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Government Security Book Reviews

Book Review: How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy 102

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
benrothke (2577567) writes "When it comes to documenting the history of cryptography, David Kahn is singularly one of the finest, if not the finest writers in that domain. For anyone with an interest in the topic, Kahn's works are read in detail and anticipated. His first book was written almost 50 years ago: The Codebreakers – The Story of Secret Writing; which was a comprehensive overview on the history of cryptography. Other titles of his include Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boats Codes, 1939-1943. The Codebreakers was so good and so groundbreaking, that some in the US intelligence community wanted the book banned. They did not bear a grudge, as Kahn became an NSA scholar-in-residence in the mid 1990's. With such a pedigree, many were looking forward, including myself, to his latest book How I Discovered World War IIs Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code. While the entire book is fascinating, it is somewhat disingenuous, in that there is no new material in it. Many of the articles are decades old, and some go back to the late 1970's. From the book description and cover, one would get the impression that this is an all new work. But it is not until ones reads the preface, that it is detailed that the book is simple an assemblage of collected articles." Keep reading for the rest of Ben's review.
How I Discovered World War IIs Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code
author David Kahn
pages 469
publisher Auerbach Publications
rating 8/10
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 978-1466561991
summary Very good collection of a large number of excellent articles from David Kahn
For those that are long-time fans of Kahn, there is nothing new in the book. For those that want a wide-ranging overview of intelligence, espionage and codebreaking, the book does provide that.

The book gets its title from a 2007 article in which Kahn tracked down whom he felt was the greatest spy of World War 2. That was none other than Hans-Thilo Schmidt, who sold information about the Enigma cipher machine to the French. That information made its way to Marian Rejewski of Poland, which lead to the ability of the Polish military to read many Enigma-enciphered communications.

An interesting question Kahn deals with is the old conspiracy theory that President Franklin Roosevelt and many in is administration knew about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor. He writes that the theory is flawed for numerous reasons. Kahn notes that the attack on Pearl Harbor succeeded because of Japan's total secrecy about the attack. Even the Japanese ambassador's in Washington, D.C., whose messages the US was reading were never told of the attack.

Chapter 4 from 1984 is particularly interesting which deals with how the US viewed Germany and Japan in 1941. Kahn writes that part of the reason the US did not anticipate a Japanese attack was due to racist attitudes. The book notes that many Americans viewed the Japanese as a bucktoothed and bespectacled nation.

Chapter 10 Why Germany's intelligence failed in World War II, is one of the most interesting chapters in the book. It is from Kahn's 1978 book Hitlers Spies: German Military Intelligence In World War II.

In the Allies vs. the Axis, the Allies were far from perfect. Battles at Norway, Arnhem and the Bulge were met with huge losses. But overall, the Allies enjoyed significant success in their intelligence, much of it due to their superiority in verbal intelligence because of their far better code-breaking. Kahn writes that the Germans in contrast, were glaringly inferior.

Kahn writes that there were five basic factors that led to the failure of the Germans, namely: unjustified arrogance, which caused them to lose touch with reality; aggression, which led to a neglect of intelligence; a power struggle within the officer corps, which made many generals hostile to intelligence; the authority structure of the Nazi state, which gravely impaired its intelligence, and anti-Semitism, which deprived German intelligence of many brains.

The Germans negative attitude towards intelligence went all the way back to World War I, when in 1914 the German Army was so certain of success that many units left their intelligence officers behind. Jump to 1941 and Hitler invaded Russia with no real intelligence preparation. This arrogance, which broke Germany's contact with reality, also prevented intelligence from seeking to resume that contact.

Other interesting stories in the book include how the US spied on the Vatican in WW2, the great spy capers between the US and Soviets, and more.

For those that want a broad overview of the recent history of cryptography, spying and military intelligence, How I Discovered World War IIs Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code, is an enjoyable, albeit somewhat disjointed summary of the topic.

The best part of the book is its broad scope. With topics from Edward Bell and his Zimmermann Telegram memoranda, cryptology and the origins of spread spectrum, to Nothing Sacred: The Allied Solution of Vatican Codes in World War II and a historical theory of intelligence, the book provides a macro view of the subject. The down side is that this comes at the cost of the 30 chapters being from almost as many different books and articles, over the course of almost 40 years.

For those that are avid readers of David Kahn, of which there are many, this title will not be anything new. For those that have read some of Kahn's other works and are looking for more, How I Discovered World War IIs Greatest Spy will be an enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Ben Rothke.

You can purchase How I Discovered World War IIs Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews (sci-fi included) -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Book Review: How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy

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  • they started so many wars that they didn't have enough people to replace their losses and after a while the allies' industrial might out produced the german army

    battle of the bulge the US army was sending high school kids straight off the boat with no equipment and no training into battle. when they died, there were more of them. not so for german losses

    • by Dutch Gun (899105)

      they started so many wars that they didn't have enough people to replace their losses and after a while the allies' industrial might out produced the german army

      battle of the bulge the US army was sending high school kids straight off the boat with no equipment and no training into battle. when they died, there were more of them. not so for german losses

      Although Germany was indeed dealing with manpower shortages, the US didn't have overwhelming manpower to throw at Germany either - that describes Russia better than the US. What we did have was vastly better equipped soldiers, and an overwhelming material advantage. Our forces were highly mobile by comparison, and had vastly superior artillery support and air dominance at that point. I don't believe the US sent our soldiers into battle with "no equipment and no training." In all the interviews I've seen

  • " Many of the articles are decades old, and some go back to the late 1970's" Isn't it a book about WWII?

