Wilhelm Stieber II

With war looming, Bismarck ordered Stieber to shut down his intelligence service in Austria so that there would be no clues that Prussia had spied on Austria in peacetime.5 Stieber’s concluding report to Bismarck included the allegation that Austrian emperor Franz Joseph had begun using a double on public occasions because of his fear of assassination. Additionally, two of the emperor’s closest advisors were highly paid Prussian agents and his wife was in love with an 18-year-old stable groom, while many members of his court had become opium addicts.

On 23 June 1866, ten days before the outbreak of the war, Stieber was placed in charge of protecting the king, Bismarck and the supreme Prussian headquarters on campaign, ensuring its safe movement through occupied terrain. To this end he formed a ‘Secret Field Police’ which accompanied headquarters through the war.

Although Stieber’s intelligence went a good way to deciding to go ahead with the war, it perhaps proved less effective during the actual conflict. The Austrians, Stieber noted, showed unexpected resolve and the Hungarian uprising was quickly quashed. If anything, the victory over the Austrians at the battle of Sadowa on 3 July 1866 was more due to the superiority and rapid-fire of the new Prussian rifles than any great intelligence coup. At the end of the war, although Stieber was officially appointed a ‘privy councillor’, his failure to raise a Hungarian rebellion greatly rankled him.

The bitter tinge left after failure in Hungary would not fester for long, as Stieber was given even greater scope to build on his successes and failures during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). After defeating Austria, Bismarck decided upon the need for war against France and asked Stieber to spy on the country, primarily to warn of any French first strike. Bismarck told Stieber that money would be no object this time, as he had secretly confiscated funds from the Kingdom of Hanover, one of a number of smaller states incorporated into Prussia’s German empire, or Reich. Euphemistically dubbed the ‘funds of the Central News Bureau’, the use of the Hanoverian money meant that the costs of Stieber’s operations would not appear on the official Prussian defence budget and therefore his entire operation would remain secret from everyone.

In November 1869 Bismarck sent Stieber to Paris and had him investigate the new French Chassepot rifle and the much-dreaded mitrailleuse – an early form of machine gun. Stieber quickly learned the Chassepot rifle worked on the same principles as the Prussian needle gun and did not constitute as much a leap in technology as the French were boasting. The same applied to the mitrailleuse, which appeared to have been based on existing models dating back several decades. The mitrailleuse, Stieber reported, required a crew of three who could attain a rate of fire in the region of 1,000 rounds in three minutes with 66 per cent accuracy at 1,000 paces. However, the gun was prone to jamming and there was a high rate of misfire with its cartridges. Stieber also had serious doubts about its effectiveness against moving targets. His report concluded that the Prussians should fear it less than had previously been supposed.

While in Paris, this time posing as a journalist named Schmidt, Stieber began setting up a network of spies across France. Helping him with this task were several of the best agents from the war with Austria. Although Stieber knew that the easiest way to recruit spies was through the use of blackmail, he found this type of spy to be the least reliable. Instead he targeted officers and officials who needed large sums of money to pay off gambling debts and those who had been passed over for promotion, dismissed or otherwise disgraced. By making a systematic investigation into the finances of people with access to sensitive information, Stieber was able to draw up a list of those most in need of cash. He then arranged for them to receive a loan through a Hanoverian banking house with irresistible terms of credit. Once they accepted the terms of the loan agreement, they were well and truly in Stieber’s pocket.

Through these means, perhaps the most important piece of intelligence Stieber gained was that French troops were scattered round the globe defending the colonies or protecting the Papal States from the Italians. If France went to war, it would take time to recall these soldiers. Stieber predicted it would take France two full weeks to mobilize just 100,000 men against Germany. Bismarck told Stieber his information represented an ‘invitation to the German soldier’s boot.’

