Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5
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Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  308 ratings  ·  57 reviews
An unprecedented publishing event: to mark the centenary of its foundation, the British Security Service, MI5, has for the first time opened its archives to an independent historian. The book reveals the precise role of the Security Service in twentieth-century British history, from its foundation by Captain Kell of the British Army in October 1909, through two world wars,...more
Hardcover, 1056 pages
Published November 3rd 2009 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2009)
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Community Reviews

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Edmole
I BEAT YOU YOU BASTARD. 950 pages of small type. YES.

Anyway, it is a great book, loads of great details, lots of humour. You do respect the chaps of MI5 a lot afterwards, and it is further proof that conspiracies are bloody hard to pull off, which is why their aren't that many of them.
Joe
The main problem with this book is that you don’t really know what’s been left out. The early history including the campaign against Germany up to 1945 is probably largely complete and it is an impressive story. The early Cold War is also very informative and the author convincingly undermines the Peter Wright conspiracy theories.

Perhaps not surprisingly the detail starts to fall away as the book approaches recent decades. I strongly suspect a lot of bad things went on vis-à-vis Northern Ireland...more
Brent
I was hooked from the first page. Christopher Andrew writes an engaging history of the British Security Service that helps you understand the intelligence community: its function and how its very presence enables us to go about our daily business. Even people who don't like James Bond are going to enjoy this book, because it's real and not full of cheesy spy bally-hoo.
Robert
Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew is a monster of a book, clocking in at almost 900 pages in small type. I don't even want to consider how many words this book is. That being said, the book is very straightforward as a chronological history of MI5 for the past century. There were a couple of pros and cons to this book by taking that format but overall I did like reading the book.

The book's prose and extremely detailed nature is probably a bit dry for your aver...more
Emmanuel Gustin
This book has the hallmarks of an official history: It frequently refers to official documents and meeting minutes, elaborates on the managerial culture of MI5, and contains organizational diagrams as an appendix. It also contains accounts of the most important counter-espionage and counter-terrorism cases in the history of MI5, and a large number of interesting background facts. Nevertheless, readers who are only looking for a gripping espionage story may be bored by the story of MI5 as an inst...more
Ghoule
Un autre livre qui a demandé beaucoup d'efforts à l'autre pour réunir un paquet de faits dans un ordre chronologique.

Malheureusement, le livre se résume à cette idée d'être une collection de faits, sautant à gauche et à droite sur des événements qui se sont déroulés au fil de l'histoire du MI5. Et puisqu'il s'agit d'une histoire officielle, l'auteur ne porte aucun regard critique et tente de préserver son objectivité, ce que j'ai trouvé particulièrement difficile.

En effet, on met dans le même pa...more
Zach
More of a survey of British history than a history of MI5.

Not as much about MI5 itself (nothing on training, structure, authorities, how it interacts with law enforcement, the military or other intelligence services).

The book was authorized by MI5, which gave the author probably more access
than other authors. For this reason, it is understandable that the author
would toe the party line, which is fine but the author reveals his bias
in a couple places. Specifically, the repeated debuniking of P...more
Deepanjan Das
The cloak-and-dagger world of espionage is generally well-hidden from the public eye. In fact, most nations are loath to allow their intelligence organizations to see the light of day. Considering this, the fact that MI5 commissioned an official history to mark its centenary is a remarkable fact indeed. Jonathan Evans, the MI5 Director, has done both scholars of history and interested amateurs a very good turn indeed. The fact that this commission went to Christopher Andrews, who also wrote the...more
rabbitprincess
Aug 01, 2011 rabbitprincess rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: very perseverant spy history buffs
Recommended to rabbitprincess by: the Globe and Mail
At long last, I must concede defeat to the behemoth that is The Defence of the Realm. I first started in August 2010 when it came in for me at the library, didn't finish it, eventually bought the paperback in November because I figured then I could take as long as I wanted... and I've been reading it in fits and starts ever since. I've kept it out on my bedside table since January in hopes of finishing it eventually, but sadly I do not think that is likely. I'll put it back on the shelf and perh...more
Nathan
Christopher Andrew has scraped the barrel on MI5; the mass of information here is daunting. Given the secretive nature of the agency, such an amount of material commands respect. For the most part, though, the information isn't efficiently molded into a straightforward narrative. The organization is largely chronological, but the consequences of one period in relation to another aren't clearly examined. There are some notable exceptions, as when the clandestine machinations of British espionage...more
GT
A comprehensive history covering 100 years of Britain's famed MI5, responsible for counter-espionage, counter subversion, and counter-terrorism. I found myself swinging back and forth from enjoying the detailed material to slogging through certain sections. Everything thing is here from WWII triumphs to mistakes and details on failed investigations and poor Directors (DGs).

I go with 3 Stars - ★★★

mfgavin's rating criteria:

★ = Horrid waste of time
★★ = May be enjoyable to some, but not me
★★★ = I am...more
Simon Fellowes
Good reference. You can dip in and out of this depending on the area of history you are keen on. Ends with Blair and the war on Iraq so written before the Snowden leaks about GCHQ. It'll be interesting to see if Christopher Andrew writes a revised edition.
Heikki
This book shows us that not only is life in MI5 interesting, it is also fraught with danger to the individuals and to society as a whole.

The early part of the book is in my view more interesting than the final part, say, after the Cambridge Five have been discussed. This is not to say the IRA and post-9/11 times weren't interesting, it's just that the space allotted to narrating what happened is not sufficient and there's a cramped feeling to it.

