Wolfgang Krieger, Geschichte der Geheimdienste. Von den Pharaonen bis zur CIA.

Wolfgang Krieger, Geschichte der Geheimdienste. Von den Pharaonen bis zur CIA. Munich: Beck, 2009. €16.95, ISBN 3406583873


The activities of the secret services – otherwise known as espionage – have been documented for the past 2,500 years. Yet, even established insiders find it difficult to keep track of the various developments in this tangled web of intelligence. Research in this area tends to proliferate on the fringes of university studies, focussing on specific topics, particular agencies or historical aspects. Few have undertaken the mammoth task of attempting to bundle the jumble of intelligence history, the manifold national institutions, their seismic curves of successes and failures into an intelligible and readable book. And fewer still have succeeded.

The first German language attempt was made by Janusz Pieka?kiewicz (1925–1988) in his book “Weltgeschichte der Spionage“ (World History of Espionage), published in 1988 as a culmination of previous articles and even a 26-part TV-series in 1963, still widely read and available in various translations. Phillip Knightly, a journalist and university professor, presented a broad examination of intelligence history in his 1989 book “The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century“, but restricted his study to the 20th century. His book has also enjoyed several reprints and translations.

A further attempt has now been made, a good two decades later, by Wolfgang Krieger (b. 1955), professor for Modern History at the University of Marburg in Germany since 1995. He had previously edited an anthology “Geheimdienste in der Weltgeschichte. Von der Antike bis heute“ (Secret Services in World History – from Antiquity to Today), published in 2003. And now he has undertaken the sheer impossible task of writing a comprehensive “Geschichte der Geheimdienste“ (History of Intelligence Services), published 2009 in Munich. Again, an international success is likely in the making, since the French translation is now available since 2010 as “Services secrets. Une Historie – des pharaons à la CIA”; the translation will most certainly reach the same interested readers who were also attracted to “Historie des services secrets allemands“ by Erich Schmidt-Eenboom and Michael Müller, which appeared in French in 2009. Intelligence histories appear to have a special appeal for the French.

Yet in Germany, Krieger’s mammoth endeavour has met with a muted reception. The noted journalist Hans Leyendecker wrote a sceptical critique in the “Süddeutschen Zeitung“. In scientific journals Paul Maddrell and Tim Müller both point out deficiencies. There might indeed be much to criticise, but, in all fairness, what protagonists, agencies, and events should be included, and which left out in a work encompassing a mere 368 pages? And what should be cited, when alone a bibliography or a chronology would also take up more than the 368 allotted pages? A judicious scalpel must be wielded in any case.

Furthermore, it must be taken into consideration that the Age of Gibbon is gone. It is no longer possible for a lone historian such as Gibbon to single-handedly write a comprehensive history, regardless of the topic. Even a person of Krieger’s calibre, with his own established network of researchers and historians, cannot compete with a complex division of labour amongst international cognoscenti. All this considered, one is forced to acknowledge the fact that Krieger with his new history of intelligence agencies has achieved something beyond a mere non-fiction bestseller by venturing into the thinner air of academia. This is in itself a noteworthy achievement in the German language, representing as it does a new weight on the scale of intellectual gravity.

Krieger concentrates mainly on foreign intelligence services in his opus – foreign to Germany, that is. These generally exude more “sexiness” than domestic services do, as is evidenced by his own blasé treatment of such. The author, as is to be expected, does not rely solely on primary research, but rather stands on the shoulders of secondary predecessors, these being mainly of English-speaking provenance. He seems, however, to have neglected the shoulders offered by younger, more empirically tested and significantly more meticulous researchers and their works – from Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia. It appears that he has given more weight to British and American authors in intelligence issues than is perhaps due.

Yet Krieger is adept at pegging our attention to easily recognised stages of intelligence history – mainly from the 18th century onwards – where alone a word suffices to release floods of association.

