Wilhelm Canaris

Wilhelm Canaris

Wilhelm Canaris was born in Aplerbeck, near Dortmund, on 1st January, 1887. Mark M. Boatner III has argued: "Canaris grew up in a wealthy, cultured, happy Westphalian family of right-wing but liberal Protestants." A member of a wealthy family, Canaris entered the German Navy in 1905 and by 1911 reached the rank of lieutenant.

On the outbreak of the First World War Canaris was on the Dresden that took part in the Battle of the Falklands. Forced to land on Juan Fernandez Island, 400 miles from Chile, he was in an internment camp until escaping in August, 1915. He made "a daring two-week horseback ride through the Andes, helped by local Germans in eluding pursuit by Chilean police".

Masquerading as "Reed Rosas", the son of a Chilean father and British mother, he managed to reach Buenos Aires where he caught a Dutch ship bound for Rotterdam. He arrived back in Germany on 4th October 1915. Canaris was then sent to join the intelligence service for U-boat operations in the Mediterranean and for the next year he worked as an undercover agent in Italy and Spain before becoming a commander of a U-boat in 1917.

After the armistice in 1918 Canaris joined the Freikorps and took part in the Kapp Putsch. Later he was involved in secretly building submarines for the German Navy. He resumed his naval career and became increasingly involved with military intelligence. During this period he got to know Reinhard Heydrich. In 1931 Canaris was promoted to captain and in 1932 took command of the Schlesien. Two years later he replaced Erich Raeder as head of German military intelligence, the Abwehr.

Joachim Fest has pointed out: "Those who knew Canaris found him an enigmatic, inscrutable personality, who always maintained a certain distance from people as well as from his duties." When the Nazi Party took power Admiral Canaris had to work with Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and the SS Intelligence Service. Canaris, who had a deep hatred of communism, persuaded Adolf Hitler to support the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. According to his biographer, Mark M. Boatner III: "As an ardent nationalist and righest with an almost pathological aversion to communism, Canaris sincerely approved of Nazism initially." In 1938 he became head of the foreign branch of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the High Command of the armed forces.

Canaris was opposed to Hitler's aggressive foreign policy. On the outbreak of the Second World War on 1st September, 1939, Hans Gisevius asked Canaris: "So what do you think now?" Canaris replied: "This means the end of Germany." He also disapproved of Hitler's methods. On hearing that Hitler wanted him to arrange the deaths of former French prime minister Paul Reynaud and General Maxime Weygand he suddenly erupted in an angry denunciation of "these gangster methods of Hitler and his henchmen."

It has been pointed out that during the war Canaris had a close relationship with Hans Oster, the head of the Military Intelligence Office's central division, who turned it into a centre of activity for opponents of the regime. At the same time Canaris was meeting regularly with his most dangerous adversary, Reinhard Heydrich for morning horseback rides in Berlin's Tiergarten. However, as Alan Bullock has pointed out: "The Abwehr provided admirable cover and unique facilities for a conspiracy."

During the war Canaris gradually became disillusioned with Hitler and began leaking information to Ludwig Beck and Carl Goerdeler and others plotting against the regime. Louis L. Snyder has argued: "Canaris gradually became an opponent of National Socialism and of Hitler's policies. He joined the Resistance movement but was always against any attempt to assassinate Hitler.... According to a subordinate, General Edwin Lahausen, Canaris had human qualities that placed him far above the usual military bureaucrat. He hated violence and was confused and uncomfortable in his double role."

Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was working for British intelligence during the Second World War, claimed that: "Late in 1942 my office had come to certain conclusions - which time proved to be correct - about the struggle between the Nazi Party and the German General Staff, as it was being fought out in the field of secret intelligence. The German Secret Service (the Abwehr) and its leader. Admiral Canaris, were suspected by the Party not only of inefficiency but of disloyalty, and attempts were being made by Himmler to oust the Admiral and to take over his whole organization." Trevor-Roper also revealed that Canaris "was making repeated journeys to Spain and indicated a willingness to treat with us."

