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


A photograph of a 1948 Dutch reconstruction of the Venlo Incident, which took place in November 1939. A German SD deception operation resulted in the kidnapping of two British Secret Information Service officers on the Dutch-German border. Image credit: N

A photograph of a 1948 Dutch reconstruction of the Venlo Incident, which took place in November 1939. A German SD deception operation resulted in the kidnapping of two British Secret Information Service officers on the Dutch-German border. Image credit: Nattionaal Archief of the Netherlands.

Cultures of Intelligence was an Anglo-German research project that challenged the presumption that the international intelligence culture of the first half of the twentieth century resembled the intelligence community that developed in the Cold War. It investigated this hypothesis through a series of case studies of the major western intelligence powers (Britain, Germany, France and the USA). The project disrupted the narrative of continuity in twentieth century intelligence. Instead, the project demonstrated how those narratives had been created in the mid-twentieth century and propagated subsequently.

Project team and co-operating projects

The AHRC-funded strand of Cultures of Intelligence at Leeds was one of two co-operating projects.

The Leeds strand of Cultures of Intelligence concentrated on the British intelligence services, shining an intense light on the secret histories of Britain’s intelligence machine. Dr Alan MacLeod was Postdoctoral Research Fellow on this project.

Professor Sönke Neitzel, Prof Dr Philipp Gassert, and Professor Andreas Gestrich led a project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, entitled ‘Kulturen der Intelligence: Ein Forschungsprojekt zur Geschichte der militärischen Nachrichtendienste in Deutschland, Großbritannien und den USA, 1900–1947’. You can find out more about this strand of the project on the Gerda Henkel Foundation website.

Secret histories of intelligence

The mid-twentieth-century British state commissioned numerous, interlocking, not-for-public-consumption, internal histories of intelligence, with a variety of goals in mind. Some histories were created to show that intelligence was a vital tool in the defence of national security and should be well funded. Some were written to remind policymakers of the dangers that can result when intelligence is ignored. Others were designed to ensure that the institutional memory about intelligence was recorded and would not be lost when people retired or moved to other corners of Whitehall.

In short, there were complex ‘politics’ behind the production of internal histories that has not been properly understood or appreciated. In a phrase recently applied to intelligence history, ‘the very power structure worked as a great recording machine shaping the past in its own image’ (Paul Thompson, Voices of the Past: Oral History (3rd edn. (Oxford, 2000), p. 4, quoted in Andrew Hammond, ‘Through a Glass, Darkly: The CIA and Oral History’, History, 100 (2015), pp. 311-256 (pp. 213-13)).

The research done at Leeds as part of the wider Cultures of Intelligence project demonstrated that a critical scrutiny of the various internal ‘after action’ assessments of intelligence prepared by British officials provide an invaluable and original perspective on the emergence of British ‘intelligence culture’ in a period stretching from the First World War to the early Cold War. These internal studies also provided a new angle from which to understand the history of the British government machine. They therefore deliver rich insights into the evolution of official administrative culture relating to both internal and external security. The histories under consideration created a powerful, persistent, self-serving, ‘triumphant’ story about the role of intelligence in informing military and political decision-making. They consistently emphasized the dangers of neglecting either the state machinery that produced intelligence or the intelligence that it provided. This narrative was both a record of the past and an agenda for the future.

Changing audiences and changing histories

However, the secret history changed in crucial ways over time. By the end of the Second World War, the internal studies had evolved from histories of the role of intelligence in its wider military or political contexts to become histories of Britain’s intelligence machinery, written by members of the machine under investigation. The prime audiences for the internal histories written in the wake of the First World War were military and political consumers of intelligence. By the middle of the Second World War, that audience had widened to encompass intelligence practitioners. The aim of the studies produced after 1943 became not only to underline the importance of intelligence to policy and to military operations, but also to map the field of intelligence itself. It is important to avoid teleology. The history constructed reality just as much as it reflected reality.

Cultures of Intelligence took care to shed light on the role and perspective of armed-forces intelligence in this historical process, a role that tends to be neglected by those who focus on the now-more-glamorous civilian agencies. It thus strove to avoid the pitfall of writing winners’ history for the winners. This is an all too easy pit into which to tumble. Historians of military intelligence suffer from what they themselves describe as a ‘neglect complex’. However, this complex is often exacerbated by attempts to ‘filter out’ security intelligence, counter-intelligence, deception, and special operations.

The historical study of intelligence sometimes hobbles itself with ahistorical definitions used by contemporary practitioners. Yet these definitions were consciously constructed, as Cultures of Intelligence showed, to engineer high and low status for certain intelligence agencies and types of intelligence. There is a relative dearth of good military intelligence history for a reason. During the Second World War, bodies such as the Joint Intelligence Committee in Whitehall or Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire serviced the armed services. This fact was skillfully obscured by post-1943 histories that looked forward to a time when strategic and political intelligence would be a priority for Britain’s intelligence machinery.

What we learned

The interlinked projects that comprised Cultures of Intelligence suggested that there was an identifiable Franco-German-American intelligence culture, based around military and legal organs in the first part of the twentieth century. Britain, with its informal civilian-dominated intelligence community, was an outlier.


Professor Ball’s expertise on intelligence and assassination led to his consultation on the ITN documentary Secrets of the Spies (2022). Read more in this news story.

Professor Ball’s work in challenging the established history of the British intelligence in the twentieth century led to him working closely with the AlliiertenMuseum in Berlin. You can read more about this work in the Impact Case Study prepared for REF 2021.

Publications and outputs

Simon Ball, Philipp Gassert, Andreas Gestrich and Sönke Neitzel, eds., Cultures of Intelligence in the Era of the World Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020). Read more on the publisher’s website. This book is available open access.

Simon Ball, Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020). Read more on the publisher’s website.

Bernhard Sassmann and Tobias Schmitt, Report on “Cultures of Intelligence” conference held at the German Historical Institute, London in 2016: German Historical Institute Bulletin, 38 (2016), 35-40. Read the report here.

Further Links

UK Gateway to Research page for the project.

Arts and Humanities Research Council.