Harry Richards, a postgraduate in History, recently attended the 22nd annual conference of the International Intelligence History Association at the Museum of Military History in Dresden. This is his report.
It’s perhaps the only event in the world where I, a lowly PhD student, can enjoy dinner seated alongside a former Secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), a former Director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the former Director of Intelligence operations in Afghanistan. Conversation at the table was engaging and thought provoking, but of course, was not without the stereotypical retort; ‘I’m afraid that’s classified’.
The paper sessions were equally fascinating. Given by a mixture of academics and former practitioners, they covered modern intelligence practices throughout the twentieth century from the First World War to the conflict in the Balkans during the 1990s, from signals intelligence to imagery intelligence, and not without the obvious inclusion of traditional cloaks and daggers, so characteristic of the genre. In what was probably a very deliberately chosen theme, the conference heavily focused on operational intelligence histories that, although interesting, obscured some of the wider developments being made in intelligence history more generally. Sitting through the conference, one might be excused for believing that the social turn of the 1960s had completely bypassed this association of historians, despite much work taking place connecting social and cultural histories with the study of intelligence. Perhaps a separate platform is needed for this type of work.
On another sour note, the gender imbalance was rather disconcerting. Among twenty-five papers, there was only one female panellist. Whilst there were more women in the audience than I had perhaps anticipated, especially in consideration of the conference programme, there clearly needs to be more encouragement given to female intelligence historians. What was perhaps more discouraging, however, was the dismissal of expressed concerns towards this disparity. But insularity appeared to be a fairly common theme within the association. When seeking counsel as to how best to expand and grow as a society, the appeal was circumscribed by the assertion that ‘we only want intelligence people’, whatever ‘intelligence people’ are. It seems like the world of intelligence history will continue to be as distant and detached from the mainstream as the original discipline that inspires it for some time to come.
The city of Dresden, it must be said, provides a beautiful and historic environment to host a conference. The architecture remarkably reflects the deluge of historical change that beset the twentieth century. Around the corner from a modern shopping complex, full of vibrant colour and capitalist consumerism, are the surviving remnants of the old, brutal Soviet housing structures that are hastily being allowed to fall into ruin. The pastoral German villas hidden amongst the sloping greenery of suburban Dresden are sharply juxtaposed with the blackness of the scorched city centre that was rebuilt using much of the original burnt stone.
As my first international conference, it was an incredibly exciting and rewarding affair. I made a host of useful contacts, ranging from other PhD students, established academics, publishers, and former practitioners. I began to share my research with scholars from across Europe and absorb various ideas and perspectives otherwise inaccessible from the Keele bubble. Overall, I think the event was an incredibly informative and stimulating event. And of course, the renowned German beer went down quite nicely on the Saturday night, which always ensures a thoroughly enjoyable experience.