Hans Oster
Wilhelm Canaris in 1944

In early 1944 a group of anti-Nazis that included Canaris, Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Claus von Stauffenberg, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Hans Dohnanyi, Erwin Rommel, Hans Oster, Franz Halder, Hans Gisevius, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben met to discuss what action they should take. Initially the group was divided over the issue of Hitler. Gisevius and a small group of predominantly younger conspirators felt that he should be killed immediately. Canaris, Witzleben, Beck, Rommel and most of the other conspirators believed that Hitler should be arrested and put on trial. By using the legal system to expose the crimes of the regime, they hoped to avoid making a martyr of Hitler. Oster and Dohnanyi argued that after Hitler was arrested he should be brought before a panel of physicians chaired by Dohnanyi's father-in-law, the psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer, and declared mentally ill.

On 20th July, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg attended a conference with Hitler on 20th July, 1944. It was decided to drop plans to kill Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler at the same time as Hitler. Alan Bullock later explained: "He (Stauffenberg) brought his papers with him in a brief-case in which he had concealed the bomb fitted with a device for exploding it ten minutes after the mechanism had been started. The conference was already proceeding with a report on the East Front when Keitel took Stauffenberg in and presented him to Hitler. Twenty-four men were grouped round a large, heavy oak table on which were spread out a number of maps. Neither Himmler nor Goring was present. The Fuhrer himself was standing towards the middle of one of the long sides of the table, constantly leaning over the table to look at the maps, with Keitel and Jodl on his left. Stauffenberg took up a place near Hitler on his right, next to a Colonel Brandt. He placed his brief-case under the table, having started the fuse before he came in, and then left the room unobtrusively on the excuse of a telephone call to Berlin. He had been gone only a minute or two when, at 12.42 p.m., a loud explosion shattered the room, blowing out the walls and the roof, and setting fire to the debris which crashed down on those inside."

Joachim Fest, the author of Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) has pointed out: "Suddenly, as witnesses later recounted, a deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... A dark plume of smoke rose and hung in the air over the wreckage of the briefing barracks. Shards of glass, wood, and fiberboard swirled about, and scorched pieces of paper and insulation rained down... When the bomb exploded, twenty-four people were in the conference room. All were hurled to the ground, some with their hair in flames." The bomb killed four men in the hut: General Rudolf Schmundt, General Günther Korten, Colonel Heinz Brandt and stenographer Heinz Berger. Hitler's right arm was badly injured but he survived what became known as the July Plot.

The plan was for Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Erich Fromm to take control of the German Army. This idea was abandoned when it became known that Adolf Hitler had survived the assassination attempt. In an attempt to protect himself, Fromm organized the execution of Stauffenberg along with three other conspirators, Friedrich Olbricht and Werner von Haeften, in the courtyard of the War Ministry. It was later reported the Stauffenberg died shouting "Long live free Germany".

According to Traudl Junge Hitler selected Hermann Fegelein to investigate the conspiracy: "Fegelein had been detailed to investigate the assassination attempt and track down the guilty men. He was personally indignant to think of anyone wanting to blow up such a splendid fellow as himself. I think he thought that was more criminal than any plan to get rid of Hitler, and he flung himself into the investigation with the zeal of his desire for revenge. Finally it became obvious even to Hitler that the resistance movement had spread more widely in the army than he had supposed. Distinguished names of men holding high rank were mentioned. He raged and shouted and said a great deal about traitors and scoundrels." It is claimed that Fegelein often showed around the photographs of the hanged men who had been executed as a result of this failed assassination attempt."

Canaris and Hans Oster were among the many arrested. During the investigation Fegelein discovered Osler's three-page study on how the coup d'état was to be conducted. On 6th February 1945, with the Red Army now in Germany, the conspirators were moved to concentration camps where they were in less danger of being killed by bombs or liberated by advancing enemy troops. Oster was taken to Flossenburg Concentration Camp.

On 4th April 1945 they discovered Canaris's secret diaries. This information was used in the trial of Oster, Canaris, Hans Dohnanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ludwig Gehre and Karl Sack. Oster appeared first and having abandoned hope, admitted everything. Canaris also confessed and the others followed. That evening the court pronounced the death sentence on all the men. That evening Canaris tapped out a final message to the prisoner in the next cell, a Danish secret service officer: "My days are done. Was not a traitor."

Wilhelm Canaris was executed at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on 9th April, 1945.

