Matthew S. Seligmann. Naval Intelligence from Germany: The Reports of the British Naval Attachés in Berlin, 1906-1914. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. 574 S. $134.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-6157-3.
Reviewed by Dirk Bönker
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (June, 2008)
M. S. Seligmann (Hrsg.): Naval Intelligence from Germany
In 2006, Matthew S. Seligmann published an important study of British intelligence on Germany before World War I. The reports of the British naval and military attachés in Berlin were at the center of his analysis, which suggested that these reports mattered, i.e. that they helped to shape British assessments of the German threat and left their imprint on British policy-making and preparations for war. Seligmann has now followed up his study with a voluminous edition of British naval attaché reports from Germany between 1906 and 1914, entitled Naval Intelligence from Germany and published as Volume 151 of the Publications of the Navy Records Society. Seligmann, Matthew S., Spies in Uniform. British Military and Naval Intelligence on the Eve of the First World War, Oxford 2006.
This impressive collection is the result of prodigious labor in various British archives. Because the records of the British Admiralty were subjected to a rigorous weeding out process by the Admiralty Record Office (more than 98% of the Admiralty records before 1914 were destroyed, including the vast majority of the writings of the attachés), Seligmann gathered his naval attaché reports from other archival holdings. He managed to find about 500 of them in the records of the Naval Intelligence Department, the Air Ministry and Air Historical Branch, and the British embassy in London, and in the bound volumes of the Foreign Office’s so-called “political correspondence.”
Arranged in chronological order, 222 of these reports are included in this volume. The documents open with the report of the departing attaché Reginald Allenby in January 1906 on his farewell audience with the German Emperor; and they conclude with a report dated from 16 July 1914, written by attaché Wilfred Henderson, on a press article by prominent German naval critic Captain Persius about the political prospects of a new fleet law. Thematically, Seligmann’s edition deliberately focuses on four topics: “battleship building, the naval armaments race, naval aviation and British perceptions of German intent.” (xxxiv) Among the deliberate omissions, Seligman lists reports on naval maneuvers, administrative organization, or the personal traits and disposition of German naval officers other than Tirpitz.
The book comes with an informative albeit narrowly focused introduction. Besides reviewing the sources and explaining the criteria guiding the selection of documents, the introduction explains the great appeal of reliance on naval attachés for the British Admiralty. Their reports were a superior avenue of information gathering, as compared to (1) reports by Foreign Service officials, members of the Consular Service, British officers overseas, or traveling British industrialists; (2) the careful reading of the German press, military and civilian, done in Britain, and (3) espionage, which was expressly off limits for attachés.
This, then, is an extremely useful collection of primary documents meant to provide insight into British thinking about Germany and its navy during the Anglo-German naval arms race before World War I. In his introduction and opening remarks for the various parts, Seligmann places the attaché reports in the context of Anglo-German naval relations and offers them as a study in intelligence, that is, in the British gathering of technical and qualitative information about German naval policy, maritime capabilities, and preparation for a war with Britain, as a key aspect of those relations. Thus, this collection (and, for that matter, Seligmann’s monograph) brings together two subjects, the study of the pre-war Anglo-German antagonism and the analysis of military intelligence and systems of military observation in the 19th and 20th centuries, the subject of much recent scholarly interest. Jackson, Peter; Siegel, Jennifer (Hgg.) Intelligence and Statecraft. The Use and Limits of Intelligence in International Society, Westport, 2005.
But this collection of naval attaché reports offers rich materials that illuminate topics beyond the British perception and evaluation of the “German menace” before 1914. The reports also shed light on the direct conduct of Anglo-German diplomacy. British naval attachés in Berlin were actively involved in the managing of relations between the two countries at a time when matters of naval construction and capabilities (and secure knowledge thereof) moved to center stage and could become the subject of acrimonious debate among the two countries. Attaché Herbert Heath, for example, was a key figure in the so-called “acceleration crisis” 1908-1910, which involved acute British suspicion that the Germans were secretly accelerating their naval construction. Moreover, British attachés in Berlin figured prominently in the personal diplomacy of Germany’s Emperor as well. A self-aggrandizing military monarch who felt most comfortable around men in uniform and who took great pride in his ranks as British Field Marshall and Admiral of the Fleet, Wilhelm II liked to use his personal meetings with British service attachés to conduct his own royal-military diplomacy and communicate his views to British policy-makers. On this issue see: Seligmann, Matthew S., Military Diplomacy in a Military Monarchy? Wilhelm II’s Relations with the British Service Attachés in Berlin, 1903-1914, in: The Kaiser. New Research on Wilhelm II’ Role in Imperial Germany, hrsg. von Annika Mombauer and Wilhelm Deist, Cambridge 2003.
The reports by the British naval attachés also provide valuable insight into the flow of military ideas and information across national and imperial lines before World War I. Attachés and their reports lent shape to the web of transnational military influences that was of constitutive importance for national military pursuits. True, as far as the activities of British attachés were concerned, the flow was severely bracketed by the German investment in military secrecy and competitive military geopolitics as evidenced in the many restrictions with which attachés were confronted in their pursuit of knowledge. The German military authorities worked to limit access to sensitive military information, for example, by placing military installations or shipyards, or parts thereof, off limits. In the case of attaché Heath, whom the Germans held (co)responsible for the “acceleration crisis” such restrictions were particularly severe. Still, the scale and scope of their reports collected here, in conjunction with Seligmann’s extensive own analysis in his monograph, suggest that British attachés were able to gather a valuable amount of technical and qualitative information for circulation and appropriation at home, contrary to Paul Kennedy’s more pessimistic assessment that pre-war British military intelligence was mostly ineffective and did “not penetrate far below the deliberately exposed surfaces.” Paul Kennedy, Great Britain before 1914, in: Knowing One's Enemies. Intelligence Assessment Before the Two World Wars, hrsg. von Ernest R. May, Princeton 1984, S. 180.
And finally, the reports of British naval attachés in Berlin highlight the complexities of pre-World-War-I politics of identity of British (and German) officers who owed their allegiance to both the nation and the military profession. This politics allowed for both nationalist outlooks and invocations of national difference on the one hand and a sense of professional (and class) commonality and soldierly cordiality and comrade-ship on the other. Not surprisingly, in their reports, the attachés paid considerable attention to the ways in which their German peers treated them on a personal level. Enactments of common bonds, and even friendships, between the attachés and their fellow German naval officers did not take away from the recognition of the geopolitical and military issues dividing the two nations. Far from going “native” and becoming too sympathetic of their host country, the British naval attachés insisted on the realities of the German maritime arms-buildup and the Anglophobia surrounding it.
The scholarly value of the documents collected in this volume is enormous. In contrast, the volume’s editorial approach is minimalist. The introduction does not aim to fully situate the attachés and their reports in British and German diplomatic, political, and military histories. Annotations to the printed reports are sparse. The documents are interspersed with short summary remarks at the beginning of the seven chronological blocs, into which the book is subdivided. A reader interested in context and elaboration is well advised to use the editor’s monograph on the topic. Read in tandem, Seligman’s two volumes offer rich material and enhance our understanding of the intersections of pre-war British, German, and military histories.
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Dirk Bönker. Review of Seligmann, Matthew S., Naval Intelligence from Germany: The Reports of the British Naval Attachés in Berlin, 1906-1914.
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