The Biggest Failure Ever

R. T. Howard’s Spying on the Reich

From the vantage point of the early 21st century, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the interwar period was a preamble to catastrophe.

Hard to misunderstand. Adolf Hitler, 1927.

So devastating was its outcome, not only in the form of World War II but the Cold War, that there’s still a great deal we have to learn about why things turned out so badly.

Part of this is because this period has been chronicled exhaustively, and something of a balanced picture has emerged.

Still, it is difficult not to assume that, for example, allied cooperation must have been more extensive than it was due to the enormous threat posed by National Socialism.

In Spying on the Reich, journalist R. T. Howard attempts to dismantle such fantasies and understand why the French and British failed so spectacularly at containing Adolf Hitler.

This is surprising given the fascination with espionage that remains in the wake of the Cold War. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about such efforts? Don’t we know it all already?

Though there are interesting stories to tell, Spying on the Reich makes evident that there are serious obstacles to recounting them.

Howard is forthright about this. He states at the outset that much of the material that would be needed to tell the story of attempts to spy on the Nazis is either unavailable or no longer exists.

Similarly, the records of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) remain secret.

The records of other interwar intelligence services, such as those of France and Poland, were largely lost to the ravages of war and may not have been all that thorough, to begin with.

Journalists are left with materials generated by other government offices, publicly available sources, and the extensive secondary literature that the interwar period has generated.

R.T. Howard has done an admirable job, given these limitations. Spying on the Reich is substantial and engaging.

But the feeling that more substance lies tantalisingly close yet unavailable is impossible to shake. The story that does emerge is familiar in some facets, less so in others.

There was significant variation in the degree to which European powers perceived and were prepared to act on the threat of a Germany resurgent under National Socialist auspices.

France and Poland, sharing immediate borders with the country, were most alive to the danger.

On the other hand, Britain was less moved by the prospective threat. Government officials repeatedly rejected requests from their French counterparts for concerted action.

These were often accompanied by intelligence reports compiled by France’s Deuxième Bureau indicating that Germany was breaching the limitations on troops and weapons specified by the Treaty of Versailles and the related articles signed at the end of the First World War.

Much of this resulted from the hangover of that conflict as well as from longer-term patterns of hostility between Britain and France.

Britain was disinclined to take steps or to make agreements that could drag them into another conflict on the continent.

Even into the middle of the 1930s, those warnings posed by Germany (of whom Winston Churchill was one of the most vociferous) and the need for rearmament to meet the threat were voices crying in the wilderness.

Much of Spying on the Reich is taken up with the vicissitudes of trying to get concrete information about Germany’s plans and actions that would allow a more soundly evidence-based policy to emerge.

Acquiring and compiling accurate information was difficult in the 1920s and became more so as the years went on.

This seems to stand in stark contrast with the history of Cold War espionage, in which mutual penetration appears to have been relatively common.

The postwar period was one in which the pronounced binary between communism and liberal capitalism gave appeals to ideological dissent greater traction.

In addition, the spy agencies of the 1950s and 1960s had access to much more comprehensive technological tools than did their predecessors in the interwar period.

From bugging devices to high-altitude photographic surveillance, Cold War agencies had much greater capacity for collecting signals and other forms of intelligence.

In the 1920s and 1930s, governments were heavily dependent on human intelligence, and Spying on the Reich is rife with stories of charlatans who purported to be able to deliver the goods while using cash payments to live the high life in unaccountable circumstances.

Much of the intelligence acquired by the British, French, and Poles concerning German rearmament was developed from careful readings of generally available sources.

A good deal of the underlying narrative of Howard’s book relates to what was not done or which warnings were not heeded.

While German rearmament was viewed as threatening, it was also the case that Russian Bolshevism was perceived as a more immediate threat, especially in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The situation began to alter in the mid-1930s, with the SIS and the Deuxième Bureau collaborating more closely in the wake of the Munich Conference, after which the threat posed by Hitler could not, pace Chamberlain’s comments about peace in our time, be ignored.

British and French intelligence-gathering practices also became more systematic.

Rather than relying on the capacity of a few high flyers to insinuate themselves into the channels of information, they became more adept at cultivating a range of sources and allowing for more systematic and effective critical evaluation of available intelligence.

All of this did not prevent a degree of wishful thinking. This was especially the case in the lead-up to the invasion of Poland.

Even though the SIS had received convincing, if not conclusive, evidence of Germany’s intentions, there was still some willingness to believe that the invasion plans were not firm and might be altered by changes in the political winds.

Given how things turned out, who is to blame for such failures and why they misjudged Hitler so badly is clear.

Spying on the Reich presents a compelling narrative, particularly in light of the evidentiary challenges its author faced.

The book presents the politics of the 1930s in a somewhat different light than one tends to find in histories focusing more on political, diplomatic, or strictly military matters.

This is a history of what went wrong and could have been prevented if politicians had taken intelligence more seriously.

Given the last year’s war between Russia and Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine a more timely history, one that makes us want to ask the same questions about why the West was so unprepared.

Not just to prepare for war, but to prevent one, as well.

Photograph courtesy of NDLA. Published under a Creative Commons license.