But the First WOrld War and the 'German spies fo...more
Jonathan
Dull in parts, true. Not everything is interesting. Suggestions that this is uncritical are unfair -- there is a much criticism, notably with respect to counter-espionage in the Cold War period. There is also much shifting of blame. The idea that this must be baseless self-service because the work is an official history is a valid possibility, but that hardly makes it a conclusive vice.

Only for those with a close interest in these matters. Discussion of early interactions between MI5 and the pol...more
John
Very comprehensive history. I think it will get more interesting as it approaches the present. I have trouble caring enough about the amazingly amateurish goings-on in the early days of the British security services. I remember hearing talks by the author about the more recent history of espionage at Leckhampton House in the late 1970s.

I wrote the above in 2010. Since then I've taken to reading mostly on my Kindle and not gotten any further with this big heavy tome. I may go back to it later. F...more
Bethany
I enjoyed reading this book, although it was really too much information to take in. I learned a lot, but don't remember most of it. The British do have a penchant for using acronyms, don't they? DG, DDG, MP, ASU, SLO, JIC, RUC, just to name a few of the many used throughout the book. I liked reading about the Double-Cross System they employed during WWII. I had heard of it before, read a few references to it in other works, but never realized to what extent this system helped the Allies during...more
Nick Handler
The first comprehensive history of MI-5, so it gets credit for that. it's also very readable. But ultimately this is an authorized history that got approval from the MI-5 censors--so it can be bland at points, and makes excuses for instances in which MI-5 was either too weak (Soviet espionage) or too forceful (Ireland). Ultimately, the main strength of the book is that Andrew has access to millions of files that are otherwise still classified. But that alone is enough to merit a read.
Superposition
Very readable though slightly tedious to get through (it is nearly 1000 pages long). The author could have expounded more on MI5's most recent activities in the post-2000 period. Though I do understand that the information from said period is still classified, I just thought this part in particular was slightly lacking especially in comparison with the previous and more well covered periods of history. Worth all the effort.
Steve Coughlan
What I learned... books written by historians are long; why Special Branch is special; and the special British mentality that enables them to have a "Constitution" without actually bothering to write one down extended to the intelligence services, who have spent most of their existence without actually existing. Hardly a page turner in the style of Clancy, it had a lot of pages to turn, with lots of details, interesting and boring.
arjuna
Readable but very dry - interesting subject, but narratively/tonally rather flat. A bit of a plod through very dense material, best taken in small doses.

Made me think a purely organisational (as opposed to operational) history might be very interesting, though - I'd quite like to see that, get a better sense of the way things worked, especially during the early years, and especially of the ground staff.
Steve
This book covers the first 100 years of the British security service. First tasked with finding German spies before the First World War, the service has had to adapt over the years. While the dangers (Germany, USSR, PIRA and Islamic terrorists) have changed, the main task of the service has evolved from primarily counter-espionage to anti-terrorism. A very long read, but thorough and informative.
Erik Graff
Sep 23, 2013 Erik Graff rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: espionage fans
Recommended to Erik by: Kelly Kingdon
Shelves: history
I have been reading the official histories of both MI6 (espionage) and MI5 (counter-espionage/terrorism) simultaneously. Of the two, this is the better study, both because it is more inclusively open and because it is better written. A sympathetic study, it still notes many of the failures and controversies which have marked the history of the service during the years covered, 1909-2009.
Anibal
A mammoth book, superbibly documented, on the history of British Security Service. Though sometimes is arid to read is a must. The book covers 100 years of existence of the agency since its foundation to 2009 describing the personal lives of spies, classified files, archives, scandals and famous affairs in which the agency was involved in one way or another...
Andrew Lothian
Good if rather academic in places. The description of the WW1, WW2 and Cold war are good. The description of WW1 is great if rather worrying, amatuer is a kind view but it all turned out well. It gets a bit more story half told I feel the closer it gets to the present day. Some of it still needs to secret I suppose. A good read and a good book.
Terry
Somewhat dense reading, but enjoyable. Found the first half to be more enlightening, mainly because I think more information could be disclosed. But it discloses a real sense of the development of the governmental security agencies in the 20th century and the forces which made intelligence such a central feature of Cold War politics.
Leigh
Certainly not like a Hollywood starlet biography fully of saucy exploits, but so far, quite engrossing ..... startling how a massive organization had such humble, seat-of-your-pants, beginning. Its true, the English sense of humour is drier than the Texas sand.
Ian
Excellent history of MI5. Particularly interesting are the chapters of post-war activities and the mention of names which those of us over 60 remember - Jck Jones, Kagan, Harold Wilson etc. Good to see that the British CP was completely penetrated by the spooks!
Cel Jel
It started in such a way I thought of keystone cops. Then every spy film had elements that were mentioned. I enjoyed Christopher Andrews amusing style of writing, he certainly helped to keep what could have become extremely dry from becoming so.
Stanley Graham
Hard work but interesting. I originally started to read it to see how many people I knew were mentioned in it. 4 so far. Its not the sort of book you read at one go. I keep picking it up and putting it down. Still not actually finished it.
Wendy Lemon
This is a bulky book. More like a doorstop but readable. I'd have given it more stars but it was authorised by the organisation (MI5) that it discusses so I guess you have to ask whether it's really independent or a puff job.
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