By ROBERT LYND
EVERYBODY spies a spy in these days. People are told that the baker is a spy; it is whispered that he is poisoning the bread. The hairdresser, the watchmaker, the man in the “delicatessen” shop—everyone, in fact, who has a German name over his door—are all suspect in the same way. In Paris the spy is being hunted down still more greedily than in London. One hears grisly stories like the one about the fourteen German waiters who were led out of a Paris hotel and shot without the formality of a trial. It may not be true, but everybody believes it. What is more, everybody apparently approves. When we see on the bill of an evening paper that a hundred spies were shot in Belgium in a single day, instead of shuddering at the affair as a massacre, we coolly assure ourselves that it is a military necessity. “A la guerre comme a la guerre” is the French comment on such incidents; and England, though she has not herself been indulging in spy-shooting, echoes the proverb. In Germany, no doubt, they are doing and saying much the same things as in France and Belgium. They are “taking no chances.” In war time it is apparently the theory that it is better that fifty innocent people should suffer than that one guilty person should escape. Spying, it seems to be agreed, is so revolting a business that even to be suspected of it is a crime deserving of capital punishment.
It is surprising that the spy should have this universal reputation for loathsomeness. We all detest spies as a kind of vermin, and yet we all make use of them—even encourage them. It is as though a man at once hated rats and bred them. Possibly we still our consciences by believing that the spy on our own side is a white rat. We find an interesting example of this double view of spies in the tenth book of the Iliad, which is one of the oldest spy stories in existence. Here nothing but praise is given to the Greek spies, while the Trojan spy, Dolon, is painted almost in the same colours as the spy of modern melodrama. “Wilt thou speed forth any of thy comrades,” Menelaus asks Agamemnon, “to spy on the Trojans? Nay, terribly I fear lest none should undertake for thee this deed, even to go and spy out the foemen alone through the ambrosial night; needs must he be a man right hardy of heart.” “Odysseus,” we are told a hundred lines later, when he agrees to go out as a spy, “was willing to steal into the throng of Trojans, for always daring was his heart within him.” Not a word of disapproval on the part of the Greek poet. He does not dream of denouncing Odysseus as (in an effective word coined by Mr. Wells the other day) a supersneak. Hear him, however, when he comes to the Trojan Dolon. “Verily,” he declares, “he was ill-favoured to look upon.” And afterwards, when the spy found himself pursued by Odysseus and Diomedes, we are told that “Dolon stood still, in great dread and trembling, and the teeth chattered in his mouth, and he was green with fear.” Drury Lane has given birth to hundreds of such people. When you think of a spy, you invariably imagine an ill-favoured man who goes green with fear. And yet, if Odysseus was a spy, the trade cannot be quite such a mean one. Even to-day we can become enthusiastic over a spy provided he does not take money for his work. The English have even put up a monument to a spy, or a supposed spy, in Westminster Abbey. This was Major André who was shot as a spy in the American War of Independence. One used to hear from the inventors of anecdotes a story of how Lord Kitchener on one occasion disguised himself and entered the camp of the Dervishes and learned their secrets. It may not have been true, but the point is those who told the story regarded it not as something shameful, but as something splendid. It was a testimony to Lord Kitchener’s “nerve,” to his knowledge of Arabic, to his possession of all kinds of qualities which plain men should envy. Similarly, when certain British officers were caught spying in Germany a year or two ago, no one thought a penny the worse of them for it except the Germans. Moltke himself visited Alsace-Lorraine in secret on several occasions on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War. Has not Mr. William Watson during the week lyrically accused the Kaiser of having come to England as a spy when he attended Queen Victoria’s funeral? Certainly the spy has good warrant for regarding himself as a member of a very respectable class. Military attaches in foreign capitals have again and again been revealed in spy-trials as partners in the work. One German authority has declared that nine-tenths of the secret information of Germany comes through military attaches. Spying may not be a gentlemanly profession, but it is assuredly a profession in which gentlemen engage. There are two excellent reasons why most of us should hate spies. One is our terror of secret influences surrounding us. We dread the incalculable as many people dread lightning. Then there is the fact that the spy is very often a traitor. Unhappy young men, a little degenerate to begin with, finding themselves