Cultures of Intelligence: Military Intelligence Services in Germany, GB, and the USA, 1855-1947 (Britain, 1918-1947)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of History


The proposed research constitutes the twentieth-century British node of a broader Anglo-German project pioneering an innovative approach to the study of intelligence. The first phase of the official history of British intelligence was marked by the release of Sir Harry Hinsley's multi-volume history of British intelligence in the Second World War. We reached the second phase of institutional history in 2010 with the release of the official histories of SIS and the Security Service. Intelligence history has been marked by an analytical concern with institutions, 'intelligence failure', 'intelligence success' and the quantification of the relative importance of intelligence for politics and military operations. Intelligence history has not, however, always been linked to wider developments in modern historiography, specifically the 'cultural turn'. Intelligence history has developed either along national lines, 'British intelligence' etc., or through the study of international intelligence alliances, e.g. the UK-USA alliance. Britain is an acknowledged leader in intelligence history and supports a vibrant community of scholars. Other countries, specifically Germany, in the opinion of the German project collaborators, lag behind. There is thus room for an approach that stresses two relatively new elements in intelligence history: the study of intelligence 'culture'; and the comparative study of unallied intelligence cultures, and the transnational links between them. The project will interrogate whether there are distinctive national intelligence cultures. It will ask whether the intelligence field, by its very functioning, creates the 'secret service disposition' without which it could not function. It will further interrogate the existence of specific national habitats, the durable set of cognitive and affective dispositions rooted in early socialization, the characteristic ways of moving, speaking, and interacting with others that create and sustain the immediate complicity within a culture. National intelligence cultures will be compared in an analysis of transnational culture. The comparison of national cultures will open up the possibility that there is, in fact, an intelligence 'game', constituting an objective transnational complicity which underlies all antagonisms. The project team maintain that human intelligence provides the best vehicle for such a study. Thanks, in part, to popular history a binary divide has opened up between the study of scientific intelligence, particularly signals intelligence and its variants, and human intelligence. The latter is often portrayed as more amateurish and less important than the former. Nothing could be further from the truth. German historians have recently demonstrated that human intelligence itself developed into a scientific pursuit over the course of the twentieth-century. Using the example of Prisoner-of-War interrogations they have demonstrated that human intelligence became more massified, more technological and more scientific during the first half of the century. Yet human intelligence could never dispense with the 'ghost in the machine'. It was marked by constant interaction between officers, agents, archivists, scientists, doctors, interrogators, prisoners, journalists, wider society. In other words the study human intelligence provides the classic building blocks for the study of culture. The project team have developed a six-fold matrix with which to analyse intelligence. It comprises a vertical analysis of: a) public discourses on military intelligence; b) the public treatment of military intelligence by experts; and, c) the discourse within the military, and military praxis, that is, the exchange of opinions within the apparatuses. The horizontal axis comprises: a) the place of the secret services in society and the military; b) personification, and c) the types of knowledge that the intelligence services were interested in, and their sources of information.

Planned Impact

1. The intelligence services of the UK and other friendly powers. The research comprises a meta-analysis of the conduct of intelligence operations in the past. It thus constitutes a tool for self-understanding by intelligence professionals. The researchers stand entirely outside the intelligence community: they are not co-dependent in the fashion of applied researchers or official historians. The research will benefit the 'strategic spy' who wishes to understand his or her field beyond questions of professional practice, the intelligence cycle or intelligence failure.

2. The UK media. Journalists and commentators are called upon to analyse and comment on intelligence on a daily basis. By the nature of this endeavour intelligence tends to be understood in binary terms, e.g. commentators/practioners, failure/success. This research will offer a different perspective that is neverthless useable for producers and journalists. The PI can offer an example from a previous phase of research. In November 2009 BBC Radio 4's investigative series Document broadcast a programme Britain's use of torture in the Second World War. Its investigation centred on the career of Edinburgh University professor, Alexander Kennedy. In 1960 Kennedy made a speech at the Royal Institution on the subject of 'brainwashing'. He discussed techniques for using sensory deprivation and 'truth drugs' to break a prisoner. Kennedy's words stirred a controversy in the press and parliament, culminating in the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, denying to the House of Commons that Britain had ever indulged in such techniques.The programme makers did not believe Macmillan but all their interviewees from the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (Middle East) denied all knowledge of Kennedy and his methods. The PI was able to identify Kennedy as a member of SIME - Security Intelligence Middle East, a little-known joint venture between the armed forces and the Security Service, and thus to produced the files relating to his activities. This identification rested on a knowledge of the complex culture of intelligence in wartime Cairo, a complexity that often eludes non-specialists. There were many military human intelligence agencies at any one time. They overlapped, metamorphosed and shared personnel.

3. UK Museums. The PI works closely with the National War Museums of Scotland, particularly the National War Museum, Edinburgh Castle. The museum has put on a number of successful temporary exhibitions on UK special forces, for example Commando Country. The work of scientific human intelligence, involving or affecting Scots, could form the basis for a future exhibit.