Stieber returned to Berlin, where his records office received thousands of dossiers on Frenchmen who might, with the right inducements, betray their homeland. Investigating other prominent people, Stieber began to build up detailed pictures of their lives, colleagues, wives, mistresses, secretaries, friends, house servants, recruiting as many as possible as spies. Stieber’s agents in Berlin also pored over lists of military and civil service promotions, always on the alert for those passed over time and time again. Once a potentially disgruntled candidate was identified, Stieber would send one of his undercover agents to recruit him.

Several of the major espionage coups were performed by an agent Stieber identified only by the initials ‘FM’. This agent reputedly made contact with and recruited a group of elite spies, all high-ranking opponents of the reign of French emperor Napoleon III. Stieber gave FM a free hand in running these spies and was rewarded with faith in the agent’s abilities when FM gained a copy of the French army’s deployment plans in the event of a war with Prussia. Having learned the location of these plans, FM obtained them by posing as a decorator and bluffing his way into the War Ministry with a ladder and a tin of paint. Once in the room, FM set up his tools and made a copy of plans in between decorating the walls.

The infiltration of agents into France proved much easier than with Austria. The operation was so successful even Stieber was surprised how many Frenchmen appeared willing to pass secrets to Prussia. He realized that these Frenchmen did not view their actions as treasonous, but saw themselves as liberators speeding up the end of an unpopular imperial regime. He boasted that even with agents in every significant military and political office in France, not a single one was discovered.

When hostilities commenced on 17 July 1870 Stieber took a very active role in the war and was given greater authority and more resources than during the Austro-Prussian War – including French-speaking officers. Bismarck again asked him to create a ‘field security police force’ to protect the king and his advisors. Added to this would be his duty to provide the German army with information on the enemy, to counteract the threat of enemy spies and to supervise what we might now call ‘embedded reporters’ – journalists travelling with the army. Stieber was also responsible for the supervision of postal traffic, which gave him a means to practise censorship.

A typical day for Stieber would begin with the arrival of couriers with reports and questions for him to answer. He could not neglect the news management of the war – press publications had to be supervised and foreign journalists provided with stories portraying the Prussian cause in a sympathetic light. Letters had to be checked and censored so as not to spread alarm at home, and all personally addressed mail arriving for the king, Bismarck and others had to be opened, looking for bombs or poison. During the night, or very early in the morning, reports from secret agents in the field would arrive, forcing Stieber to survive on an average of just two hours’ sleep a night with whatever he could snatch during the day. Twice a week he met with the king who asked for a summary of reports from agents in enemy territory. These reports were usually evaluated by comparing them with reports in the French press – other agents sending the French newspapers for Stieber’s scrutiny. Lastly, as suspected enemy spies were picked up, Stieber would interrogate them.

As the Prussian military juggernaut rolled into France, something of Stieber’s ruthless character is revealed in a letter to his ‘dear good wife’ dated 18 August 1870. In it he explained how French partisans were dealt with by the Prussian army:

Yesterday a French peasant fired on a wagon carrying Prussian wounded. But the joker was unsuccessful: two of the wounded still had good legs; they rushed into the house from where the shot had come and took the lad. They hung him from a rope suspended under his arms and slowly fired 34 times until he was dead. He was left there the whole day as an example.

Stieber began to use his spies to observe enemy troop movements. French soldiers, the spies reported, were extremely confident and expected a swift victory, so much so that their generals had not issued them with French maps, only ones of Germany. Spies were established in Paris, Bordeaux, Lyons and Orléans, with others kept nearby so that Stieber could send them to where they were most required.

Stieber had a spy on Marshal MacMahon’s staff, who reported the French move to raise the siege of Metz. This information allowed Prussians under von Moltke to set a trap, which when sprung saw the French shut up in the fortress of Sedan. Here Stieber’s agents related the incredible news that Emperor Napoleon III was trapped inside the fortress with his soldiers. The French emperor was forced to surrender on 2 September along with 104,000 men. While Napoleon III went into exile in Britain, the Prussian king headed for Versailles to await the surrender of Paris, which was put under siege on 19 September.

