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The history of espionage

The role of the spy is as old as civilization itself. Knowledge has always been power – right back to the earliest settlements and the need of every ruler to find out what his enemies are doing, thinking and planning. Whilst the role of the spy has remained constant throughout the centuries, the means by which agents can steal, learn and acquire secrets has been transformed beyond all recognition.

The Digital Prologue – an interactive journey through the centuries in the German Spy Museum

Kings, emperors & churches

The Ancient Egyptians even coined a new word for a new breed of public servant – »the eyes of the Pharaoh«. The Persian King Cyrus the Great (c. 590-530 B.C.) called them his many “eyes and ears”. Even the ancient Chinese military theorist General Sun Tzu (c. 554-496 B.C.) devoted a whole chapter of his seminal »The Art of War« to the role of the spy.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans also made extensive use of espionage, although the Romans took a long time to appreciate the importance of the spy. Nevertheless, having started, they made up for lost time by coining the name by which we now refer to the role of a secret agent. The Latin spicere (to look on) evolved into »spy” whilst the term »agent« is equally Latin, – agentes in rebus or »agents in public mission«.

The majority of medieval spies were priests and monks – able to read and write in a number of languages, and spread in a network throughout Europe – they were well placed to function as an intelligence network. The occupation underwent a wave of professionalization during the 15th century, with trained agents replacing the travelling merchants and soldiers previously used to gather information. The counsellors of the English Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) established the first dedicated intelligence network, whilst in France, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) used his »Cabinet Noir” to monitor the correspondence of foreign diplomats and those suspected of treason. A system of postal intelligence was perfected by the »Secret Cipher Chancellery« in Vienna (1716-1848).


King Cyrus II (6th century B.C.)
of Persia had an extensive network of spies



The basic principle of the Cryptex from »The Da Vinci Code« can already be found in medieval sources


The Alberti Cipher Disc was one of the first devices for encrypting messages (15th century)

Modern times

The advent of new communication technologies such as the telegraph, telephone and photography in the 19th century changed the face of spying. Not only was it possible to collect information in new and ever-more covert methods; it could be communicated across large distances in real time. Later, human agents became ever-less important, to be replaced by machines. The intelligence organizations of World War Two played a decisive role in influencing the military course of the war – The British code breakers of Bletchley Park encoded the Enigma machine and were able to read Axis signal traffic with near impunity and provide information vital to the prosecution of the war. The Cold War (1947-1989) was conducted to a greater extent than ever before as a war of espionage; the intelligence services were used both to gauge the strength of enemy forces and shore up various political systems.

The collapse of the Warsaw Pact in the 1990s heralded a further paradigm change for the world’s intelligence agencies, which are now forced to deal with industrial espionage and since 2001, the threat posed by international terrorism. Many governments have moved towards the mass surveillance of Big Data, which they justify with the terrorist threat. Given the sheer scale of the internet and the vast volume of its data traffic, this poses a considerable challenge to the activities of today’s spies.


Mata Hari – (alleged?) double agent from World War I


Enigma – a military encryption machine from World War II