“I die for my fatherland. I have a clear conscience.
I only did my duty to my country when I tried to oppose
the criminal folly of Hitler.” - Admiral Wilhelm
The man behind the Nazi Abwehr spy network, Admiral
Wilhelm Canaris, was a shrewd, brilliant spymaster who not only managed
to keep control of the Abwehr. He outwitted the slippery Himmler at almost every turn, while joined with other high-ranking German officers
in a dangerous plot to eliminate Hitler and make a separate peace with the Allies.
Still, today, Wilhelm Canaris is the number
one mystery man of the Nazi regime under Hitler - a man historians hardly can classify. A man who only seldomly
came out of his shell, who didn’t talk much but was rather
a listener. Almost everybody who knew him didn't really know
exactly what his purpose and intentions were.
On the one hand he was the great protector
of the German opposition against Hitler - on the other hand he was at the same time the one who prepared
all the big expansion plans for the acts and crimes of Hitler in the Third Reich. While he highly protected and motivated
the opposition members who were eager to fight against Hitler,
he was also hunting them as conspirators - one of the many
contradictions he was forced to live with to stay in control
of the Abwehr.
Wilhelm Canaris, born January 1, 1887, in Aplerbeck, Germany, was celebrated as
a war hero during the First World War for his exploits as a submarine
captain, and he later became a top military spy for Germany. Canaris
was appointed to head the Abwehr
Military Intelligence in 1935.
In 1938, he made efforts to hinder Hitler from attacking Czechoslovakia and later he played an active
role as a peace keeper. Canaris personally went to Franco and told him not to allow passage to the Germans for the
purpose of capturing Gibraltar.
Canaris was directly involved in the 1938 and 1939 coup attempts.
Admiral Canaris was an eye-witness to the
killing of civilians in Poland.
At Bedzin, SS troops pushed 200 Jews into a synagogue and then set it aflame. They all burned to death. Canaris
was shocked. On 10 September, 1939, he had traveled to the
front to watch the German Army in action. Wherever he went,
his intelligence officers told him of an orgy of massacre.
Two days later, he went to Hitler’s headquarters train, the
Amerika, in Upper Silesia, to protest. He first saw General Wilhelm Keitel,
Chief of the Armed Forces High Command. “I have information,” Canaris told Keitel, “that mass executions are being
planned in Poland and that members of the Polish nobility
and the clergy have been singled out for extermination.”
Canaris told Keitel,
“The world will one day hold the Wehrmacht responsible for these
methods since these things are taking place under its nose.” But
Keitel urged Canaris to take the matter no further.
Soon the Vatican began to receive regular,
detailed reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland. The information
had been gathered by agents of the Abwehr by order of Canaris,
who passed them on to Dr. Josef Muller, a devout Catholic
and a leading figure in the Catholic resistance to Hitler.
And Muller got the reports safely to Rome.
Canaris sent another of his colleagues, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on a flight to Sweden to meet
secretly with Bishop Bell of Chichester. Bonhoeffer told
Bell of the crimes his nation was committing, and assured
Bell of growing resistance in Germany to such acts.
In March 1943, Canaris personally flied
to Smolensk to plan Hitler’s assassination with conspirators
on the staff of Army Group Center.
Trials reveal Canaris’s strenuous efforts in trying to
put a stop to the crimes of war and genocide committed in Russia by Reinhard Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen forces. It is also revealed that Canaris prevented the killing
of captured French officers in Tunisia just as he saved hundreds
of Jews during the war.
In one instance he saved seven Jews from
being sent to a concentration
camp and certain death by going personally to Himmler,
complaining that his Gestapo was arresting his agents. The seven were turned over to the
Abwehr and taught a few codes, then smuggled out of Germany.
And Admiral Canaris underlined the Swiss
will of resistance and Switzerlands economic strength
and geographic advantages. It was due to the views of Canaris
that Hitler gave up his plans to incorporate Switzerland
into his New Europe. Shortly before Canaris left office,
he paid a visit to Bern, where he expressed to the German
Ambassador his satisfaction about the success of their reports.
Canaris appointed his friend, the anti-Nazi Hans Oster, to the number two in the Abwehr agency. From
his post, Oster contacted enemies of the regime and turned
them into Abwehr agents. The most important of these were Hans Von Dohnanyi, the catholic lawyer Joseph Muller and
the protestant priest Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Oster created
an anti-Nazi hierarchy in the Abwehr, and soon he directed
all of the military plans of the resistance. He used the
Abwehr to save people from the Gestapo, to cover resistance
actions, to help Jews escape from Germany, and to communicate
between the different circles of the resistance.
All of his actions were approved by Admiral
Canaris. The commander in chief of the Abwehr supported the resistance, although he claimed that he was too old to take
an active part.
