The Abwehr was a German intelligence organization from 1921 to 1944. The term Abwehr (German for defense) was used as a concession to Allied demands that Germany’s post-World War I intelligence activities be for “defensive” purposes only. After February 4, 1938, its name in title was Foreign Affairs/Defense Office of the Armed Forces High Command (Amt Ausland/Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in German).
Despite its name implying counterespionage, the Abwehr was an intelligence-gathering agency and dealt exclusively with human intelligence, especially raw intelligence reports from field agents and other sources. The Chief of the Abwehr reported directly to the German High Command. Intelligence summaries and intelligence dissemination were the prerogative of the Operations Branch, (as distinct from the Intelligence Branch), of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), and through it to the intelligence-evaluation sections of the Army, Navy, and Airforce (Heer, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe respectively in German). The Abwehr’s Headquarters (HQ) were located at 76/78 Tirpitzufer, Berlin, adjacent to the offices of the OKW.
The Abwehr before Canaris
The Abwehr was created in 1921 as part of the Ministry of Defence when Germany was allowed to form the Reichswehr, the military organization of the Weimar Republic. The first head was Major Friedrich Gempp, a former deputy to Col. Walther Nicolai, the head of German intelligence during World War I. At that time it was composed of only three officers and seven former officers plus a clerical staff. By the 1920s it was organized into three sections:
II. Cipher and Radio Monitoring
The Reichsmarine intelligence staff merged with the Abwehr in 1928.
In the 1930s, with the rise of the Nazi movement, the Ministry of Defense was reorganized; surprisingly, on June 7, 1932, a naval officer, Capt. Konrad Patzig, was named chief of the Abwehr, despite the fact that it was staffed largely by Army officers. But perhaps not surprisingly, due to the small size of the organization and its limited importance at that time, it was unsuitable for a more ambitious Army officer. Another possible factor was that naval officers had more foreign experience than their Army counterparts and understood more of foreign affairs. However, all three services eventually developed their own intelligence staff.
Because of Abwehr-sponsored reconnaissance flights across the border with Poland, Patzig soon had confrontations with Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. Army leaders feared that the flights would endanger the secret plans for an attack on Poland. Patzig was fired in January 1935 as a result, and was sent to command the new pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee; he later became Chief of Naval Personnel. His replacement was another Reichsmarine captain, Wilhelm Canaris.
The Abwehr under Canaris
Before the War
Before he took over the Abwehr on 1 January 1935, the soon-to-be Admiral Canaris was warned by Patzig of attempts by Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich to take over all German intelligence organizations. Canaris, a master of backroom dealings which were so much a part of life, thought he knew how to deal with them. But even while he tried to maintain an at-least cordial relationship with them, the antagonism between the Abwehr and the SS did not stop with Canaris at the helm.
It came to a head in 1937 when Adolf Hitler decided to help Joseph Stalin in the latter’s purge against the Soviet military. Hitler ordered that the German Army staff should be kept in the dark about Stalin’s intentions, for fear that they would warn their Soviet counterparts. Accordingly, special SS teams, accompanied by burglary experts from the criminal police, broke into the secret files of the General Staff and the Abwehr and removed documents related to German-Soviet collaboration. To conceal the thefts, fires were started at the break-ins, which included Abwehr headquarters.
Canaris reorganized the agency in 1938, with the Abwehr being subdivided into three main sections:
The Central Division, (also called Department Z - Abteilung Z or die Zentrale in German), acted as the controlling brain for the other two sections, as well as handling personnel and financial matters, including the payment of agents. Throughout Canaris’s tenure it was headed by Generalmajor Hans Oster.
The Foreign Branch, (Amtsgruppe Ausland in German) (later known as Foreign Intelligence Group) was the second subdivision of the Abwehr and had several functions:
liaison with the OKW and the general staffs of the services,
coordination with the German Foreign Ministry on military matters, and
evaluation of captured documents and evaluation of foreign press and radio broadcasts. This liaison with the OKW meant that the Foreign Branch was the appropriate channel to request Abwehr support for a particular mission.
Abwehr I. II. & III. constituted the third division and was labeled “counter-intelligence branches” but in reality focused on intelligence gathering. It was subdivided into the following areas and responsibilities:
- I. Foreign Intelligence Collection (further subdivided by letter eg. I-Ht)
- G - false documents, photos, inks, passports, chemicals
- H West - army west (Anglo-American Army intelligence)
- H Ost - army east (Soviet Army intelligence)
- Ht - technical army intelligence
- i - communications - design of wireless sets, wireless operators
- L - air intelligence
- M - naval intelligence
- T/lw - technical air intelligence
- Wi - economic intelligence
- Attached to Abwehr I. was Gruppe I-T for technical intelligence.
