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The Soviet spy Richard Sorge (1940)

Under espionage that is hidden, carried out with intelligence agents understood procuring and Erlangen unknown information or secret knowledge. In a broader sense, the term espionage is used for actions by states, their special organizations, political groups, e.g. B. Resistance movements , individuals and business enterprises understood. The information obtained is then used in one's own economic , political , military sphere of influence or to fight real or supposed opponents. A person who spies is called a spy .


The word spy was borrowed in the 16th century from the Italian spione 'observer, scout' ( Augmentativum to spia 'scout') and spread in German during the Thirty Years' War . Later, the words spy (late 17th century, after French espionner ) and espionage (1st half of the 18th century, after French espionnage ) were formed.


Mata Hari on the day of the arrest, February 13, 1917

The beginning of espionage by special intelligence services in Germany goes back to around 1866/1867 under Major Heinrich von Brandt, the head of the temporarily established military intelligence office of the Imperial General Staff. This was then briefly dissolved again in 1873 after the end of the Franco-German war for reasons of efficiency. With the cabinet order of May 24, 1883, Prussia was determined to make the collection of news and statistical material about foreign armies a permanent task.

At the turn of the century, there were already 17 military intelligence services in Europe. These included: in the United Kingdom the Secret Intelligence Service , the Security Service , the Russian military intelligence service of the tsarist army, which emerged from the Ochrana , the Austrian kuk registry office and others . The Russo-Japanese War of 1905/1906, which already contained some essential elements of the later First World War, was of particular importance for the development and clearer qualification of secret service work. The first significant espionage activities existed long before the outbreak of the First World War . In the years 1907 and 1908 alone, 66 people were arrested in Germany on suspicion of espionage and 12 of them were judicially convicted of espionage.

Long before the Second World War, the relevant institutions of the Reichswehr Ministry in Germany, such as the Abwehr , the OKW, the Foreign Office, the NSDAP Security Service (SD), the Political Police, the Gestapo , and the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) were preparing specifically for the intelligence service his opponents, combating them but also defending against hostile espionage activities. In the years between the First World War and the Second World War, there were over 80 intelligence service organizations of various structures and political orientations on German territory alone. In addition to the classic espionage activities, the rapid technical progress, the activities in the area of ​​electronic surveillance and the cryptographic progress of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC & CS) were of particular value. As early as the 1920s, institutions were established that were responsible for intercepting and decrypting foreign communications. The Double Cross System of the Security Service, which fed each other with false information, the secret service monitoring of letter, telegram and radio services as well as the work of photographic aerial reconnaissance. In addition, the actions of the “Special Operations Executive” (SOE), which were often highly dangerous for the people involved, targeted espionage and sabotage in the enemy camp.

The Cold War saw massive mutual espionage between the United States and its allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China and their allies on the other. In particular, the secrets surrounding the construction of nuclear weapons and military reconnaissance were subjects of mutual interest.

Radio links to and from West Berlin as well as within West Germany along the inner German border were systematically tapped by listening posts from the Ministry for State Security and the military reconnaissance of the National People's Army of the GDR. In the German Democratic Republic, the role of employees of the Eastern intelligence services as "scouts of peace" was set apart and differentiated from Western spies for propaganda purposes.


The work of spies or agents , most of whom are recruited or managed by the company's own intelligence services, is only one aspect of the intelligence service. Many states also differentiate

  • military and civil (and also police) information acquisition,
  • Obtaining information via human sources, such as informants, recruited or smuggled spies, recently also referred to as human intelligence , and espionage with technical means such as spy planes , spy satellites , radio reconnaissance , tapping of communication lines
  • Obtaining intelligence, the actual espionage and the associated countermeasures against corresponding measures of external services, mostly also with intelligence means .

In addition to espionage with the aim of gaining industrial and military-technical secrets by states, there are also, in individual cases, espionage activities by private organizations, in particular commercial enterprises.

Even today, communication channels such as satellites , fiber optics , directional radio and cell phone connections are monitored and spied on by secret services. This also applies to friendly states.

After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc , information gathering by means of intelligence services was primarily aimed at combating proliferation , illegal drug trafficking and terrorism , although industrial espionage is becoming more and more important.

According to a ruling by the Federal Administrative Court in May 2018, the Federal Intelligence Service may continue to access large amounts of data at the DE-CIX Internet node in Frankfurt am Main .