Admiral Canaris, along with his second-in-command, Hans Oster, actually helped the Allies while supervising
all German espionage, counterespionage, and sabotage. Canaris
was revealing almost all of the important German strategy
and battle plans to the Allies - from Hitler’s impending
western offensive against the Low countries and France to
Hitler’s plan to invade Britain. He also misled Hitler into
believing that the Allies would not land at Anzio in 1943.
In April that same year, Canaris made contact
with the former governor of Pennsylvania, Commander George
H. Earle, Roosevelt’s personal representative for the Balkans,
stationed in Istanbul. One morning there was a knock on Earle’s
hotel room door and there stood - in civilian clothes - Admiral
Wilhelm Canaris. The head of the German Secret Service told
Earle there were many sensible German people feeling that Hitler was leading their nation down a destructive path.
Admiral Canaris continued that an honorable surrender from
the German army to the American forces could be arranged.
Earle was convinced of the sincerity of
Admiral Canaris and immediately sent an urgent message to
Washington via diplomatic pouch, requesting a prompt reply.
A month later, Canaris phoned, as had been agreed, but Earle
could only say “I am waiting for news, but have none
In the summer of 1943 Canaris met secretly
with General Stuart Menzies, Chief of British Intelligence,
and William J. Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services,
at Santander, Spain. Canaris presented Menzies and Donovan
with his peace plan: a cease fire in the West, Hitler to
be eliminated or handed over, and continuation of the War
in the East.
But though Donovan, Menzies and Canaris
reached an agreement on the basis of Canaris’ proposal, President
Roosevelt flatly declined to negotiate with “these East German
Junkers” and called his presumptuous OSS chief to heel. Canaris’ peace offer was rejected .
That he was being misled by Canaris became
evident to Hitler only after the conspirators attempted to
kill him in July 1944. Canaris and many others were arrested.
The principal prisoners were finally confined at Gestapo cellars at Prinz Albrechtstrasse, where Canaris was kept
in solitary confinement, and in chains.
In The Canaris Conspiracy, Manvell
and Fraenkel tell, how his cell door was permanently open,
and the light burned continually, day and night. He was given
only one third of the normal prison rations, and as the winter
set in his starved body suffered cruelly from the cold. Occasionally
he was humiliated by being forced to do menial jobs, such
as scrubbing the prison floor, the SS men mocking him.
On February 7, 1945, Canaris was brought
to the Flossenburg concentration
camp but he was still ill-treated and often endured having
his face slapped by the SS guards. But for months Canaris
baffled the SS interrogators with one ruse after another,
and he denied all personal complicity in the conspiracy.
He never betrayed his fellow participants in the Resistance
During the waning weeks of the Nazi era,
SS Obersturmbannführer Walter Huppenkothen and Sturmbannführer
Otto Thorbeckwere detailed to Flossenburg to eliminate Canaris
and the other resistance figures. The SS men staged a bogus
“trial” before their men hung the victims.
In the closing days of World War II, in the gray morning
hours of April 9, 1945, gallows were erected hastily in the courtyard.
Wilhelm Canaris, Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, Major General Hans
Oster, Judge Advocate General Carl Sack, Captain Ludwig Gehre -
all were ordered to remove their clothing and were led down the steps
under the trees to the secluded place of execution before hooting SS guards. Naked under the scaffold, they knelt for the last time to pray
- they were hanged, their corpses left to rot.
Two weeks later the camp was liberated
by American troops - on 23 April 1945.
One of Canaris’ fellow-prisoners, the Danish
Colonel Lunding, former Director of Danish Military Intelligence,
was imprisoned in the cell next to Canaris. He had contact
with Canaris shortly before he watched the naked figure of
the Admiral being led to execution. Through tapping on the
wall of his cell Canaris told him: “This is the end.
Badly mishandled. My nose broken. I have done nothing against
Germany. If you survive, please tell my wife ..”
After the war, Huppenkothen and Thorbeck
stood trial on three occasions, but the courts were never
able to satisfactorily dispose of their case. In 1956, the
German High Court ruled that this ceremony had been enough
to render the murders “legal.” The high court judges
also held that the killings were “legal” because
the Nazi regime had possessed the right to execute “traitors.” The court, in effect, reconvicted the victims.
One of Canaris’ friends, Hans Bernd Gisevius,
tells about the Admiral in his book from 1947 To the Bitter
“Canaris hated not only Hitler and Himmler, but
the entire Nazi system as a political phenomenon .. He
was everywhere and nowhere at once. Everywhere he traveled,
at home and abroad and to the front, he always left a whirl
of confusion behind him .. In reality this small, frail,
and somewhat timid man was a vibrating bundle of nerves.
Extremely well read, oversensitive, Canaris was an outsider
in every respect. In bearing and manner of work he was
the most unmilitary of persons ..”