Krieger first tackles the question “Why study Intelligence History, and how is it best done?“ (pp. 13–20); here he underscores the ethical dimension and normative requirements, but curiously enough does not expound further upon the consensus achieved in intelligence circles on these issues. Intelligence Studies bridge two academic disciplines: International Politics and Contemporary History, without actually having its own firm chair to sit on. Intelligence Studies are not yet institutionalised, not yet embedded in knowledge production – and this means that the cohesion of the long row of historical incidents is lacking. And here, where Krieger could have provided some intellectual glue – he does not.

When does the history of intelligence services begin? For Krieger, their story begins with the Pharaohs, whom he mentions fleetingly before taking on Alexander the Great, discussed in the Chapter on “Politischer Vormoderne“ (Politics before 1700) (pp. 20–66); he then rushes on to Rome, Byzantium and so on in great stride before ending the chapter with developments in China.

In regards to China, Krieger rightly focuses on the groundbreaking “Origins of Intelligence Services: The ancient Near East, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Arab Muslim Empires, the Mongol Empire, China, Muscovy” by Francis Dvornik (1893–1975), his late opus written in 1974 which at times oversteps the goal.

One might quibble about the chronological order but – at least in regards to the written record – , it is rather Sun Tzu who is the most important military thinker, devising as he did a theory of espionage which has well before Clausewitz inspired generations of military strategists. Krieger accords him his undisputed due (pp. 54–58). But, having given him this foremost rank, Krieger does not provide primary historical resources on Sun Tzu as he does for the Austrian strategist of the 20th century par excellence Maximilian Ronge (p 136). For Sun Tzu mentioning “The Art of War” is mandatory, as is the historical parallel by Sun Bin of the same title “The Art of War”, translated by Zhong Yingjie into German in 2007 and available in various English translations, in order to avoid the pitfalls of a contemporary translation.

The third chapter, which bears the awkward title “Neue Gegner: religiöse, revolutionäre, konterrevolutionäre und nationale Kräfte“ (“New Enemies: Religious, Revolutionary, Counterrevolutionary and National Forces”) (pp. 67– 112) spans the centuries between 1000 to 1700, focusing primarily on France, England, and the US. This is a mighty leap through time. But this demonstrates the dearth of written records, or, as Krieger succinctly puts it: Charlemagne was illiterate (p 67). Here, Krieger relies upon the research performed by Lucien Bély (1990). He highlights the life and works of the French Minister of Police Joseph Fouché as provided in the biography written by Louis Madelin.

It is not quite clear why Spanish intelligence or that of the Vatican are treated so marginally. This disregard is certainly not due to a lack of literature – the four-volume work of Ludwig Pastor “The History of the Popes – From the Close of the Middle Ages. Drawn from the Secret Archives of the Vatican and Other Original Sources” (now in a new edition) could have been a source from which to draw inspiration as well as the book “Dramatis Personae des Mittelalters” by Frank Onusseit (2002) or “Geheimdienste in Europa. Transformation, Kooperation und Kontrolle by Thomas Jäger and Anna Daun (2005).

“Großmächtepolitik und Revolutionsfurcht” (“The Politics of the Major Powers and the Fear of Revolution”) is the focus of the fourth chapter (pp. 113–145) which describes the increasing professionalism of domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. The Evidenzbureau, founded in 1850 in Austria, was leagues ahead of other European states (p 125); Krieger showcases the two operations against Colonel Alfred Redl, who worked for Russia (pp. 139–142), and the French Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who allegedly worked for Germany (pp. 142–145).

Yet he inexplicably leaves out the outstanding, if somewhat slanted memoirs (“Zwölf Jahre Kundschaftsdienst: Kriegs- und Industrie-Spionage”) of the last director of the Austrian Evidenzbureau, Maximilian Ronge, which could have served as a backdrop for a description of the manifold types of intelligence operations. For Ronge is, just as Sun Tzi in his time, a paragon of intelligence (p 136 ff), and his achievements could have helped shape the fifth chapter, which deals with “Moderne bürokratische und technologiebasierte Geheimdienste seit 1900” (“Modern Bureaucratic and Technology Based Intelligence Services since 1900”) (pp. 146–186), extending to the end of the First World War. Krieger is influenced in his treatment of the 20th century by Christopher Andrew, a British historian, who wrote “Her Majesty’s Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community” in 1978; the anglophile interpretation of espionage dominates the remaining chapters.