Arriving at Versailles on 5 October a large crowd of ‘idle folk’ came out to meet the Prussian king, having been rounded up by Stieber. Among the onlookers were several curious foreigners, but the majority were Prussian secret police agents. From that time on, Prussian agents multiplied in the town with extraordinary abundance. Bismarck’s quarters were placed under strict guard, with police agents patrolling the street night and day. Stieber oversaw the surveillance of the town and began arbitrary and brutal arrests using the secret police. His officers and spies were notorious, searching and maltreating even the most upstanding of Versailles’ citizens.

On 13 and 14 October Stieber made detailed enquiries into the organization of the French police. His intention was to incorporate French police sergeants into the Prussian police with their wearing an armband in Prussian colours. Although the police sergeants did collaborate, they insisted on wearing armbands in the French tricolour for identification. Better assistance came from the local prostitutes Stieber protected in return for information. Stieber asked the prostitutes to inform on Prussian soldiers as much as on their French clientele.

Throughout their stay in Versailles the abuses continued. One of Stieber’s most trusted men, Lieutenant Zernicki, caused a scene when he asked the mayor of Versailles for 11lb (5kg) of candles to be taken to Stieber’s quarters at 3 Boulevard du Roi. When the candles did not arrive, Zernicki went to the town hall and threatened to put the mayor and the rest of the municipal council in prison. When one of the councillors asked Zernicki who he thought he was, the Prussian drew his sabre and called in some guards. Two of the councillors were seized and dragged off and were only saved when the local French commander went directly to Bismarck. Although Zernicki was told to keep clear of the town hall in future, he was soon promoted to captain for his activities in Versailles.

During the siege of Paris, Stieber faced and thwarted French attempts at aerial espionage. French balloons leaving the city had to be stopped because they were carrying messages to unoccupied parts of the country. For example, one balloon, the Galilée, was brought down by troopers of the Prussian 14th Hussars. Onboard were found 924lb (420kg) of letters and newspapers from the besieged city. The balloon’s aeronautes were taken to prison and then sent to Prussia to face a court martial. Because the balloons traversed the Prussian forward posts, the occupants were deemed technically to be spies and thus faced the death penalty. When dealing with balloons, Stieber found the newly invented Krupp anti-balloon cannon a double-edged sword. The guns proved so effective the balloonists were now almost always killed and were thus unavailable for interrogation. Later, when carrier pigeons replaced the balloons, the Germans sent hunting hawks after them and many messages were retrieved from round the necks of dead birds.

More decisive was Stieber’s investigation on secret communications between Versailles and Paris. His spies tracked down an extensive system of underground passages, which were being used to supply Paris with food. Every night up to 300 wagons passed through these tunnels with their wheels wrapped in cloth to prevent them making a noise. This discovery explained spy reports from inside the city that Paris had ample provisions for a siege. Stieber reported his findings to Bismarck, also pointing out that morale at home was plummeting because of the stalemate. With no end to the siege in sight, the order was given to open fire and bombard Paris. Until then the Prussians had refrained from indiscriminate firing on the city, but when they did results were almost instantaneous. After 5 January Prussian heavy-calibre artillery fired 10,000 shells into the city, destroying over 200 buildings. Stieber’s spies in the city reported that the storehouses had burned and people were killing cats and dogs for meat – they even reported the establishment of a rat market.

On the night of 23/24 January, Stieber’s agents inside Paris reported that a high-ranking person was coming out to negotiate. Stieber galloped back to his quarters and made arrangements to host the expected negotiations. After disguising his agents in civilian clothes, he prepared overnight lodgings for the French. ‘We lit a good fire,’ he wrote, ‘prepared two beds and, as the French believed that, like Versailles, we were dying of hunger, I did everything possible to procure some good food, desserts, pastries and so on.’ When the vice-president, Jules Favre, arrived at Stieber’s lodgings to spend the night, he had his agents watch him through the night, spying on Favre through a hole in the wall.

