I’ve mentioned before that history is fluid, that even though the actual facts of an event don’t change, human interpretation of those facts can change. This change can happen because new information is discovered or simply because the cultural ideas have changed. We often have no problem shaping our historical interpretations to fit our cultural and/or political ideals.

Keep that in mind as I tell you about Elsbeth Schragmuller (1887-1940). Schragmuller was a German woman who earned a doctorate degree from the University in Freiburg in 1913. Women were not even allowed to attend the university until 1900, so this was an extraordinary achievement. It spoke to her intelligence and her organizational ability. Besides her native German, she was also fluent in French, English and Italian. With her doctorate in hand, she joined the faculty at the University of Freiburg as a lecturer.

There is no reason to believe that Schragmuller would not have been perfectly happy with a life lived in academia. But World War I began in 1914 and Schragmuller, by all accounts, was a patriotic German and wanted to be involved in the war effort. Women were not allowed at the front lines, so some sort of administrative work was her only option. She worked in a censorship office in occupied Belgium, reading mail being sent by Belgians and censoring anything that would reveal information about the German war effort, such as troop numbers and movements.

She proved to be exceptional at determining which letters contained coded messages rather than family news. Because of this she was sent for further intelligence training, doing so well that after completing the training she requested that she be allowed to start a new training center for spies, stating the reasons why the current system was ineffective.

Espionage training had previously been a haphazard business, but Schragmuller used her academic experience to set up a training program that was complete and consistent, including the creation of training manuals. Although her manuals and records were destroyed by German intelligence after the war, most espionage training is still based on her methods.

Her base of operations was a house in Antwerp, in occupied Belgium. Although she had never worked in the field as a spy, she brought in language and dialect experts, cipher experts to train in cryptography and the use of invisible inks, and communications experts to train her students in the use of radio and telegraphy. She also trained on behavior issues. The basics of that training are things we’ve seen in movies over the years, but this was the first time they were structured and taught with consistency. She trained her students to avoid being conspicuous, to listen more than they talked, to avoid drinking to excess, and to hide the fact that they spoke another language. The most basic and important techniques that she taught were in observing and reporting. She understood that information is useless if it is not noticed or not shared with the proper authorities.

Eventually the Allied Forces noticed that German intelligence had become more effective. They also started hearing stories from captured spies about a mysterious, and possibly terrifying, woman at the head of German intelligence training. Because of her doctorate, they called her either Mademoiselle Docteur or Fraulein Doktor. But Schragmuller practiced the same secrecy that she taught to her students. Only a select few in the German government knew her true identity and although the Allies tried to unmask her, she was able to disappear into obscurity after the war.

In 1929 she broke her silence to write her only autobiographical piece, an 18 page article included in an anthology. She admitted to being Mademoiselle Docteur in order to counter press reports that she felt were poisoning public opinion against the German high command.

We now know that after the war she returned to the academic life, teaching at the University of Freiburg. Her family moved to Munich in the 1920s. She never married and spent her final years caring for her elderly mother. Schragmuller died in 1940, possibly from tuberculosis, at the age of 52.

This is all great stuff; an interesting woman who did something that impacted history and still resonates 100 years later. A woman who did something that was outside the gender roles assigned to her and who left this espionage training program as her legacy.

But history isn’t that easy. Because she was so successful at protecting her privacy, she instead became an urban legend. I’ve read articles written throughout the years, and they include speculation based on the little bits of available knowledge and the culture at the time it was written. The records were destroyed, so was misinformation deliberately planted to either protect Schragmuller’s identity or to heighten the legend? Or did writers just expand the little information they had by using oversimplified stock characters?

There are stereotypes about spies, especially female spies, and any historian has to try to unwind that knot to separate the myth from the reality. Part of the myth is the idea of the courtesan spy; that the only value of a female spy is to be able to use sex to obtain information. Mata Hari is the classic example of the courtesan spy, and it’s possible that she was one of Schragmuller’s students. One unproven story is that Mata Hari was a particularly poor student and that Schragmuller deliberately sacrificed her, leading to her execution, in order to protect a more important spy in her network.

We’ll probably never know if, as some articles claim, Schragmuller was really a buxom blond with ice blue eyes. She was very careful about having her photo taken, so none of the photos online that claim to be her can be verified. We’ll also probably never know if she really used a riding crop on students who displeased her, or if she trained male and/or female trainees to use sex in exchange for information. If you do any reading about Elsbeth Schragmuller, please remember that much of the information available is either speculation or completely false. And that’s why historians hate it when records are destroyed.