This can be seen in the title of the sixth chapter, which focuses on the last hundred years to the present day and which makes up more than half the book: “Vier Gegner im 20. Jahrhundert: Kommunisten, Faschisten/Nationalsozialisten, Kapitalisten und ‘Terroristen’ der Dritten Welt” (“Four Enemies in the 20th Century: Communists, Fascists/Nazis, Capitalists and Third World ‘Terrorists’”) (pp. 187–249).

Up until now, Krieger has adhered to an objective, ideology-free diction, but in this chapter his own democratic convictions shimmer through the surface. Albeit these are praiseworthy convictions, in an objective history of intelligence services, they can be a hindrance to understanding: the analysis of the inherent character of espionage, the operations and accepted processes remain outside of the realm of comprehension if they are defined by these principles.

The 20th century was not the beginning of – as Krieger at one point states – “das ideologische Zeitalter der Geheim-dienstgeschichte” (“the ideological era of intelligence services”) (p 187). A page later he backpeddles: “Auch die Ideologie als Leitkonzept für die innere und äußere Politik eines Staates hatte ihre Vorläufer“ (“Ideology as the guiding principle for the domestic and foreign policies of a state also had its antecedent”).

Subsequently, espionage is primarily about national security. Although a pact amongst nations may be ideologically cemented, this is not a prerequisite. There have been alliances without ideological foundations; Krieger quotes an exemplary case – being the German operation to smuggle Lenin to Russia in order to weaken Russia militarily (p. 185) -, but cites Winfried Baumgart whose book from 1968 has been superceded by more recent research. He would have done better to refer to “Lenin – Utopie und Terror“ (“Lenin – Utopia and Terror”) by Dimitri Wolkogonows (1994), or “Geheimakte Parvus“ (“The Secret File of Parvus”) by Elisabeth Heresch (2000). Or perhaps mentioned the rather close co-operation between the German and Soviet military in the 1920's, as described by Manfred Zeidler in his “Reichswehr und Rote Armee. Wege und Stationen einer ungewöhnlichen Zusammenarbeit“ (“Reichswehr and Red Army: the Course of an Unusual Co-operation”) (1993). And perhaps topped it off with an account of the co-operation amongst the intelligence services, including the Soviet Union, in their use of spies against Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

The sixth Chapter is dedicated to the description of the growth of Soviet, American, British and German espionage in the 20th century, whereby the role of Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877–1926), the prime mover of intelligence at that time, gets a special spotlight. Two books have brought this intriguing figure and the omnipotent KGB closer: the magnificent two volume works of Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (“The Mitrokhin Archive“ (1999), and “The World was Going Our Way“ (2005), both available in a number of translations). Yet one sorely misses the biography “Feliks Dzierzynski” (published originally in Eastern Germany, but still available), even if it is somewhat biased. Again, Krieger has neglected to include two key biographical works, that of Ronge and of Dzerzhinsky, in his work.

“Der Krieg der Geheimdienste im Kalten Krieg“ (“The War amongst the Secret Services during the Cold War”) (pp. 250–290) is the focus of the seventh chapter which covers the years after the Second World War. The Soviet, American, French and British intelligence services are understandably the focus of this chapter. But the German BND Bundesnachrichtendienst gets a generous 10 pages, too (pp. 264–273). Interestingly enough, it is in this chapter, and only in this chapter, where primary sources are used, being the CIA documents which were declassified in 2002. More notable is what is left out, than what is included: This chapter ignores the solid decade-long research by Erich Schmidt-Eenboom. Add to this deficiency the fact that the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS) is given little more than a single page (p 255 f), and the shortcomings begin to glare. Admittedly, the MfS is just one facet of a many-sided history of intelligence services, but not such a minuscule one at that. The MfS could boast of 91,015 full-time and a further 189,000 off-the-record employees. The MfS pantheon includes figures still remembered today, such as Willi Brandt’s close aide Günter Guillaume (“Hansen“) or the notorious “Nato Spy“ Rainer Rupp (“Topas“), who – considering the fact that Mata Hari was given mention in an earlier chapter – should have at least deserved inclusion, in Chapter 8 at the very least, where “die großen Spione und Verräter im Geheimdienstkrieg der Supermächte“ (“The Greatest Spies and Traitors in the Spy Wars of the Superpowers”) (pp. 311–316) are portrayed.

