Spying on the Reich: The Cold War Against Hitler

Image of Spying on the Reich: The Cold War Against Hitler
Release Date: 
January 3, 2023
Oxford University Press
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Using previously unpublished archival sources from several countries, Howard provides a fresh look at how intelligence affected the diplomacy and geopolitics that preceded the outbreak of the Second World War.”

British historian R.T. Howard has written a fascinating new book on the work of, and interaction between, Western intelligence agencies directed at Germany during the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s. Using previously unpublished archival sources from several countries, Howard provides a fresh look at how intelligence affected the diplomacy and geopolitics that preceded the outbreak of the Second World War.

Spying on the Reich identifies the most important Western intelligence agencies as those of Britain (the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS) and France (Deuxieme Bureau and Service de Renseignements), but important work was also done by the intelligence agencies of Poland, Denmark, and especially Czechoslovakia. Sometimes these agencies worked together; other times they didn’t. And their job was to determine the nature and extent of German rearmament, as well as attempting to divine German intentions. The latter was more difficult to accomplish than the former, but neither was easy.

Intelligence services don’t make policy; the relevant officeholders do. But intelligence—both good and bad—can influence and shape policy. And Howard shows that it did so throughout the interwar period. Intelligence information, however, is only as good as its sources—and Howard provides many examples of questionable sources who provided intelligence that could not be verified. Howard also provides examples of good intelligence sources whose information was ignored because it didn’t fit with the preferred policies of statesmen.

Germany, Howard writes, started to plan to rearm soon after the ink was dry on the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. The victors established the Inter-Allied Military Commission of Control “to ensure the complete execution of its disarmament clauses.” Later, this mission was transferred to the League of Nations. Germany’s covert rearmament included colluding with the world’s other pariah power, the Soviet Union. Howard calls this the “Berlin-Moscow axis.” This collusion started long before Hitler came to power in the early 1930s. And it would be the pact between these two powers in August 1939 that ignited the European phase of the Second World War.

After Hitler came to power in Germany, there was much greater urgency on the part of British, French, Polish, and Czech intelligence agencies to acquire more precise information about German rearmament. Greater and more successful efforts were made to recruit spies and sources within the Reich, but sometimes the recruits were double agents, and other times the recruits told their spymasters what they thought they wanted to hear. Spying could be a lucrative profession. Accuracy was not necessarily the coin of the realm. And the Nazis employed security countermeasures which made it even more difficult for trustworthy intelligence agents to obtain accurate information.

As Hitler openly threw off the shackles of Versailles, British, French, and Czech intelligence agencies stepped up their efforts, including “procuring and running agents, tapping telephone wires, and placing individuals under observation.” Some agents proved to be extremely valuable: Hans-Thilo Schmidt, a clerk in Germany’s Cipher Department who helped the French and the Poles exploit the Enigma code machine and who acquired “high-level information about German plans and capabilities”; Agent “L”, a German informant who provided the French with important data on the expanding Luftwaffe in 1933 and 1934; and Karl Kruger, a German naval engineer who provided British intelligence with data on German naval expansion, including the buildup of submarines.

Howard notes that as the threat from a rearmed Nazi Germany grew greater, Western intelligence services cooperated better with each other, but that cooperation had limits—limits that corresponded with diplomatic limits as Britain, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Germany played the game of global geopolitics. And as Hitler became more overtly aggressive—invading the Rhineland, taking over Austria, pressuring Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland—the Western powers looked for ways to satisfy Hitler; a policy known as “appeasement.” Hitler took full advantage of this by using disinformation to inflate the figures on Nazi rearmament which Howard believes helped Hitler bully Britain and France into concessions.

Howard believes that the infamous Munich agreement was made possible by “Berlin’s . . . efforts to mislead the watching world by portraying a vastly overhyped image of its armed forces,” which along with Hitler’s bluster was “designed to intimidate the French and  British, and make them bow to Berlin’s demands.” It worked. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French leader Edouard Daladier, in truth, needed little convincing to give in to Hitler. “Like besotted lovers,” Howard writes, “the architects of appeasement saw what they wanted to see.” It was an instance, Howard explains, where “false intelligence . . . had entrenched pacifist sentiment.”

From then on, Western intelligence services focused on Where Hitler would strike next. And the intelligence agencies provided mixed signals—some suggesting Hitler would move east against Poland, others that he would move west against France and the low countries.

And a key question for the intelligence services was what was the future of Soviet policy? Here, the failure was largely on the statesmen and diplomats of France and especially Britain who failed to conclude an alliance with Stalin that could have stopped Hitler in his tracks, especially after Germany annexed all of Czechoslovakia and Britain and France “guaranteed” the independence of Poland. Without Soviet help, the guarantee was meaningless. Here, again, Hitler outperformed Western leaders by concluding the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which stunned the world—but which Western intelligence agencies had warned their leaders about.

Howard concludes the book by suggesting ways that Western spy agencies might have prevented the Second World War: (1) assassinate Hitler, (2) do more to get the United States involved in European affairs, (3) conclude an alliance with Stalin, (4) exploit differences between Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini, (5) and closer collaboration between intelligence services. Of course, the statesmen and intelligence agencies of that time did not have the luxury of hindsight.