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Cultures of Intelligence


9–11 June

Co-organized by: University of Potsdam, University of Leeds, University of Mannheim and the German Historical Institute London.
Venue: German Historical Institute London


The Project

Project leaders: Prof Dr Philipp Gassert (Manheim University), Prof Dr Andreas Gestrich (German Historical Institute London), Prof Dr Sönke Neitzel (London School of Economics and Political Science) in cooperation with Prof Dr Simon Ball (Leeds University)
Sponsorship: The Gerda Henkel Foundation is sponsoring the research project by providing three doctoral scholarships for postgraduates in Germany, Great Britain and the United States and covering personnel, travel and material expenses. More information on the project can be found on the Gerda Henkel Stiftung website. The Gerda Henkel Foundation also initiated a film in nine episodes on the project which can be accessed online on the Gerda Henkel Foundation's online portal lisa.


Since the late 19th century the rise of nationalism not to mention social and technological change have not only fundamentally altered forms of warfare, but also the system of international relations. Europe and the United States responded to these changes by setting up military intelligence services that were more professional, technical and scientific, as were the methods of gathering and assessing information. Great Britain and the United States were the first democratic nations to develop a modern intelligence service structure and to conduct public debates on military intelligence. The military traditions of the Deutsches Reich were distinctly at variance with this, and the structure used by the Third Reich was likewise completely different.

The research project supervised by Prof Dr Sönke Neitzel, Prof Dr Philipp Gassert and Prof Dr Andreas Gestrich focuses on the development of the military intelligence services in Germany, Great Britain and the United States from the emergence of a modern intelligence service structure in the late 19th century to the end of World War II, which marked the climax and end of a first development phase of modern intelligence services. The project cooperates closely with the AHRC-funded project AH/J000175/1 Cultures of Intelligence: Military Intelligence Services in Germany, Great Britain and the USA: Britain, 1918–1947 directed by Prof Simon Ball at Leeds University.

A shared key question to be examined by these projects is the extent to which the interplay of national secret service traditions, respective cultural representations of secret services in literature and media, and the practice of intelligence service work together resulted in national intelligence cultures. The term ‘intelligence service culture’ is taken to mean that the services had specific forms of organization, structure and objectives, but also specific strategic, operative and tactical work, which are negotiated in societal debates. The activities of the intelligence services are not analysed only as the product of military objectives, but also be considered in the context of social discourse. The project sets out for the first time to ask to what extent and in what areas there were transnational patterns of secret service discourses and practices, for example as the consequence of transnational interaction or mutual perception.

In the first project phase three postgraduates will explore the public debate about intelligence services in Germany, Great Britain and the United States in the mass media, popular culture of the time (spy novels) and military publications. Key issues here relate to the standing of intelligence services in society and military, personifications in connection with expert cultures and the respective interest in knowledge, sources of information and methods. Taking their research findings as a basis in a second phase, project leaders will compare and review the interactions between the public and intelligence service practice, and ascertain to what extent specific intelligence cultures formed in the first half of the 20th century. Using military intelligence as an example, an effort will be made to demonstrate the interaction between military, administration, state and society, but also the importance of the related views of life and interpretations. The international comparison will help us understand how in the three nations the discourses developed in parts of society and amongst experts on the one hand, while intelligence service practice on the other developed in a specific national manner, and finally how simultaneously cross-national patterns emerged thanks to interaction between the nations.

The object of the research project is to present the first comparative cultural history of military secret services in which the development of intelligence is systematically embedded in its previously neglected socio-cultural contexts. The consequences of cultural-historical approaches and issues for the historical research of secret services and military organizations are to be tested at the interface of military, diplomatic, cultural and scientific history. Conversely, using military intelligence as an example, the specific relationships between cultural representations, interpretations and perceptual patterns on the one hand and individual, local and institutionalized practice on the other are to be examined. The findings also promise to create new impulses for a field of research previously largely characterized by approaches hinging on institutional and political history.


Conference programme (PDF file)

Conference report (PDF file), published in: GHIL Bulletin 38 (2016), Vol 2