Industrial espionage

Business enterprises that engage in espionage or have access to information obtained by the intelligence service gain an economic advantage over their competitors because they can exploit third-party research results without having to conduct independent research. Spying is also used, for example, to be able to undercut a competitor in tenders.


When recruiting nationals of foreign powers for espionage, four motives are identified in research, which are described with the English acronym MICE (English mice):

  • M oney ('money'): Many spies want to finance their lifestyle with additional income, a historical example is Aldrich Ames .
  • I deology: Those who are committed to certain ideas will be more willing to help those who advocate these ideas, for example Kim Philby and George Blake were ideological spies during the Cold War .
  • C oercion (, forced '): Occasionally, intimidated, threatened or blackmailed to get them to cooperate potential agents. So was z. B. Alfred Redl blackmailed with the disclosure of his homosexuality and Edgar Feuchtinger with the disclosure of his desertion.
  • E go: In his self-perception, a spy is an important and influential person, which sets him apart from the crowd, even if his role is not known to them; In this role, he can "get back" to others (e.g. superiors). Robert Hanssen, for example, acted according to this motive .

See also


Overall representations

  • Clifford Stoll: Kuckucksei: The hunt for the German hackers who cracked the Pentagon. Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, Frankfurt 1998, ISBN 3-596-13984-8 .
  • Knopp: Top spies. Traitor in the secret war. C. Bertelsmann Verlag, Munich 1994.
  • Albrecht Charisius and Julius Mader : No longer a secret - development, system and working method of the imperialist German secret service , Deutscher Militärverlag, Berlin-Ost, 1960.
  • Markus Mohr, Klaus Viehmann (Ed.): Spy. A little social story . Association A, Berlin, Hamburg 2004, ISBN 3-935936-27-3 .
  • Section From the Secret Service . , in: Wolfgang Foerster : Fighters on forgotten fronts. Campaign Letters, Diaries and Reports. Colonial War, Sea War, Air War, Spionage , Berlin (German book distribution office. Department for publications from official archives) 1931, pp. 422–606.
  • Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (ed.): The world war espionage. Authentic revelations about the origins, work, technology, tricks, actions, effects and secrets of espionage before, during and after the war based on official material from war, military, court and imperial archives. On life and death, on the deeds and adventures of the most important agents at Freund und Feind , Munich (Moser) 1931.
  • Thomas A. Reppetto: Battleground New York City. Countering spies, saboteurs, and terrorists since 1861 , Washington, DC (Potomac Books) 2012. ISBN 978-1-59797-677-0 .

German-German espionage

Encyclopedic works

  • Lerner, K. Lee; Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth: Encyclopedia of espionage, intelligence, and security , Detroit, Thomson / Gale, 2004 (full version at


  • War in the clouds - aerial espionage over the GDR. Documentation, 2007, 45 min., A film by Jan Lorenzen, Michael Marten, John Goetz and Claudia Schön, production: MDR , first broadcast: November 20, 2007, synopsis ( memento from January 3, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) of the MDR
  • James Bond - Agent 007 , is a secret agent invented by Ian Fleming . There are both books, films and games about the spy working for the MI6 .
  • The German Spy Museum in Berlin has been offering an overview of the world of espionage from antiquity to the present since 2015 .

Web links

Commons : Spies  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ "Spion", in: Wolfgang Pfeifer et al .: Etymological Dictionary of German (1993). Digitized version in the Digital Dictionary of the German Language , revised by Wolfgang Pfeifer , accessed on January 15, 2020.
  2. Johannes Ehrengruber, Secret and Intelligence Services of the German Empire before the outbreak of the First World War, GRIN Verlag Munich, 2013, p. 6ff.
  3. ^ Federal government now wants to monitor friendly states. It was hesitated for a long time, now the federal government is said to have taken the decision: American and British secret services may be observed on German soil. In: Zeit Online. Zeit Online GmbH, July 23, 2014, accessed on May 31, 2018 .
  4. ^ Office for the Protection of the Constitution 2007 ( Memento from September 20, 2008 in the Internet Archive )
  5. Court ruling: BND may continue to tap into DE-CIX Internet nodes. According to the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig, the Federal Intelligence Service can continue to access data at the De-CIX Internet node without any reason. May 31, 2018, accessed May 31, 2018 .
  6. Ira Winkler: Spies among us . Wiley Publishing, Indianapolis 2005, ISBN 0-7645-8468-5 , pp. 8 f.