Spy Fever

Von Beilstein

Von Beilstein is a character in William Le Queux’s The Great War in England in 1897 (1894); this illustration is by T. S. C. Crowther. 1899.8.119.

Its decision in 1897 to build a naval force to rival the Royal Navy brought Imperial Germany into conflict with Great Britain. Germany had a tiny coastline and a small overseas empire, and the High Seas Fleet was perceived as having only one purpose: to menace Britain. Germany supplanted France and Russia as the principal foreign threat, and in the process fears of a sudden invasion were exacerbated.

Central to the supposed threat was the belief that German spy networks were operating within the United Kingdom. These fears were heightened by political leaders, journalists, and novelists such as Erskine Childers and William Le Queux. Le Queux’s invasion fiction was serialised in the Daily Mail from 1906, both author and newspaper benefiting from the publicity and anxiety it generated; by 1914 The Times could write that ‘the Germans seem to have almost converted themselves into a race of spies’. Lack of knowledge of German plans, and official credence in an extensive system of German espionage in Britain, helped to bring about the creation of the Secret Service Bureau in 1909.


A poster publicising an early spy film. Image courtesy of Dr Nicholas Hiley

Read the captions