Why was German intelligence so crap in WWII?

I mean intelligence in the military sense, rather than that all Germans were stupid.

One of the areas the Allies were indisputably superior to the Axis in the war is in the field of intelligence - ULTRA, MAGIC, the work of our boys and girls at Bletchley Park, our system of double agents, Operation Fortitude conning the Nazis that Calais was the real invasion target. Soviet maskirovka operation likewise cost the Germans dearly.

By contrast German commanders were woefully ill-informed - not only being consistently fooled by the Allies but also making blunders in their own right, famously underestimating the amount of divisions Stalin had.

What explains this gulf? I’ve a few theories of my own I want to run by you -
a) Hitler being convinced of his own genius and insight, dismissed any info to the contrary - rendering the Abwehr as useful as a condom machine in Vatican City.
b) Military intelligence, as the existence of COLOSSUS proved, is a field requiring much technical knowledge. The Reich however was busy murdering those who had such knowledge because they were Jewish.
c) Agents either saw the writing on the wall, that the Nazis would be destroyed, and preferred to back the winning side. Or they saw how inhuman the regime was and preferred to work to its destruction.

What do you think? I’ve also heard that things were also pretty shoddy in the Japanese camp, although I don’t have as many guesses there - any insight you can give is appreciated.

I go with ‘a’.

It’s my understanding that Admiral Canaris had a pretty free hand in operating the Abwehr, so I don’t think Hitler had much influence on the Nazi intelligence apparatus. Anyway, Hitler likely considered spying to be too subtle; his method for conquering nations was to roll tanks in there and kill everything that moved.

I have actually asked myself this same question, and my short answer is that given the relatively insular nature of Nazi society and the period of poverty and social unrest that came before it, that there simply weren’t that many good agents available. Plus, who would they have spied on in the early going, except Britain? And it’s kind of hard for anyone to fake being British :slight_smile:

I think there’s a lot of German arrogance in play as well, in that they didn’t consider their inferiors (everybody else) to have any knowledge worth acquiring and so, their intelligence efforts were primarily of a defensive nature.

Another interesting thought is that a totalitarian nation with no personal freedoms might have a hard time understanding what it takes to spy on a free nation.

Our Germans were better than their Germans.

There’s also the fact that the Nazis failed to make inroads into other societies. While there were burgeoning fascist groups in the US, The UK and Spain, the Abwehr made spectacularly poor use of them when you compare it to what the Soviets were able to do.In fact, this was rather incompetent as they had powerful supporters including the Duke of Windsor, Charles Lindbergh and even Henry Ford.

Had Canaris leveraged this support, he could have caused untold problems for the Allies as they would have had to continually vet all of their people or risked allowing Nazi infiltration into their circles of power. It’s yet another sign for people who believe that Germany somehow came close to winning World War II.

Not only wasn’t it going to win, it clearly were unprepared to even engage in battle.

It is true that a disproportionate number of the best German scientists before the Nazis took over were Jewish, but it was far from all of them, and, in other respects, Germany did quite well with war technology. They did not have radar quite as soon as the British, but they were catching up before too long. By the later part of the war they had flying bombs and rockets that the allies did not have.

It may also be true that many of the best non-Jewish scientists tended to be anti-Nazi, in part, no doubt, because they had known Jewish scientists well, and respected them (and perhaps in part because they were smart!). Some non-Jewish scientists left Germany (as did many wealthier or better connected Jews), and some who remained might not have co-operated with the war effort as much as they could have. Nevertheless, I think that there were still plenty who did.

This won’t fly. Every adult German at the time had lived for far longer in a free society, prior to Nazi rule, than they had under the Nazis, who had only been in power about 7 years when the war began. They knew what it was like.

Totalitarian countries are pretty bad at information sharing or exploring/arguing hypotheses that go against the opinions of superiors.

Remember that the USSR also had quite an intelligence failure when Germany invaded.

I thought about that, but it seems more a failure of Stalin than the intelligence about Barbarossa, about which there was loads. The German diplomat Schulenburg even let slip Nazi intentions, to which Stalin replied “Disinformation has now reached the ambassadorial level”. Not to mention, the British passed on info which he dismissed as capitalist plot to provoke Hitler and drag the USSR into war before Stalin wanted (on a report he wrote “'This information is an English provocation. Find out who the author is and punish him.”). A source in the Luftwaffe was picked up by the NKGB - Stalin told Merkulov that this ‘source’ should go and f- his mother.

That said, unlike Hitler Stalin learned to delegate. Soviet intelligence knew about ULTRA and the Manhattan Project, two of the most closely guarded secrets of the war, so they can’t have been all that bad.

No better or worse than the other services, IMHO. The Allies had a natural advantage in intelligence work due to a bigger geographical distribution, and natural sympathy from occupied territories.

The Germans’ biggest intelligence blunder was operation sea lion. They estimated 30 fully equipped divisions guarding the southern part of England against invasion. That was as of June 1940. The escape at Dunkerque was a big factor to this miscalculation. The truth was the British had only 3 fully equipped divisions at that time but were able to outfit 13 more by September 1940.

The Allies had their own blunders. They could have invaded “Fortress Europe” as early as 1942, if they had the materiel.

Here’s a theory for you.

