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Wilhelm Canaris

(1887 - 1945)


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“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 Canaris

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.

The Nuremburg 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 Switzerland’s 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 today.”

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 Movement.

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 End:

“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 ..”


Sources: The Holocaust: Crimes, Heroes and Villains

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