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Title Cultures of Intelligence/Gerda Henkel Stiftung 
Description AHRC Cultures of Intelligence research project on film Published: 23 January 2015 The School of History's AHRC-funded Cultures of Intelligence research project has a German partner project - also called Cultures of Intelligence - funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. In the autumn of 2014 The Gerda Henkel Foundation commissioned Peter Prestel Filmproduktion of Eichstätt ( to make a documentary series about Cultures of Intelligence. The Gerda Henkel filmmakers visited the University of Leeds to film extensive interviews with the Leeds project team. The resulting documentary series combined location shooting in Berlin, London and Leeds, archival footage and interviews with the investigators, postgrads and post-docs. The series eventually comprised nine episodes. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact The documentary series was publicly released by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung via L.I.S.A - Das Wissenschaftsportal der Gerda Henkel Stiftung. The documentary assists the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, as a not-for-profit foundation under German private law, in its core mission to visibly promote science by supporting specific projects in the field of humanities that have a defined specialist scope. In recent years the Foundation has also increasingly prioritised issues of great relevance to contemporary life and the future, as part of its mission. ( 
Description The research has demonstrated the extraordinary richness of intelligence archives available in public repositories. The investigation into the cultures of intelligence yields a set of systematic insights that differ from those offered by investigations into specific bureaucracies or operations. The stress is shifted to the wealth of information rather than the many well-publicised gaps in the archival record.

