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  • Delusions of Intelligence: Enigma, Ultra, and the End of Secure Ciphers
  • Colin Burke
Delusions of Intelligence: Enigma, Ultra, and the End of Secure Ciphers. By R. A. Ratcliff (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006314 pp. $40.00

In 1980, Kahn, the dean of code-breaking's history, published a significant article in the prestigious Historical Journal.1 It contained a section that raised the questions of why the Allied code breakers of World War II were able to conquer Germany's most secret encrypting machines (Enigma and Tunny) and why the Germans did not, despite much evidence, admit to themselves that their Ultra communications had been thoroughly compromised by war's end. Kahn answered those questions through a list of managerial, historical, technical, and even cultural-psychological factors. Five years later, Mulligan, a noted archivist, published a detailed piece about why Germany's investigators rejected the idea that their fabled Enigma machine was breeched.2 Like Kahn, Mulligan found some good and bad reasons for the Axis' belief that, with a few improvements, the Enigma would be safe.

Between the appearance of those two publications, the author of Delusions of Intelligence began to study Enigma's broad history. More than a decade later, that project turned into a well-crafted interpretive 1996 dissertation. It appeared after an extensive secondary literature had accumulated and just after a major declassification of American documents. In a few years came a second large-scale release of top-secret U.S. files, and then the British began to make some of their holdings public. Delusions made use of many of those new materials not available to Kahn or Mulligan.

Nonetheless, Delusions adds little to our stockpile of facts about German intelligence and counterintelligence: It adds few grounded explanations [End Page 312] or new material about Allied code-breaking organizations, and it does not bring into credible play any social-science or interdisciplinary theories or "laws."

In fact, some of the new documents undermine the strength of Delusions' main theses. For example, Delusions posits a near irrational faith in abstract mathematical analyses as leading to Germany's dismissal of warnings that Enigma was being compromised. But Germany's numerous protective changes to the system weaken that contention. The volume stresses that Germany's intelligence failures were due to a focus on tactical rather than strategic intelligence. But the Germans were successfully attacking most Allied strategic systems until mid-war, when the Allies finally deployed up-to-date cipher machines. Also emphasized is how little successful code breaking of any type the Germans accomplished and how quickly and thoroughly the Western Allies gained the cryptological upperhand. The Germans were able to read most critical Allied systems only early in the war, whereas many of the Allied victories came late and continued to hinge on German operational mistakes.

Some of Delusions' theses are weakened by more than slippery explanandums. Downplaying the role of individuals and genius, the author emphasizes differences in organizational structure, but she does not draw from much organizational theory. Ratcliff's calling on Frederick the Great's mandates to explain bureaucracy in the 1930s was also not helpful; nor was her use of Ringer's now weary thesis concerning academic alienation in Germany.3

Sadly, and perhaps due to editorial cost-saving, some out-and-out errors appear in the work (John von Neumann and the Colossus proto-computer) and the book's index is incomplete and frustrating.

Colin Burke
Columbia, Maryland


1. David Kahn, "Codebreaking in World War I and II," Historical Journal, XXIII (1980), 617–639.

2. Timothy Mulligan, "The German Navy Evaluates Its Cryptographic Security, October 1941," Military Affairs, XL (1985), 75–79.

3. Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890–1933 (Cambridge, Mass., 1969).



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