Primary Sources

(1) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997)

Canaris seemed to be deeply upset by the rising tide of evidence against Oster. Those who knew the admiral found him an enigmatic, inscrutable personality, who always maintained a certain distance from people as well as from his duties. Among all the competing elements of his nature there may even have been some part that could understand the treason of his closest collaborator, though there is no evidence of this. In any case, Canaris continued to protect both Oster and Miiller despite the fact that Hitler himself had taken an interest in the issue and had ordered Canaris to join Heydrich in conducting the investigation. Canaris demonstrated great resilience and flexibility in drawing the inquiry into his own hands, leading it, and then letting it drop quietly, all at great personal risk. His performance revealed a poker-faced master strategist, cold-blooded, quick to react, and gifted with sure instincts. "He pulled the wool over everyone's eyes-Heydrich, Himmler, Keitel, Ribbentrop, even the Fuhrer himself," a Gestapo official later lamented.

Behind the cool mask lay a high-strung disposition; Canaris was agitated and tormented by fear after each passing danger yet was still addicted to new adventures. Like most cunning people, he hated violence. He was nimble in the face of danger, witty, and sardonic. During one of his trips to Spain he would spring to attention in his open car and raise his arm in the Hitler salute every time he drove past a herd of sheep. You never know, he said, whether one of the party bigwigs might be in the crowd. He called his immediate superior, Wilhelm Keitel - his total opposite in temperament - a blockhead. Some observers have deduced from all the incongruities in Canaris that he was an unprincipled cynic who sought only thrills from the resistance and who admired Hitler as an even greater gamesman than himself. These interpretations miss the mark. In his last years Canaris increasingly suffered from the conviction that he had served Hitler far too long and far too submissively, and he regretted not having turned the resources of Military Intelligence against the regime in a more determined fashion. It has been said that he was a master of the art of obfuscation, and his skill has tended to obscure his rigid adherence to a number of principles. He could not abide treason whatever the pretext, as his break with Oster shows, but neither could he bear the lack of basic humanity that made the Nazi regime so abhorrent in his eyes....

Because Canaris understood the nature of the Nazi regime better than most and yet never crossed irrevocably into the camp of its enemies, he exemplified the dilemma of many torn between emotion and reason. They felt proud of the restoration of German might yet were well aware of the repellent ways in which it had been achieved. They took great professional pleasure in their successes yet despaired over the "gangster methods of the regime." They recognized that a catastrophe was looming for which they bore some responsibility yet felt paralyzed by such honorable principles as duty, loyalty, and a job well done. On March 10, 1938, Chief of General Staff Ludwig Beck was summoned to the Chancellery and asked to prepare mobilization plans for the entry into Austria. Although he plainly foresaw the disasters to which Hitler's ambitions would lead, he threw himself into his task when it turned out that no plans existed because Hitler had been keeping the general staff in the dark. He spurred on his staff and his chief of operations, Erich von Manstein, to produce plans as fast as possible. Five hours later they lay ready. There was no escape from the fact that if opponents of the regime wished to avoid serving Hitler they had to turn their backs on all the values they believed in and even on longstanding friendships. Hans Oster was prepared to do precisely that. Franz Halder once remarked-half in grudging admiration, half in disapproval - that Oster was fired by a "burning hatred of Hitler," which caused him to conceive notions "that the sober, critically minded listener simply could not accept."

(2) Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Philby Affair (1968)

Late in 1942 my office had come to certain conclusions - which time proved to be correct - about the struggle between the Nazi Party and the German General Staff, as it was being fought out in the field of secret intelligence. The German Secret Service (the Abwehr) and its leader. Admiral Canaris, were suspected by the Party not only of inefficiency but of disloyalty, and attempts were being made by Himmler to oust the Admiral and to take over his whole organization. Admiral Canaris himself, at that time, was making repeated journeys to Spain and indicated a willingness to treat with us: he would even welcome a meeting with his opposite number, "C". These conclusions were duly formulated and the final document was submitted for security clearance to Philby. Philby absolutely forbade its circulation, insisting that it was "mere speculation".

He afterwards similarly suppressed, as "unreliable", a report from an important German defector. Otto John, who informed us, in Lisbon, that a conspiracy was being hatched against Hitler. This also was perfectly true. The conspiracy was the Plot of 20 July 1944, and Canaris, for his contribution to it, afterwards suffered a traitor's death in Germany.

At the time we were baffled by Philby's intransigence, which would yield to no argument and which no argument was used to defend. From some members of Section Five, mere mindless blocking of intelligence was to be expected. But Philby, we said to ourselves, was an intelligent man: how could he behave thus in a matter so important? Had he too yielded to the genius of the place?