    • by tchdab1 (164848)

      Apparently this is a book about WWII approved by the NSA. I'm not surprised there is no new info here.

    • By the 1970's, quite a bit of material relating to WWII was still classified. In the DVD notes to The World At War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_at_War), a documentary series commissioned in 1969, Jeremy Isaacs noted this.

      I **believe** that some of the crypto stuff is still classified - 69 years later.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    He was so great he was never uncovered.

  • by Squidlips (1206004) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @02:57PM (#46641797)
    The most damaging spy of WWII might go to Klaus Fuchs who gave the A-Bomb secrets to Stalin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K... [wikipedia.org] "Hans Bethe once said that Klaus Fuchs was the only physicist he knew who truly changed history" However this did not effect the outcome of WWII, but it arguably caused the Cold War.
    • by alen (225700)

      russia/USSR being invaded 3 or 4 times helped cause the cold war as well

      germans in WW1
      poland after WW1
      US during russian revolution
      germany in WW2

      and that doesn't include all their other wars and invasions from northern and western europe before that

      • And had nothing to do with Stalin, probably the greatest butcher of all time?
        • by alen (225700)

          Britain killed more people around the world than Stalin ever did. and they were the ones who invented the concentration camp

          • Britain killed more people around the world than Stalin ever did.

            Not the same. Stalin killed white people.

            • by alen (225700)

              forgot when they changed the law, but for a long time in the USA if you were from southern or eastern europe you weren't legally white

          • by Dutch Gun (899105)

            Britain killed more people around the world than Stalin ever did. and they were the ones who invented the concentration camp

            The very fact that you're trying to compare a single dictator versus the collective actions of a world wide empire over their entire history should tell you something.

    • I'd put Kim Philby up there as the most damaging . . . he revealed just about everything of Western Intelligence to the Soviets: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K... [wikipedia.org]

      Oh, and the Chief of German Military Intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, "was among the military officers involved in the clandestine opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. He was executed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp for the act of high treason.": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]

      So what all he was up to on the side . .

      • Yup, and many people died slow, horrible deaths due to Philby such as the Estonian freedom fighters. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F... [wikipedia.org] But it was Klaus Fucks who gave the most dangerous & paranoid man in the world, Joe Stalin, the ultimate weapon which lead the enslavement of Eastern Europe. I can e argued that Stalin would have done the same without the bomb, but it might have slowed him down. Fucks was delusional about Stalin.
        • Dude.. really you need to read a bit more on this. The Russian program was not dependent upon Fuchs for the either the atomic or hydrogen bomb. And all intelligence the Russians received had to be double and triple checked. Fuchs aided their atomic program but it would have been build in much the same time frame without him.

          • You are wrong. Almost all the Russian hardware, from the isotope separators to the reactors to the bomb were exact copies, bolt for bolt of the American versions. There was a lot of spying for the Ruskies, not just Fuchs, but it was Fuchs who gave Stalin the most important part, the neutron trigger. Russian was not considered an enemy at the time (the real enemy being Germany first and then Japan) and many on the project (in the press and the Left) were hopelessly naive about just how bad Stalin was. S
            • Richard Rhodes covered this in detail in his building the bomb book
            • You are wrong. Really. You clearly need to expand your resources on the subject past what you have so far. And honestly, it seems more that you have a fixation on Stalin than anything else.

              The best that can be arugued is that Fuchs sped up the development of the implosion atomic weapon, largely by helping them better focus their resources. The Soviets could have made a gun device but opted instead to go to the high yield/smaller deliverable. And the further removed you get from the end of the war the le

    • by tomhath (637240)

      Perhaps he was the most damaging to what the US thought were its best interests at the time. But by sharing those secrets the US lost the option of using the a-bomb again. Maybe a Cold War was better than the alternative

      • by mangu (126918)

        The US didn't need to use the bomb again, the mere knowledge that it existed was enough.

        Anyhow, it was several years until the Soviets got their own bomb, and even longer until they had some way to deliver them. Until the mid-1950s at least the Soviets had no bomber planes or missiles capable of dropping atom bombs on the USA.

    • Designing a fission nuke isn't as hard as people like to make it out to be. With a couple of math and physics students and access to unclassified materials and you can have a working, though perhaps not efficient, design in less than a year. We know this to be true because someone paid a couple of graduate students to do it and they came up with a design that, according to analysis by experts, would have worked. He might have helped them along by a few months, but the real bottle neck in any nuclear prog

    • the material Fuchs gave was not a game changer by any means and had even less bearing of the H-bomb.

