Espionage is a dangerous line of work, but what it lacks in safety it surely makes up for in excitement. At least that’s what all the films, books, and television shows about spies and the messes they get into would have us believe. The idea of espionage has enthralled people since as far back as we can remember. The concept of living one’s entire life as a lie, secretly planted by a foreign government or group in order to glean information or sabotage targets, has inspired some of the best and most entertaining works of fiction ever produced.
Sadly, the fictional accounts of espionage are decidedly more glamorous than their real-life counterparts. While we can’t entirely rule out the possibility of a James Bond-like character having existed at one point - governments are exceedingly good at keeping secrets - it’s extremely unlikely. History holds many tales of spies caught up in dramatic tales of espionage, but they rarely end well for the spies - if they did, we wouldn’t know about them. Successful espionage is subtle and invisible. Spies are rarely the focal point of the story but are instead members of the supporting cast. The best spies make themselves seem small and unimportant, all the while secretly making themselves a lifeline of information that benefits their superiors more than 10,000 combat troops could.
The following 10 entries break down some of the best spies to ever walk the face of the earth. Why the use of the word ‘some’? Well, as previously stated, as good as all these spies were they weren’t good enough to not get caught. The elite-tier spies in history have probably fallen through the cracks, dying uneventfully while their stories remained unknown and lost in the ebb and flow of time. Not these men and women though, we know just enough about them to now how devastatingly effective they were at their chosen trade - stealers and purveyors of secrets.
7 #7 Belle Boyd
Belle Boyd was the daughter of hotel owner in Virginia who became a spy entirely by chance. A confederate sympathizer, Boyd despised the Union soldiers who controlled the area and used the hotel as a hotbed to steal Union secrets. She charmed several Union soldiers and acquired valuable information that would allow her to aid the Confederacy. Most importantly, one night in 1862 she overhead a military meeting of Union commanders where she learned that they would be removing large segments of their army to reinforce another location - but that they would do their best to make it appear their current encampment was just as fortified as ever. Boyd ran to the Confederate camp nearby and told them if they charged now they would be able to rout the newly weakened Union forces. She received the Southern Cross of Honor for her actions, and was later arrested by Union forces. She was eventually released and moved to England after the war.
6 #6 Richard Sorge
Born to German parents in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1895, Richard Sorge’s early life didn’t make him an apparent candidate for the dangerous work of espionage - but that may have been partially why he was so successful. His family moved back to Germany when he was still very young, and by the time World War I broke out he was a young man eligible for service. He enlisted and was consequently gravely wounded in combat. During his recovery he began reading Karl Marx and found himself enamoured with the concepts and philosophy of Marx’s vision of communism. His political views paid him no favours in post-war Germany, so he fled to the newly formed Soviet Union in 1920. His western european upbringing made him an ideal candidate for espionage. He was sent to various countries by the USSR and would pose as a journalist, when in fact his real mission was to assess the political climate of individual nations to see if they would be receptive to a communist uprising in the same vein as the Bolshevik Revolution that created the Soviet Union. During World War II he also would transmit vital military information back to the USSR from Germany, China, and Japan. It was in Japan where he was finally caught and executed in 1944. The USSR denied all knowledge of his existence until 1964.
5 #5 Sidney Reilly
Sidney Reilly’s life is shrouded in secrecy, mystery and legend - even more so than the average spy. Some say he was born the son of an Irish sailor, others say he was born in Odessa - modern Ukraine - under an unknown name, later changing to Sidney Reilly later in life. Sidney Reilly first turned up in South America as a young man working odd jobs on a British vessel…at least, some people think so. Others say he came to Britain via France after stealing a large sum of money from Italian anarchists. What can be certain is this - a man named Georgi Rosenblum arrived in London during the 1890s. The young Rosenblum somehow became an associate of William Melville, the man who was the head of the British intelligence arm that would later become M15. Melville gave Rosenblum a new identity, that of Sidney Reilly, and sent him off into tsarist Russia. Reilly’s career of espionage took him to Russia, Japan, France, Germany, and to the forefront of several wars, notably the Russo-Japanese wars and various fronts of World War I. His exploits are too numerous to list, but they added to his legend and gave him the moniker The Ace of Spies. Reilly was caught in Soviet Russia in 1925, and his execution was personally ordered by Joseph Stalin. Reilly was the real-life inspiration for James Bond, which isn’t surprising considering the sheer cinematic drama of his life.
4 #4 Klaus Fuchs
The lives of most spies usually end in death or internment, but for Klaus Fuchs everything turned out far better than it could have. Born in 1911 in Germany, Fuchs studied theoretical physics as a young man. When Hitler took power in 1933, Fuchs - who ideologically was a communist - sought refuge in Britain. In the middle of World War II he became involved with the Manhattan Project - the allied program to build the first atomic bomb. Fuchs had developed a reputation as a competent physicist and was highly valued by both the Americans and the British. Unbeknownst to them, Fuchs - still holding communist beliefs - had been passing on information to the Soviet Union, information that was vital in the eventual construction of their first atomic bomb. Fuchs was discovered and served only 9 years in jail before his release and eventual move to East Germany. The rest of his life was relatively normal, and quite successful. He became director of the Institute for Nuclear Research in Rossendorf where he worked until his retirement in 1979. He died from natural causes in Berlin in 1988.
3 #3 Aldrich Ames
The war of espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War was probably the most elaborate duel of intelligence ever fought. The two sides, the American CIA and the Soviet KGB, were locked in a death grip for well over 50 years. For each side, nothing could be more valuable than having a source in the opposition's camp. Aldrich Ames, an American CIA agent, became one of those sources for the KGB. In 1985, Ames was given the responsibility of establishing contacts within the Soviet embassy. Dissatisfied with his career and the way he was treated by his peers, he offered the Soviets information he deemed ‘valueless’ for $50,000 in order to establish their trust. Once the enormity of what he had done sank in, he realized he had crossed a line he could never turn back from. Over the next decade he gave valuable information to the Soviet Union on CIA sources within the KGB and the Communist Party in exchange for millions of dollars. His leaks were responsible for the capture and deaths of dozens of high-ranking sources within the Soviet system. He was caught in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison.
2 #2 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were Americans who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Communist sympathizers, they met at a meeting of the Young Communist League in the mid 1930s. Julius was an engineer that provided detailed information on the atomic bomb to eager KGB sources who were scrambling to try and develop atomic weaponry that could match the Americans'. When he was discovered it added fuel to senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, which has later been described as the ‘Red Scare’. Their discovery and subsequent trial was headline news all over the United States, as it was the first time that natural-born American citizens had been caught red-handed dealing such important secrets to their Soviet enemies. The couple was executed by electric chair in 1953.
1 #1 Mata Hari
Mata Hari is the most exotic and infamous female spy of all time. She was the original prototype of the femme fatale - a deadly woman tasked with a mission all concealed by her charm, beauty and grace. Born in the Netherlands in 1876 as Margaretha Zelle, she travelled to Indonesia in 1895 when she answered an ad in a newspaper for a man who was looking for a wife. There she studied the local customs of the people, joining a local dance troupe and creating her artistic persona of Mata Hari, which means ‘sun’ in Malay. She divorced her husband and moved to Paris, where she became an accomplished performer under her Mata Hari persona. Her fame only developed further as she took several powerful men as her lovers, and she developed a reputation throughout Europe as a woman who moved freely through borders in powerful circles - precisely what made her so useful to Germany. She entered into the service of the German intelligence agency in 1915 and went on to supply vital information to the German forces during the war for 2 years until 1917, when her true allegiance was discovered. She was executed by firing squad in France in 1917.