Germany, the UK and the US. Since 2012, the research group has been investigating the development of military intelligence agencies from 1880/90 to 1947.Three PhD students are using cultural records to compile the specific national characteristics of this time. The Gerda Henkel Foundation has extended the research project’s funding for another year.

The modern intelligence service system emerges

“Secret service is the world’s second oldest profession,” says Neitzel. Although secret coded information was communicated as far back as antiquity, knowledge was limited before globalization. Until the 19th century, individual experts gathered specific information for emperors and chancellors. According to Neitzel, modern intelligence agencies resulted from the profound changes brought about by industrialization. “Modern intelligence structures came into being as the steamship, telegraph, and mass media began making the world tangible at the end of the 19th century.” Intelligence agencies had to technologize and to professionalize to keep pace with the explosion of knowledge and were thus tasked with collecting, analyzing, and exploiting information.

Research has shown that there are indeed nationally specific intelligence cultures. The US clearly lagged behind in the initial development stage; only during the Second World War did it begin concentrating on it. “American intelligence really only took off upon entering the war in 1941,” Neitzel says. After the war, the US actually founded central agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as non-military, civil institutions. At the same time, dozens of secret service agencies were being established, albeit with a weak central command. As a result, the various intelligence agencies still sometimes compete with each other rather than collaborating.

The British, on the other hand, were secret service pioneers and Neitzel sustains the view that “nowhere else is espionage as popular as in Great Britain”. A former head of MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) once referred to his Cold War espionage activities as “great fun”. The British, according to Neitzel, developed their own form of showmanship regarding intelligence; espionage was – and remains – elegant and “cool”.

Germany, however, has a “non-intelligence” culture. “Spies are un-German” is a topos in public discourse. The German intelligence agency is considered technically excellent abroad, but the British have repeatedly circulated rumors that Germans are incapable of keeping secrets. “Consequently, spy novels are virtually irrelevant in Germany,” Neitzel explains. The few that were written are considered trashy novels. “Spy Today – Die Tomorrow” starring Lex Barker – the only film about the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) from the 1960s – flopped. “Germans prefer watching James Bond.” A popular espionage culture failed to take off in Germany during the German Empire and between the world wars. Neitzel speculates that pop culture probably only discovered the topic of “secret service” during the Cold War. “Further research on post-1947 would be necessary to confirm this thesis,” says Neitzel. In this respect, continuing the research project would make a lot of sense.

Behind intelligence lies national military culture

“British intelligence is embedded in a broader culture,” says the historian. Espionage literature is read in colleges, and intelligence is part of general cultural education. In Germany, however, novels like Ernst Jünger’s In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel) are among the canon on war, but there is certainly nothing on intelligence. Neitzel deduces various military-cultural “footprints” from this: German warfare sought out decisive battles like against France at Sedan in 1870. It was about the probation of “man” in combat. The British, on the other hand, traditionally waged long wars and favored blockades in their many confrontations with the French. “Great Britain used indirect warfare. In Germany, you received military recognition for lying in the trenches.” Germany’s obsession with the perfect battle actually continued until the Cold War. A successful career in the German military required the commanding of forces, whereas in Britain, this could also be achieved in intelligence. “The British thought of wars as more complex than the Germans did,” so Neitzel. This also reflects the organization of the general staff: British military culture prioritized logistics (the distribution of material and human resources), followed by intelligence and operation (i.e. the leadership of the frontline troops). German generals, however, rated these areas completely differently, prioritizing operations, then logistics, and finally intelligence. Neitzel and his fellow researchers assume that military traditions developed both within the military as well as externally. Explaining this relationship methodologically, however, is difficult. “While we are able to describe the discourse, proving an interaction between society and the military is extremely difficult.”

Intelligence agencies between collection and analysis

Whereas British spies and agents diligently write memoirs, this is uncommon in Germany. Although Reinhard Gehlen, founding president of the BND, published his memories in the book Der Dienst, his work did not have widespread impact. Germans learned that they had been wiretapped long after the end of the First World War from memoirs of British spies. With the information explosion of the 19th century, the targeted collection and production of knowledge became increasingly important for national policy. The handling of collected information remains problematic, as shown by the wiretapping techniques of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. “The research project is, therefore, more topical than we initially thought.”

Whether an intelligence agency only collects information or also uses this information to write reports representing the interests of state institutions varies from country to country. “The British are mainly collectors; the BND both collects and evaluates.” Which reports Chancellor Angela Merkel ultimately reads is, of course, unknown. Being a "knowledge taker” does not mean you have to be interested in every single intercepted radio message. Stalin initially did not believe intelligence information about a German attack that did indeed happen in 1941. Policymakers ultimately believe what they wish to, choosing certain information and disregarding other. Thus Neitzel emphasizes that no intelligence agency can predict the future or is able look into the mind of Putin or Assad. A few years ago, the BND actually predicted the fall of Assad. “No intelligence agency can answer such questions,” says Neitzel. For the military historian, though, one thing is certain. “How policy translates intelligence into action also depends on a country’s culture.” The German public is “glaringly ignorant” about what an intelligence agency is and what it does. As a result, there are very few intelligence experts in Germany. In contrast, you can earn a degree in “Intelligence Studies” in the UK and the US.

Neitzel’s project on intelligence services resulted from his research on POW (prisoners of war) interrogations; studying transcripts of secret British and American wiretappings of captured German military personnel. In the eyes of Professor Neitzel, the “British were extremely successful in making the Germans ‘sing’”. This raised the question of why the Germans were unable to do the same. The Germans even bugged their own interrogators – and not the interrogated. The historian asked British colleagues how they see this discrepancy. The British said that it was clear to them that Germany’s intelligence apparatus was not a shining beacon, citing the 1917 “Zimmermann Telegram”. This carelessly sent message was easily intercepted by British intelligence and contained “juicy” details of a proposed military alliance with Mexico, should the US enter the war. Speaking with his British colleagues led Neitzel to ask whether there is proof of a less pronounced culture of intelligence in Germany than there is in the UK. The Professor retains high hopes for the project: “Historians can contribute to recognizing problems in intelligence, which can have profound implications for politics.”

The Researcher

Prof. Sönke Neitzel studied Medieval and Modern History, Journalism, and Political Sciences at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. He taught and researched at the universities of Mainz, Glasgow, Karlsruhe, Bern, Saarbrücken and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Since October 2015, he has been Professor of Military History/Cultural History of Violence at the University of Potsdam.


Universität Potsdam 
Historisches Institut 
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
E-Mail: soenke.neitzel@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de 

The Project

Cultures of Intelligence: Research Project on Military Intelligence Services in Germany, Great Britain, and the USA, 1900–1947
Supervised by: Prof. Sönke Neitzel, University of Potsdam; Prof. Philipp Gassert, University of Mannheim, Prof. Andreas Gestrich, German Historical Institute LondonFunding: Gerda Henkel StiftungDuration: 2012–2016

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Daniela Großmann
Contact for the editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de