  • by SylvesterTheCat (321686) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @03:15PM (#46641961)

    I found a hardcover copy of "Seizing the Enigma" in a bookstore discount bin well over ten years ago. I found it to be an excellent read. The only (very minor) criticism I would have is the title. The book seemed as much (if not more) about the Allied prosecution of the German U-boat war as about the Enigma. Again, a very minor point about what seemed to be a very well researched and written book.

    I still find it very interesting how Poland's role in breaking German encryption played in the overall history at that time. Poland very well understood that they were in a bad place (geographically and militarily) with regard to Germany and their military buildup and therefore, had a interest in trying to learn the details of Germany's intentions. I found Marian Rejewski to be a particularly interesting character. A Polish mathematician who was certainly smart, but not brilliant. Through determination (and some use of statistics) he was able to work with 2 other mathematicians to break a Enigma-encoded message. I find him to be a personally inspiring individual.

    I cannot help but wonder what is happening in modern Poland with the actions of Russian and eastern Ukraine. Having joined NATO and the EU, I would still expect that they are more than a little interested in knowing what the intentions are of their neighbors.

  • "From the book description and cover, one would get the impression that this is an all new work. But it is not until ones reads the preface, that it is detailed that the book is simple an assemblage of collected articles."

    And what's wrong with that? Collections and anthologies have a long a distinguished history in non-fiction as well as fiction - for a reason. Books are far less ephemeral than magazine (and especially web!) articles, and seeing all the material at once or having it collected in one place

  • It's World War II's Greatest Spy

    Please don't forget the apostrophe in the name of the book you are reviewing. That's just bad.

  • How I Discovered World War IIs Greatest Spy

  • by Anonymous Coward

    World War II's greatest spy was a man who betrayed the Weimar Republic's intelligence secrets for money?

    I'm afraid, Ben Rothke, that I must disagree with David Kahn.

  • Maybe off topic a little, but today (4/2/2014) the New York Times has an obituary for the last living Bletchley Park codebreaker. Jerry Roberts worked to break the code used for Hitler to communicate with the highest field military officers, Field Marshals. Apparently the Germans used an ultra type machine with as many as 12 rotors for that purpose rather than the simpler device with three or four rotors. The code he and his coworkers broke they called Tunny, not Ultra, as in tuna fish since one of the Germ
  • This is a really good blog on crypto in the WWII era http://chris-intel-corner.blog... [blogspot.gr]

  • by Michael Woodhams (112247) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @06:55PM (#46644239) Journal

    If you're interested in the German side of world war cryptanalysis, an excellent book is War Secrets in the Ether, by Wilhelm Flicke. The author was a German cryptanalyst during the two world wars, and it was written shortly after the end of the second world war. (It is out of print, so I suggest looking in libraries.)

    It has been a decade or more since I read it, so I may have misremembered details, but here are a few points of note:

    Pre-war, he'd been analysing Russian radio usage. They had a complicated system where the same station would use different call signs depending who they were talking to. This made their intercepts more chaotic and harder to do traffic analysis on. He and all his colleagues were shifted to the western front with the outbreak of war. When the war with Russia started, in the initial shock their complicated system failed and they fell back on a more standard system. Once they started to get over the initial attack and reorganize, they returned to the complicated system. The German cryptanalysts who were present had no experience with this (the experienced ones having been moved) so they interpreted the chaoticness of the signals as showing the Russians were in complete disarray, when the exact opposite was true.

    He thought that the course of Battle of Crete indicated that the allies had broken the German codes at that time. (Which was correct, but he missed that they'd broken most of the German codes for almost the entire war.)

    They knew that the allies had very good intelligence, but thought that it was supplied by spies. As a result, he spend the second half of the war on a whack-a-mole mission to shut down spy radio transmitters.

    He complained about the multitude of German intelligence agencies and their lack of cooperation due to infighting.

  • by careysub (976506) on Wednesday April 02, 2014 @10:49PM (#46645929)

    By the time David Kahn had became an NSA fellow he had ceased being a writer about cryptography and had become an agency stenographer. Seriously - the "revised edition" of The Codebreakers published in 1996 simply has a 16 page forward that adds nothing to what he wrote in 1967. To learn anything about the vast changes to codes and cryptography over the last fifty years, you will have to go somewhere else.

    • by AHuxley (892839)
      Yes much more was slowly entering the history books. Germany broke some interesting US and UK codes at different times but always lost its easy way in due to UK upgrades.
      The US was lost in its own world with the Army and Navy working on Japan as different teams early on. US codes where often old, badly used. Italy made some great human efforts too.
      The UK was really the master, breaking most of the diverse 1920-30's European countires code efforts and learning from what their spies well placed where
      • by Anonymous Coward

        the uk also created pki...but they decided to make it private...unlike the mit rsa project

  • The most accomplished spy I know of was Garbo [wikipedia.org], a double-agent who successfully convinced Nazi Germany that D-Day was just a diversion, among many other things. His story is fascinating.

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