On 26 January an armistice was signed with very stiff conditions for the Parisians. Their forces had to disarm, abandon their fortifications and make a payment of 200 million francs within two weeks. When the Prussians entered the city, Stieber took French hostages whom he made walk ahead of the soldiers as ‘human shields’. Worse was to follow for France. On 1 March the treaty of Bordeaux was ratified, with France agreeing to pay a levy of 5 billion francs, and giving Alsace and parts of Lorraine to Germany. It was a disastrous conclusion to the war, which ultimately paved the way for further conflicts in the 20th century.

On 6 March the business was over. Stieber handed police matters back over to the French authorities and set out for home. For his much underrated part in the campaign Stieber received the Iron Cross. Schulmeister would have understood his pride in receiving it. On 17 March Stieber arrived in Berlin with the emperor and continued to manage the ‘Central News Bureau’. Although his attention was primarily fixed on the Social Democrat movement, he nonetheless expanded his espionage networks at home and abroad. As word of Stieber’s activities began to come to light after the Franco-Prussian War, so began the popular fear of ‘the German spy menace’.

The German secret service leading up to and during WWI was described by one of the most successful Allied spies during the war – a Netherlands-based businessman named Charles Lucieto. He considered the espionage system established by Germany as ‘gigantic’. Based in the Thiergarten in Berlin, the service consisted of three separate branches: political, naval and military.

The political branch was directly attached to the kaiser’s cabinet and was broken down into sections, each dealing with a single country. As its name implies, the function of the political branch was to gather intelligence on the political world that might be used to the profit of the Reich. The directors of this service had direct access to the kaiser, who maintained a lively interest in affairs of espionage. Its agents were the elite, usually drawn from the military and naval branches. Although it included members of the nobility, agents originated from all classes and sometimes even the criminal world. Agents were expected to obey selflessly and punctually and if for any reason the agent was ‘scorched’ – that is to say exposed – he could count on no official protection or acknowledgement. Because of this, such agents were paid extremely well from a ‘Black Chest’ for which the directors of the service were never called to account.

The intelligence arm of the Imperial German Navy was composed of four separate sections, including an Intelligence Branch, which was responsible for running agents and making reconnaissances. It also contained a Military-Political Branch, a Foreign Navies Branch and an Observation and Cryptanalytic Service, which, as the importance of radio interception became realized in the run-up to the First World War, grew into a large 458-man organization based in Neumünster.

The military branch of the secret service came under the direct supervision of the secretary of war and was responsible for supplying all military intelligence required by the German general staff. The service was divided into sub-divisions, each possessing both civilian and military agents. The agents were themselves divided into three classes.

The ‘Directors of Operations in foreign lands’ were the highest type of spy. Often retired officers, these were able to speak several languages fluently and were educated in technical and military matters, including topography, fortification and strategy. The Directors of Operations were expected to go after key enemy personnel, using blackmail to obtain the secrets desired by the general staff. In addition they were to supervise ‘Resident Agents’, corroborating and evaluating their reports, and maintaining contact through messenger spies, who ferried questionnaires and responses to and from the directors.

Separate from them were the ‘agents charged with special missions’. On entering the secret service, these agents were given a crash course of technical and engineering training by officers of the general staff. Once they had passed a stringent examination the agents were given posts in German embassies abroad. Independent from other spies, they were given great freedom to carry out their mission as they saw fit. The information they collected was encoded and sent to Berlin either with the diplomatic mail or by the embassy’s military attaché.

The ‘Resident Agents’ were the most numerous type of secret agent employed by the Germans. They were German nationals placed at the head of businesses or were self-employed and thus free to go off without attracting the attention either of friends or employers. Their commercial enterprises served as ‘cloaks’ for their espionage operations. Their businesses were often subsidized by the German secret service, which, by means of bogus business deals, was able to make payments to the spy. Although the intelligence they brought in was generally of low-grade importance, the sheer scale of it ensured the German military was kept informed of troop movements, fortification building and so on.

