The art of deception, of taking on another alias and identity, has always been glamorised, never more so than in the iconic stories of James Bond. In real life, the risks of espionage may be less glamorous but it’s equally if not more dangerous, as the tumultuous lives of the world’s most infamous informers demonstrate.
Whether their motive was moral, financial, revenge, or something else entirely, the work of these spies has led to some of the most startling leaks of classified information in history, from disclosure of nuclear secrets to plans for full-scale war. In this list we focus on the 20th century, before the advent of modern surveillance methods – in other words, back in the days when spying could still be considered a personal art rather than a form technology. To remain hidden and to be able to assume multiple identities is a talent that few of us possess, but how did the world’s biggest spies get away with it? What secrets did they uncover and to whom did they give this information?
The following ten are deemed some of the most successful spies ever. Read on as we detail the crimes they committed, and the actions and risks they undertook, and their ultimate fates. Of course, perhaps the greatest spies of all are still at large, working under cover of well-protected anonymity…
10. Shi Pei Pu
A Chinese opera singer from Beijing, Shi Pei Pu maintained a 20 year long sexual relationship with a French Diplomat named Bernard Boursicot – he had convinced Boursicot that he was a woman, and later even persuaded him that they had a child together. The couple handed over 500 secret documents to the Chinese Government throughout the late 60’s and 70’s, before finally being exposed in 1983 by the French authorities.
9. Klaus Fuchs
A German theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II, Fuchs handed over valuable secrets about the construction of these bombs to the USSR. He was later charged with espionage and sentenced to 14 years in prison – the maximum possible term for this crime in the UK.
8. Elyesa Bazna
Bazna was an Albanian secret agent who spied for Germany during World War II under the codename Cicero. He was reputedly a mercenary spy who acted purely on financial motivation rather than political. The documents he disclosed from the British Government to German forces were paid for, on one occasion at least, in counterfeit sterling. The secrets he revealed, such as Operation Overlord – the invasion of Normandy in 1944 – were not acted upon by the upper echelons of the German authorities.
7. Cambridge Five
The Cambridge Five were a ring of spies who spied against the United Kingdom and its allies for the Soviet Union. The name derives from the fact that they were all communist sympathisers at Cambridge University. The four known members are Kim Philby, who was a high ranking British intelligence officer, Donald Duart MacClean, a British diplomat, Guy Burgess, a Foreign Office Official and Anthony Blunt, an art historian. The identity of the fifth man has never been discovered, although it is now suspected that the ring was actually much larger.
6. The Rosenbergs
Julius and Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg were civilian American communists who passed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Julius obtained this information predominantly through Ethel’s brother, David, who was working on the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb. The couple were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in 1953, and their conviction energised Senator McCarthy’s investigations into un-American activities.
5. Mata Hari
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod was a Dutch courtesan, exotic dancer and spy, who was better known by her stage name, Mata Hari, which she adopted while in the Dutch East Indies. Due to the Netherland’s neutrality in WWI, Mata Hari could travel freely between countries, allowing her to infiltrate many different countries as a German spy. She had relationships with high ranking military officials and politicians in order to gain valuable intel and relay it to the German authorities. She was executed by a French firing squad in 1917 for her crimes of espionage.
4. Frederick Joubert Duquesne
Duquesne was a Boer who, while serving as an officer in the Boer army fighting against the British in the Second Boer War, was captured and escaped from prison three times. He first killed a man at the age of 12 while defending his home. After infiltrating the British Army as an officer, he attempted to kill Lord Kitchener, a senior figure in the British Army, but the plot ultimately failed. He later spied for Germany during both World Wars due to his hatred for the British as a result of their treatment of Boer families. He lived under many aliases, such as “The Black Panther”, and even served as an adviser on big game hunting to Theodore Roosevelt during his life.
3. Virginia Hall
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Virginia Hall studied European languages in university before embarking on a diplomatic career which was cut short after she lost a leg in a hunting accident in Turkey. Then, after ending up in Vichy France, she worked with the French Resistance forces, with whom she trained three battalions for guerrilla warfare, mapped drop-zones and found safe houses for Allied soldiers. The Gestapo reportedly considered her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies”. In 1945, she was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross from the US army – the only one awarded to a civilian woman in WWII.
2. Sidney Reilly
Despite gaining notoriety as the “Ace of Spies” for working for Scotland Yard, Georgi Rosenblum – his real name – was actually a Jewish born Russian. He is often credited as being the first 20th century super spy. While much of his life is shrouded in mystery, some of his more notable exploits included attending a German Army High Command meeting in WWI while disguised as a German soldier, that he was involved in a scheme to assassinate Lenin which was allegedly thwarted on the eve of the plan, and that he seduced the wife of a Russian minister in order to obtain information on the movement of weapons.
1. Richard Sorge
Born in Azerbaijan under the reign of the Czars, Sorge fought for Germany in WWI before becoming a Soviet military intelligence officer. He worked under-cover as a journalist and Nazi sympathiser, even going so far as to join the Nazi party. He is most famous for disclosing information on Adolf Hitler’s plan to attack the USSR in WWII, and for disclosing Japanese military plans which allowed for the transfer of the Russian troops stationed along the Manchurian front to be moved to protect Moscow, in what was one of the pivotal turning points of the war. He was later hanged in 1944 after being discovered by Japanese security forces. He has posthumously been described by some scholars as the greatest intelligence officer of all time.