The World's Second-Oldest Profession

Mata Hari
Dutch dancer Mata Hari was executed on charges of spying for Germany in 1917 (Photo: Collection Viollet/AFP-Getty Images).

Historians often debate the impact of the individual on history. An equally fascinating question concerns the historic role of secret services and their operations, whether in Hannibal’s campaign or during the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. After all, espionage is said to be the world’s second oldest profession.

How would the course of  World War II have been altered if a group of remarkable analysts had not happened to find itself at the headquarters of the German Land Forces in the fall of 1939? At that moment, having captured Poland, Hitler ordered the attack on the western front in the spring of 1940, to the horror of generals aware of France’s dominance over Germany. Their conviction that the attack would end in defeat was well-grounded: France had more planes and tanks, as well as the Maginot line [a series of fortifications along the French-German and French-Belgian borders] and excellent agents in Germany, while the Abwehr [German military intelligence] network in France had just been broken up. Had computers existed then, the invasion would probably not have taken place: computer simulations of the German-French battle designed half a century later always culminated in the Germans’ defeat. Yet in 1940, the Wehrmacht [Germany’s Nazi armed forces] paraded under the Arc de Triomphe. 

How did this happen? It was the result of a bold plan, designed by the officers from “Foreign Armies West,” a small reconnaissance unit within the Land Force, whose officers we would probably call analysts today. They worked out an offensive plan in which the attack on Benelux was merely auxiliary. Its role was to lead the French to believe that this was the main offensive, akin to 1914, and thereby trick them into mobilizing their forces to help Belgium and Holland. Then the real offensive took place in the Ardennes, in the midst of the front, in a mountainous and wooded region where no one would have expected a German attack. When the Wehrmacht’s armored units wiped out the weak defense and routed the French army, the offensive was over. 

Likewise, how would the course of the war have been altered if, in the 1930s in the Polish General Police Headquarters (a unit that dealt with espionage and counter-espionage), far-sighted decision-makers had not made the unconventional decision to create a team of exceptionally talented civilian mathematicians and provide them with substantial means? In a few years, this team broke down the German encoding machine named Enigma, which was used widely by the Wehrmacht. The Polish discovery, shared with the Allies, was a breakthrough: Based on it, the British created a center employing 30,000 people near London where they decoded German dispatches throughout the war. This intelligence gave the Allies a strategic advantage over the Germans and hastened their victory. 

Both examples—described in depth in the anthology Secret Services in World History: Espionage and Secret Service from Antiquity to Today (Geheimdienste in der Weltgeschichte: Spionage und verdeckte Aktionen von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, published by C.H. Beck, Munich, 2003)—prove how important espionage (as it is understood in the broadest terms) can be.

Wolfgang Krieger, the anthology’s editor, a historian from Marburg and founder of an international group of researchers of the history of espionage, compiled 22 essays by authors from several countries. Along with Germans there are Americans, Britons, Israelis, an Austrian, and a Frenchman. 

The inspiration for the anthology was Sept. 11 and its aftermath, which brought up the increasing importance—or virtual renaissance—of secret services. This was especially true in Afghanistan, where American and British intelligence was gathered not only using modern methods but also through “old-fashioned” operations in which agents in burnooses scaled the mountains trying to build an alliance of Afghan tribes against the Taliban. The first American casualty was a 32-year-old CIA agent, Johnny Spann; in one of the last photographs his family received, he is seen dressed in Afghan robes atop a white horse. 

Although there is little new information on Afghanistan or Iraq, the stories from more distant times are interesting. Operations we now call reconnaissance can be traced back to the moment people began to record history. Reconnaissance was used by the rulers Hannibal and Alexander the Great, while the first theoretical works on the subject date back to ancient China.

Other chapters deal with the contention between British and French spies during the Hundred Years’ War, and the part played in France’s rise to power by Father Joseph, a Capuchin monk and confidante of Cardinal Richelieu, who was in charge of French intelligence in the 17th century. Among other things, Father Joseph used his fellow monks as spies.
Many stories, though well-known, fuel our curiosity: [Israeli foreign intelligence] Mossad’s capture of Adolf Eichmann, or the legend of Mata Hari who, contrary to myth, was not a German superspy during World War I but rather a victim of spy mania. This high-class call girl, as we would call her today, changed lovers every day but understood nothing about politics and never passed on any valuable information. She faced a French firing squad because France’s political and legal system demanded such a sacrifice.

The history of intelligence services does not consist entirely of legends. It also includes cases where politicians wasted the service’s achievements. In 1973, the Israeli intelligence service, one of the best in the world, obtained information about a planned Egyptian and Syrian attack and turned the information over to its superiors. But Israeli politicians did not believe that an Arab attack would come and were so deeply convinced of their opponents’ weakness (as well as their own strength) that they ignored the service’s warnings. The result was the Yom Kippur War.

On the other hand, the affair of Günter Guillaume, a spy from East Germany who became the secretary of  West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, was once considered a masterpiece of espionage. Today, opinions are mixed. While placing a spy in proximity to the head of West Germany’s government was an achievement of craftiness, Guillaume did not provide East Berlin with useful information, and the political consequence of his arrest in 1974—the dismissal of Brandt—was convenient neither for East Germany nor for the Soviet Union.

There is no simple answer to the question of what role intelligence services have played in history. Their task was—and is—getting to know their  country’s enemies (and sometimes its friends). Though they possess an aura of moral ambivalence, we need to do justice to them. The original justification for their existence came from the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, who proposed that “choosing not to use spies…should be considered a primitive act.” In Sun Tzu’s era, what was considered anti-humanitarian was a ruler who skimped on espionage and remained ignorant, thereby suffering greater losses. According to Sun Tzu, “He who knows his opponent and himself will not know danger, even in a hundred battles.”