desperately in debt, see a way out for themselves by selling plans or other marketable knowledge. It is all a matter of treachery resulting from moral cowardice—treachery which is sometimes mere egoistic and cynical self-absorption, and at other times is tempered by the faith that after all the information given will probably never be made use of. There are, we imagine, twenty varieties of spies—some of them infinitely to be pitied, some of them the most remorseless villains on earth. Mr. Conrad, in Under Western Eyes, has written a study of a comparatively normal and nervous person whom circumstances compelled into the profession of a spy. Russia must be full of such cases. It is full, too, one hears, of cases of revolutionaries who become paid spies in order to get into the confidence of the authorities and to be able to pursue their revolutionary work the more effectively. Some people insist that Father Gapon was such a person; others say the same of Azeff. These are a sort of things with regard to which we shall never have certain knowledge. What we do know, however, is that a really efficient traitor will not be content with betraying his own people. Suppose, for example, a German betrays official German secrets to England; no one would be surprised to learn that at the same time he is betraying his English paymasters to Germany. That is what makes it so risky a thing to spend money on spies and traitors. They are a race cut off from the ordinary codes of loyalty. Russian statesmen have suffered almost as much from their own secret police as from revolutionaries. Russia is said to possess the most thorough system of espionage in the world with the exception of the Japanese system, and to pay close upon a million pounds a year for it; but that did not save Stolypin.
In recent years public attention in this country has been turned from the Russian to the German spy system. Many people believe that every German waiter is a spy, and newspapers have long been flinging at our heads figures which seem to show that Germany spends £600,000, or even £780,000 a year, on secret service. They do not give us their authority for these figures. They simply quote them from each other. The Budget in the Reichstag for 1911, however, provided for only £65,000 for secret service, as compared with £50,000 voted and £46,380 1s. 5d. spent by Great Britain in 1910-11. In the days of Napoleon England annually spent twice or thrice that sum on her spies, who were the terror both of the Continent and of Ireland. The case of Leonard MacAnally, the barrister who defended so many of the Irish rebels at their trials, and was all the time betraying his clients to the Government, is one of the most infamous in history. Mr. Stephen Gwynn has made a valiant attempt to analyse this strange character in his novel, Robert Emmet. When we think of German spies, however, we do not think of them as traitors. We think of them as patriotic Germans doing for their country the same kind of work which the Japanese in last year’s play, Typhoon, were doing for Japan. Certainly the £65,000 provided for spying in the German Budget would not go far towards providing a living even for the 5,000 German spies who, Mr. William Le Queux has argued, are settled in England; and this sum would be but a driblet to divide among the 35,000 German spies who, other sensationalists inform us, have been scattered through France since the great days of Bismarck. If these figures are anywhere near the truth, the great majority of the spies must do their work not for pay, but in the exalted spirit of Bushido. From the market gardeners down to the prostitutes who are said to take part in the business, they offer us a quite amazing example of sacrificial patriotism.
If the German spy system is on anything like the scale we are told, however, it must be one of the most stupid and inefficient systems on the earth. The spies have been able to do nothing to interfere with the mobilisation of the French or the English troops. They appear to have done nothing to acquaint Berlin with the truth about Belgium any more than with the truth about Ulster. It is too early, of course, to be quite sure, but, so far as one can judge at present, Germany has gone into this war blindfold rather than Argus-eyed through her secret service. That she knew so little about Belgium is the more to be wondered at as Belgium must have been an easy country to play the spy in. Till the present year it was the only country in Europe which had no law against espionage. When a German spy was captured in Belgium, in February, he could only be proceeded against on the charge of using an assumed name. It is to be hoped that the present war will discredit spying as it is, one is pleased to think, discrediting so much else in militarism. Apart from a few rare cases, we imagine, spies are people who are not clever enough to earn their living in an honester way. Governments will not cease to employ them merely on the ground that they are criminals. They may hesitate to employ them if they realise that they are mostly idiots.