The German Secret Service

Title:                      The German Secret Service

Author:                 Colonel Walther Nicolai

Nicolai, W. (Walther) (1924). The German Secret Service. London: S. Paul

LCCN:    25001094

D639.S7 N6



  • German ed. Geheime Machte. Internationale Spionage und ihre Bekampfung im Weltkrieg und heute. Leipzig: Koehler, 1923 [LCCN: 28005442]

Date Updated:  November 3, 2016

Col. Walter Nicolai, the head of German military intelligence in WWI, surveyed its wartime performance in his book, The German Secret Service. Less than two pages were devoted to the United States, where, he noted, “it was all but impossible to send agents for espionage.” Dark Invasion[1] validates Nicolai’s conclusion.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[2]

Colonel Nicolai was head of German military intelligence in World War I; his responsibilities also extended to counterintelligence. These memoirs, poorly translated by George Renwick, contain an extra chapter by the latter on Colonel Alfred Redl, the Russian spy in the intelligence department of the Austro-Hungarian general staff. From the perspective of over half a century, it is a big disappointment. Nicolai had the mentality of a German staff officer and used this book as a means of perpetuating the “stab in the back” myth of German defeat. It is a book of generalities, obsessed with the inferiority in intelligence (political and economic) that has plagued the Germans. Nicolai spends much time on counterintelligence aspects of German military intelligence, telling us little of his service’s espionage and nothing of German political action, subversion, and sabotage in that war. The style is often oblique, making certain passages hard to understand, and errors of fact and questionable judgments fill the book. When Nicolai avers that when the war came, the German secret service did not have the time and means to extend its organization into England, he cannot mean all of German intelligence, even naval intelligence. We know the attempt had been made prior to 1914 and destroyed by the British when war was declared. Giskes in London Calling North Pole[3] wrote that Nicolai did not tell all and that “he carried silence beyond the grave concerning his mysterious assistants and their fateful activities.” Nicolai does give us a feel for the attitude of the German military toward intelligence, for the importance of communications intelligence in the German victories on the eastern front, and for the consequences to his service of being burdened with propaganda within Germany and the German army. Strong’s Men of Intelligence[4] contains a useful section on Nicolai and that author’s summation of his intelligence role.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[5]

Colonel Nicolai, chief of the German Secret Service in World War I, discusses his work in the field of espionage and counterintelligence. Included is a chapter (by the translator) on the case of Colonel Redl, onetime counterintelligence chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff but also a Russian agent. The passage of time has somewhat reduced the importance of this book, but, prior to World War II, it was “required” reading by intelligence officers.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[6]

An important historical source by the chief of intelligence and counterintelligence, or Gruppe lllb, of the Imperial German General Staff from 1913 throughout World War I. Colonel Nicolai decries the lack of preparedness in the military intelligence service and especially the lack of capability to conduct strategic economic and political intelligence against the Allied states. The German edition of the book was withdrawn from circulation when its author was declared a traitor by the Nazi regime. The extra chapter added by translator George Renwick describes the detection of Colonel Alfred Redl as a Russian spy, and was originally published by Renwick in the Sunday News of London.

[1] Blum, Howard (2014). Dark Invasion 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America. New York: Harper

[2] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 349-350

[3] Giskes, H. J.(1953). London Calling North Pole. London: William Kimber

[4] Strong, Kenneth (1972). Men of Intelligence: A Study of The Roles And Decisions of Chiefs of Intelligence From World War I to The Present Day. New York: St. Martin’s Press

[5] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence School, p. 47

[6] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 166


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2 Responses to The German Secret Service

  1. Pingback: The Literature of Intelligence | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: Espionage and Counterespionage, Chapter 14 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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