Naziism, fascism, and related far right (and even not quite so far right) ideologies are, in their very essence, intensely nationalistic ideologies. Thus, although there were quite a few fascist sympathizers and admirers of Hitler and Mussolini in the allied countries before the war broke out (Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, for example), and although they might have liked to see Britain, or the USA, run in something like the way Hitler was running Germany, they were nevertheless nationalist and generally highly patriotic towards their own country. Mosley (and his followers) did not want Britain run by Hitler. They wanted Britain to be strong in the way that they thought Hitler was making Germany strong, and they wanted it run by a strong British leader, by Mosley, maybe, but not by Hitler. However much they might have wanted their countries to become fascist, they very much did not want it taken over by foreign fascists. Thus, even people who were, in a sense, Nazi sympathizers in the allied countries, were not easily recruitable as agents for Germany. No doubt there wer exceptions to this, but they woul dhave been rare.

In Germany, however, the strongest political opponents of Naziism were leftists: Communists and Socialists of various stripes (and of course, Jews, and people sympathetic to the Jews). Leftist ideologies are almost all firmly internationalist, and anti-nationalist (as, indeed, was Judaism, at least in the era when Jews had no country of their own). This meant that Germans politically opposed to Naziism, even if they were not all out Communists, were relatively likely to be open to becoming agents for the allies. Not being intense nationalists, many would have been were willing to pay the price of seeing their native land subdued by foreigners, if that was what it took to bring down Naziism.

This also explains why the Soviets, as compared to the Nazis, were relatively successful in recruiting spies in Western capitalist countries.

Internecine warfare between Bormann, Canaris, and Himmler didn’t help the German war effort much, either. And while Canaris was a loyal German, he wasn’t a nazi. As for the ineffectiveness of the Abwehr, one might keep in mind Canaris had knowledge of the Manhattan Project. He didn’t pass it on, though. He learned of it via his subordinate Gehlen, who had agents in Moscow.

It’s because they were Germans: they thought in straight lines, and they liked to follow the rules. Intelligence work requires a more loose and devious mindset that Germans simply aren’t very good at adopting - spies are, in essence, legally sanctioned con-men, thieves and bullshit artists. The CIA had the same problem later on when it started hiring all those Mormons.

Bit of a broad brush, no?

Are you saying that the culture in which an institution exists has no impact on how the institution functions?

I’m not saying that, but I don’t think your description paints a very accurate picture of the German people and culture as a whole, at least today. Note that you said “Germans are”, not “were”. I just found it a bit off-putting to completely deny all Germans (Nazi-era and present) the capacity for intellectual creativity.

I’m not denying anything, I’m just noting general trends. I’m sure that the Nazis had some excellent individual spies and intelligence analysts - but I suspect they were relatively fewer in number than in other countries, and that their organizational culture might have stifled their creativity slightly more often.

Cultural anthropology is a perfectly legitimate science (inasmuch as you can say that about any of the social sciences). Saying that different cultures have certain statistical tendencies toward different forms of behavior is not racism.

It is not, you are right. Your last post is quite a bit different from “They were Germans, and Germans are X” which I took offense at. Also I would appreciate it if you could not equate the Nazi regime with the current German political situation (which you certainly did not do in this last post, but which it sounded like in your first one). I guess I just jumped at “Germans are” in a discussion about Nazis.

Before WW2, British and German society was pretty mixed. After all, our royal family was fully integrated with the German aristocracy. Once the war started, we rounded up everyone with German connections, and incarcerated them in places like the Isle of Man. one area where the British excelled was propaganda - demonising the ‘Nazi German invader’ in a way that the Naziz were not able to emulate. I suspect that this is a problem that any nation invading another will have.

The comments about the German mindset may not be that far off the mark. I doubt that they would have tolerated Alan Turing (The British were not much better) and Mountbattens department of dirty tricks would have been anathema to the tidy-minded Germans.

It is notable that there was no recorded instance of a successful German spy in Britain for the whole of the war. There was one who was turned very effectively, but that is it.

German military intelligence wasn’t really that unsuccessful during WWII. Everybody has heard about Bletchley Park and the cryptanalysis of the Enigma, but it’s a lesser known fact of the war that the SIGINT branch of the German Navy (Beobachtungsdienst or B-Dienst) was able to intercept and read the radio communication of the Royal Navy until the summer of 1943. Somewhat ironically, the British learned that their cipher was broken by reading decoded German Enigma messages.

The Germany army accumulated a vast amount of information about the Soviet military from 1941 to 1945. The chief of German Army intelligence on the Eastern Front, major general Reinhard Gehlen, worked for the United States after the war and later became the first director of the West German intelligence service.

The SIGINT branch of the German Air Force (the Forschungsamt) tapped into to all sorts of communications, foreign and domestic (sounds familiar…) and provided valuable informations (for instance that the British were about to invade Norway in 1940).

One thing to remember is that Foreign Intelligence was one of the common ways in the Reich for well-connected young men to avoid military service. The Abwehr branches in Spain and Protugal were notorious “party schools” where all the junior staff consisted of the spies’ mistresses. This is one reason why Spain was picked as the route for sending misinformation to the Abwehr for Operation Mincemeat. Also, Adm Canaris and his deputy Hans Oster, were working against the Nazis and may have intentionally fell for whatever bullshit the allies fed them.