Spynest : British and German Espionage from Neutral Holland 1914-1918
After the First World War broke out, Holland, and the port city of Rotterdam in particular, became a prolific breeding ground for secret agents and spies. The neutrality of the Netherlands, its geographical position between the warring nations and its proximity to the Western Front meant that the British and German secret services both chose Holland as the main base for their pioneering spy operations. It was here that the new intelligence agencies fought their battles, each in pursuit of the other's secrets.
Both sides sent in their own agents, but they also hired local men and women to work for them, as couriers, trainspotters and infiltrators. Many of them were recruited from the shadowy criminal underworld and brought with them their own concerns; others sacrificed their lives for love of their country. Author Edwin Ruis has plumbed the depths of the international archives to bring to light the unexplored and often wellguarded secret histories of intelligence in the First World War.
But even this is only half the story. Those who were not found out, the truly successful spies, remain a mystery to this day.
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Staff Reviews Edwin Ruis is a Dutch historian specialising in the Great War. His book first appeared in Dutch as Spionnennest 1914-1918 in 2012. Following its success in the Netherlands and Belgium, Ruis was persuaded that its subject matter deserved a wider audience: hence this English edition.
Like Switzerland, the Netherlands declared its neutrality when the First World War started. As a result, it became an attractive centre for espionage for the warring powers who were quick to establish their agents there as well as recruiting locals who might provide them with information about their enemies. This placed the Netherlands authorities in a difficult position. They didn't want to approve anything that might jeopardise their own country's neutrality. But they couldn't simply ignore the secret activities being carried on under their noses. In the end, a practical policy of tolerance prevailed. Provided countries like Germany and England weren't spying on the Netherlands, they were tacitly allowed to operate in the country relatively freely.
Edwin Ruis' command of the details of what happened is remarkable, especially when one considers the limitations on his sources. Many of the German secret archives were destroyed in 1918 at the end of the war. The Dutch military intelligence archive met a similar fate when Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. Memories could be long and the Germans would have been keen to lay their hands on material that could provide information about who had been spying on them in 1914-1918, many of whom would still be around.
A remarkable parade of spies appears in Spynest from wounded officers no longer able to fight at the front to petty criminals eager to take a chance to improve their lot. Disinformation, betrayal and black propaganda all played their part. Many spies had several aliases. It is a tangled web that Edwin Ruiz has to describe. Although his account is over detailed at times, he has some wonderful anecdotes of a curious and relatively unknown aspect of the Great War.
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