The research has been taking place in partnership with a parallel project in Germany (Mainz, Mannheim, Potsdam). Comparison of findings suggests that British intelligence culture - rather than German intelligence culture - was the outlier. The projects will investigate and develop this theme in two publications: The Secret History is under contract to McGill-Queen's University Press; Cultures of Intelligence will be published as a GHIL/OUP book with thirteen contributors.
Exploitation Route An element of the underlying research will serve as a guide for any researcher in the intelligence field. The research team has had to work on a 'road map' of the intersections between intelligence bureaucracies, having found that one did not exist.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description Research findings will form the basis of an Impact Case to be submitted by the University of Leeds for REF 2021. More details to follow.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Cultures of Intelligence Workshop, 9-11 June 2016 
Organisation German Historical Institute London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am co-organizer of the workshop. The AHRC research fellow is a workshop participant
Collaborator Contribution The German Historical Institute London is funding all elements of the workshop including travel, accommodation, hospitality and facilities.
Impact None as yet. The intention is generate an edited volume.
Start Year 2016
Description Workshop 
Organisation German Historical Institute London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The PI was co-convener of the workshop along with the PIs of the parallel Gerda Henkel Foundation Cultures of Intelligence project (Neitzel, Gassert and Gestrich). The workshop was a three-day detailed investigation of the state of play in intelligence culture by a quadrinational team. The PI and the Postdoctoral Researcher gave papers. The PI acted as chairman for some sessions.
Collaborator Contribution The workshop was financed in its entirety by the GHIL. GHIL provided three nights of accommodation in central London for thirty participants, all travel, lunches and dinners. The GHI provided all the facilities for the conference. GHI administrative staff provided all admin support during the organisation and running of the workshop.
Impact The workshop led to a book proposal for a collection in the GHIL/OUP series. The proposal was accepted by OUP in March 2016, articles are now in progress. Cultures of Intelligence in the era of the World Wars Proposal for a collection ed. by Prof Simon Ball (University of Leeds), Prof Philipp Gassert (University of Mannheim), Prof Andreas Gestrich (GHI London), Prof Sönke Neitzel (University of Potsdam) Trent Park was one of the major British Intelligence successes of the Second World War. Thousands of Axis PoW were secretly bugged in this picturesque mansion north of London. The Germans revealed secret and highly sensitive information to the British. The Germans tried to run a similar bugging information but it was damp squib in comparison to British successes. British interrogators seemed to genuinely enjoy the challenge of bleeding prisoners dry of information: the German intelligence officers regarded bugging as a minor and unprofitable distraction. One possible explanation for the difference in HUMINT performance was that the Germans could do everything but intelligence, while the British were particularly good at intelligence. This is a long-standing question. Wilhelm, Ritter von Thoma, the commander of the Afrika Korps, wondered in 1942, why the 'English', unlike the Germans, seemed to have their best people, 'first-rate brains and education, in addition to a very good knowledge of languages', on intelligence duty. The stereotype has endured both in popular culture and in academia. Even if a closer look at the history of both World Wars rebut some legends about British successes, it is obvious that Germany lost the intelligence war in the first part of the 20th century: was operational success or failure a consequence of different cultural understanding of intelligence? Beyond national romanticisations, it is evident that all of the Great Powers were confronted at the turn of the 19th/20th century by the same challenges of the information era: how should a modern society efficiently generate and disseminate knowledge out of a seemingly unmanageable ocean of information? Although major successes and spectacular failures happened on all sides before, during and after the World Wars, the Great Powers developed very different approaches to running their intelligence services. The forms of organisation, the structures and aims of the services varied considerably as did the public debates about intelligence. All these factors contributed to constitute distinctive cultures of intelligence. With proper investigation the nature of these intelligence cultures might be distilled from the flow of intelligence operations. The relationship between culture and performance may be further reified. The component parts of this collection deal - amongst others - with the role of politics, law, bureaucracy, inter-service rivalry, civil-military relations, public discourse and professional debates. The latter are of particular interest since discourse and debate generated the cultural capital of intelligence. In Germany for example, spy novels were never important, and few members of the intelligence services wrote memoirs. The cultural capital of the German intelligence services was always low. It was much higher in France and in Great Britain, although those two powers had very different intelligence cultures. This collection goes beyond the standard Anglo-American approach to intelligence. The collection investigates the four major western intelligence cultures: Britain, the USA, France and Germany. This four-nation investigation is the basis for comparative conclusions. The quadripartite approach makes it is possible to tease out the differences, overlaps and mutual interactions of the four major international players. It is also possible to discern that the key variable was not democracy or dictatorship. The three democratic intelligence cultures were very different. Rather than American intelligence culture being an outgrowth of Anglosphere at war it demonstrated marked similarities with France and Germany. In many ways Britain was the exception from the rule. The most striking manifestation of British particularism was the clear dominance of civilian authorities: in the other powers the the military dominated the intelligence. It is even possible to speak of a British Intelligence Sonderweg. The cultural differences between the intelligence services were already visible by the First World War. The performance of the services was, however, more similar than is commonly thought between the 1890s and the early 1940. Intelligence grew significantly everywhere as war became increasingly high-tech; and became more differentiated as more complex tasks had to be solved. The spectacular divergence of intelligence culture only became truly apparent in the middle years of the Second World War. The German services then found their cultural limits becoming truly debilitating. The cultural capital generated in various ways by the allies allowed intelligence without limits. Neither the German armed forces nor German society had a cultural understanding of how a complex and efficient intelligence system would be possible. Accordingly, German intelligence performance in the second half of WW II was low, not only did the Germans fail to master complex human intelligence systems they did not even try to tackle the challenge of cracking machine cyphers. The timespan of the investigation runs from the late 19th century, when the first modern (military) intelligence services were founded, until the early Cold War marked the end of the first phase of the development of intelligence services as an important part of the state apparatus. The essays in the book are based on papers delivered and intensively debated over a three-day meeting, held at the GHIL in June 2016. The starting point for the debate was two linked research projects, Cultures of Intelligence: Military Intelligence Services in Britain, 1918-1947, funded by the AHRC, and run by Simon Ball, and Kulturen der Intelligence: Ein Forschungsprojekt zur Geschichte der militärischen Nachrichtendienste in Deutschland, Großbritannien und den USA, 1900 - 1947, run by Andreas Gestrich, Philipp Gassert and Sönke Neitzel, and funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung. Table of Contents 1. Introduction United Kingdom: Was there a British Intelligence Sonderweg? 2. British Intelligence in Ireland, 1900-1916 Jérme aan de Wiel, University of Cork 3. Secret Histories: Writing for Power and Influence Simon Ball, University of Leeds 4. A 'British Way in Warfare' and the Modern Concept of Intelligence - Professional Discourses on Intelligence in the British Military Periodicals 1919-1939 Michael Rupp, University of Potsdam 5. The impact of the Colonial Experience on British Intelligence, 1914-1945 Alan Macleod, University of Leeds 6. Jewish religious and cultural approaches to intelligence in Britain's Palestine Mandate Slomo Shpiro, Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv 7. Culture, adaption and change in British intelligence in the transition from world war to Cold War Huw Dylan, Kings College 8. The Man from AUNTIE: Documenting intelligence on the BBC Christopher Murphy, University of Salford US intelligence: An outgrowth of the "Anglosphere at war"? 9. America's Turn toward Internationalism and shifting Discourses on Intelligence Philipp Gassert, University of Mannheim 10. Bureaucratization vs. Publication of the Secret: American Intelligence, Politics and the Media 1914-1947 Bernhard Sassmann, University of Mannheim 11. The OSS Field Photographic Unit: How the OSS used Culture Simon Willmetts, University of Hull 12. Cultures of Leaking: Disclosures of American Empire' Kaeten Mistry , University of East Anglia 13. 'Best Citizens of the Community'? American Intelligence Cultures before the CIA  Mark Stout, John Hopkins University France: A "democratic" model of intelligence services on the continent? 14. Political culture and intelligence structures in France and Britain between the World Wars Peter Jackson, University of Glasgow 15. French Intelligence Culture 1930 to 1962 Martin Thomas, University of Exeter: 16. Villains, Liars, Heroes and Patriots: Espionage, Warfare, and the Politics of Emotion in fin-de-siècle France Deborah Bauer, Indiana University, Fort Wayne Germany: Cultural roots of low performance intelligence services 17. On honour and spies: Civil and military discourses on intelligence in Germany, 1871-1945 Frederik Müllers, University of Potsdam 18. The Evolution of the All-Source Military Intelligence System in Germany, 1890-1918 Markus Pöhlmann, ZMSBw Potsdam 19. Typically German? Working methods of Hitler's military intelligence Magnus Pahl, MHM Dresden *** Conclusion 20. Was there a national culture of intelligence? Sönke Neitzel, University of Potsdam
Start Year 2012