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  • Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder after 1914
  • Matthew Hughes
Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder after 1914. By Martin Thomas . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-520-25117-5. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Selected bibliography. Index. Pp. xii, 428. $49.95.

The Allies' breaking of the Germans' Enigma code machine during the Second World War arguably shortened the conflict by several years. Yet, it was not until the 1970s that books appeared in English describing the vast structure of people and machines used to decipher Enigma code traffic. Consequently, scholars re-assessed previous assumptions and they saw the events of the 1940s in a different light. More generally, the rise in recent years of intelligence history has added a missing component to our understanding of the past, a process made more difficult by the nature of the subject matter and the reluctance of governments to release archival material relating to spies, codes and covert operations.

Martin Thomas's study has not uncovered any fantastic story such as Enigma. Nor does it argue that British and French intelligence services prolonged empire. Nevertheless, as part of the growing corpus of intelligence history, Thomas's well-researched and readable text makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the day-to-day business of colonial powers' use of intelligence to maintain imperial rule. His study spans the Maghreb and Middle East in the interwar years, focusing only on British and French possessions; within each colonial possession, he covers intelligence in urban, rural and desert environments during [End Page 593] periods of peace and conflict. This makes for a varied and comprehensive analysis, richly textured and with many interesting insights.

Thomas locates British and French intelligence activities within the wider business of colonial administration. While this enhances our understanding of colonial history, it also makes for a broad examination in which the specifics of intelligence gathering and processing are subsumed into a wider narrative on colonialism. Thomas takes a broad-church approach to intelligence, using the phrase 'political reportage' to describe the myriad reports and documents generated at the core and peripheries of empire, by police and military, to sustain unpopular rule. Thus, the book will appeal to both intelligence and colonial scholars. Much of what Thomas describes is mundane but crucial reporting by minor functionaries that fed the metropole's understanding of colonial subjects and subjugation.

Notwithstanding, intelligence services often failed in their job, overlooking the imminence of open rebellions in the Moroccan Rif, in Kurdistan and Palestine, all of which required the time and expense of deploying (often large numbers of) soldiers on the ground. This points to one of the limitations of intelligence: ultimately, colonial rule required physical force. An obvious comparison is the German airborne invasion of Crete in 1941, when the British knew how and when the enemy would arrive, but still lost the battle because of material and command shortcomings. In the same way, as Thomas shows, earlier imperial rulers had to balance the operational value of intelligence with strategic, material factors. Changes in home governments, especially in France after 1936 when the left-leaning Popular Front came to power, compounded problems in the colonies as security services struggled to square up the inequalities of empire with more liberal policies emanating from the centre.

Thomas's sweeping study is to be welcomed, combining as it does intelligence and colonial histories, and will surely provoke further country specific studies that will develop in more depth the interesting themes contained within this book.

Matthew Hughes
Brunel University
Uxbridge, United Kingdom


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 593-594
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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