After the Franco-Prussian War, Stieber is said to have flooded France with such resident spies, with at least 15,000 operating there before the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The first wave came in the guise of farm hands who began purchasing land and setting themselves up as farmers in their own right, by preference situated in the regions along the German border. More spies arrived as domestic servants, school teachers, professors and travelling salesmen. With money provided by the general staff, Stieber bought into the hotel industry, ensuring the largest and most prestigious international hotels were in German hands. Attracting a clientele of politicians, diplomats, generals and other members from the cream of society, German agents posing as hotel workers or prostitutes were in a prime position to overhear, steal or copy their secrets.

Stieber was behind the much publicized disgrace of the four-times French Minister of War, General de Cissey (1810–82). The general had been captured during the Franco-Prussian War and taken to Hamburg, where, although a prisoner of war, he enjoyed considerable day-to-day freedom. While captive, de Cissey took a German lover, the Baroness de Kaulla. After being repatriated at the end of the war, de Cissey became minister of war. A short time later Mademoiselle de Kaulla arrived in Paris to reignite the love affair. Unknown to the general, the baroness was working for and receiving funds from Stieber, who was very interested in de Cissey’s plans for restructuring the French army.

The matter came to a head in 1880 when the radical newspaper Le Petit Parisien accused de Cissey – now a senator – of communicating information to the Germans through his mistress, who they exposed as a spy. Although the editors were convicted of criminal libel and charges of treason could not be proved, it was shown that de Cissey had misappropriated the secret funds of his ministry and he was forced to resign. The great irony in this affair was that de Cissey had been the prime mover in creating a special section to counter German espionage and prevent a surprise attack.

One of Stieber’s most notorious achievements was the ‘Green House’, a high-class bordello in Berlin. Stieber staffed the ‘resort’ with police agents who monitored their patrons, drawn as they were only from ‘people of consequence’. Pandering to every imaginable vice, depravity and perversion, patrons were only admitted by invitation. However, these gratifications came at a price. Stieber would keep a file on each patron and when a favour was required, he would blackmail them by threatening to reveal their indiscretions.

A rare blip came late in Stieber’s remarkable career and involved a journalist. It concerned the news management of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 – a conference set up to agree the balance of power in the Balkans. The topics of debate were delicate and Bismarck wanted to keep them out of the newspapers. Not to be thwarted, the editor of The Times, John Delane, sent his Paris correspondent, Henri de Blowitz, to cover the story. Despite the presence of Stieber’s agents, who kept everyone under surveillance, a series of detailed ‘scoops’ began appearing in The Times. They began with the first day’s agenda and finished when a full copy of the agreement (the Treaty of Berlin) was published in The Times, almost as it was being signed.

Although Blowitz was suspected from the start, the secret police could not find any evidence of him meeting with anyone present at the debate. The truth did not come out until Blowitz’s memoirs were published in 1903. Before the conference opened, the journalist made an arrangement with one of the clerical staff. This ‘mole’ would write reports of the day’s proceedings and conceal them in the lining of his hat. He was then to hang the hat on a hat rack in the Kaiserhof Hotel. Blowitz – wearing an identical hat – would simply walk in, hang up his hat, dine and afterwards pick up the other hat on leaving.

Having succeeded where Pinkerton failed, by making the shift from police detective to military intelligence gatherer, Stieber must be viewed as one of the great spymasters in history. However, like so many other practitioners of the secret services, Stieber has been to a large degree demonized both at home and abroad. Despite his successes and although he was decorated many times, Stieber was an embarrassment to the Prussian military establishment. As early as 1867 von Moltke had established a rival intelligence bureau of his own. Many recognize in him the beginnings of the Nazi police state and more still have compared him to the propagandist Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945). He is routinely portrayed as a deviant and proverbial Bogeyman. The distaste he routinely inspires led one author to describe his rise to prominence as being ‘like some mushroom growth, up the backstairs of fashionable Berlin.’ When Stieber died, stricken by arthritis in 1892, his funeral, they say, was very well attended – not from well-wishers, but by people who wanted to make sure he was really dead.