This is the writing on the wall: Where indisputably accepted standard works are ignored and in their place marginal articles cited, astute minds become irritated. Why are “Mielke-Konzern“ by Jens Gieseke, “Staatssicherheit am Ende“ by Walter Süßen, and “Die unterwanderte Republik“ by Hubertus Knabe ignored? While we welcome the effort to extend the scope of the book beyond parochial German concerns in order to gain international access for the book, standard literature in German deserve mentioning.

But this failure to take the recognised classics of intelligence literature on board is not limited to German works. Since Krieger’s book tempts the reader with “CIA” on the book cover, the reader should expect to find the essential literature on this intelligence service absorbed. This would include the indispensable “Legacy of Ashes: the History of the CIA” (“CIA. Die ganze Geschichte“) by Tim Winer, again, a glaring instance of an important work left by the wayside. On the whole, Europe and the US dominate this chapter, whereas the increasing threat of economic and technology espionage perpetuated by China, Japan, South Korea and Russia receive no mention at all.

Chapter 8 appears to be a catch-all for all the topics which have hitherto received only a superfluous mention: “Verdeckte Operationen, Spionage und Analyse“ (Covert Operations, Espionage and Analysis”) (pp. 291–322). The final chapter “Menschen- und Bürgerrechtsverletzungen bei den Geheimdiensten und die begrenzten Möglichkeiten der politischen Kontrolle“ (“Infractions of Human Rights and Citizens Rights by Intelligence Services and the Limited Potential of Political Control”) (pp. 323–340) attempts to summarise the preceding contents. It opens with the jarring question “Wie gefährlich sind die Geheimdienste für die Demokratie?“ (“How dangerous are the intelligence services for democracy?” (p 323). This appears to be a difficult problem to solve (“ein schwer zu lösendes Problem“) (p 328), and the difficulties are aggravated by the question of control over the intelligence services. Krieger boils down this conundrum to the realisation that intelligence will always pose a particular ethical and political challenge (“die geheimdienstliche Tätigkeit immer eine ethische und politische Herausforderung der besonderen Art bleiben ” (p 340). The reader is referred to further literature (p 342), but the selection made – decidedly difficult in any case – is skewed. Two excellent German titles are listed as important for the understanding of the German situation (“besonders wichtig zu Deutschland“). One deals with the German intelligence chiefs, the other with the Security Service of the Reichsführer SS. But the reader pines for an index of names and a bibliography instead.

In spite of these occasionally grave weaknesses – which will most certainly be ironed out in future editions – Krieger has managed to produce the first history of intelligence in German since decades. This in itself is a courageous achievement; sailing as he does between Scylla and Charybdis, some scrapes were inevitable. Krieger’s mellifluous prose, with its occasional injections of tangy descriptions, opens up a rather raspy subject to a wider public, who often have only a limited palette of literature to choose from. But the learned reader will have his difficulties swallowing this mélange. Perhaps Krieger anticipated this – as he was competing with another opus, available thus far only in French, by Roger Faligot and Remi Kauffer, the two-volume work “Histoire mondiale du renseignement“ (“Global History of Intelligence”), published 1993/94 in Paris and equipped with an index of names and subjects in the second volume (pp. 509–554), a bibliography (pp. 492–506), and an extensive description of Asian intelligence services (pp. 441–453).

So, while Krieger might sail through with the broader public with this work, the learned world will search in vain for the footnote, the stirrup needed to hoist oneself on a high academic horse.

Helmut Müller-Enbergs

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