- II. Sabotage - tasked with directing covert contact / exploitation of discontented minority groups in foreign countries for intelligence purposes.
- III. Counter-intelligence division- responsible for counter-intelligence operations in German industry, planting false information, penetration of foreign intelligence services and investigating acts of sabotage on German soil. Attached to Abwehr III. were:
- IIIC - Civilian Authority bureau
- IIIC-2 - Espionage cases bureau
- IIID - Disinformation bureau
- IIIF - Counter espionage agents bureau
- IIIN - Postal bureau
Abwehr liaisons were also established with the Army, Navy and Luftwaffe High Commands, and these liaisons would pass on specific intelligence requests to the operational sections of the Abwehr.
Abwehr I was commanded by Colonel Hans Pieckenbrock, Abwehr II was commanded by Colonel Erwin von Lahousen and Abwehr III was commanded by Colonel Egbert Bentivegni.
Under the structure outlined above, Abwehr placed a local station in each military district in Germany, (Wehrkreis), called ‘Abwehrstelle’ or ‘Ast’. Following the German Table of Organization and Equipment model of Abwehr headquarters, each Ast was usually subdivided into sections for:
- espionage ( I ),
- sabotage ( II ), and
- counter-intelligence ( III ).
Typically each Ast would be commanded by a senior Army or Naval officer and would be answerable to Abwehr HQ in Berlin. Operations carried out by each Ast would be in tandem with the overall strategic plan formulated by Admiral Canaris. Canaris in turn would receive instructions on what intelligence gathering should take priority from the OKW or, increasingly after 1941, the Führer Adolf Hitler, directly. In practice however, each Ast was given considerable latitude in mission planning & execution - a facet of the organization which ultimately damaged its intelligence gathering capability.
Each local Ast could recruit potential agents for missions and the Abwehr also employed freelance recruiters to groom and vet potential agents. In most cases, the agents who formed the Abwehr were recruited civilians, not officers/soldiers from the military. The recruitment emphasis seems to have been very much on quantity not quality. The poor quality of recruits often lead to the failure of Abwehr missions.
Abwehr operational structure in neutral countries
In neutral countries the Abwehr frequently disguised its organization by attaching its personnel to the German Embassy or to trade missions. Such postings were referred to as “War Organizations” (Kriegsorganisationen or KO’s in German). In neutral but friendly Spain for example, the Abwehr had both an Ast and a KO while Ireland had neither. In friendly countries of interest, occupied countries, or in Germany itself, the intelligence service would normally organize“Abwehr sub-stations” (Abwehrleitstellen in German or Alsts in German), or “Abwehr adjoining posts” (Abwehrnebenstellen in German). The Alsts would fall under the jurisdiction of the geographically appropriate Ast, which in turn would be supervised by the Central division in Berlin.
Canaris and Die Schwarze Kapelle
During his reorganizaton, Canaris took care to surround himself with a hand-picked staff, notably his second-in-command, Hans Oster and Erwin von Lahousen, Section II Chief. All but one were not members of the Nazi party. The exception was Rudolf Bamler, who was appointed as chief of Section III by Canaris to gain the trust of Himmler. Canaris did make sure to keep Bamler on a short leash however, and restricted his access to operational information. Canaris had good reason to do this because unknown to the High Command and Hitler, during his reorganization Canaris had peppered the chief operational and administrative staff of the Abwehr with men more loyal to him than to the Nazi Government. While outwardly Canaris appeared to be the model of intelligence-gathering efficiency, evidence exists that he secretly opposed, and actively worked against the wishes of his Commander in Chief. Canaris, Oster and the Chiefs of Abwehr sections I., II., and III. were all heavily involved in what the Security Police Sicherheitsdienst were to later dub “The Black Orchestra” (Die Schwarze Kapelle in German), a plot to overthrow the Nazi regime from the inside. Canaris’s operational decisions, his choice of appointments and their decisions, and crucially for the Third Reich - the input each plotter had into Abwehr operations, are all tainted by these secret dealings.
The Abwehr during World War II
Under Canaris the Abwehr expanded and proved relatively efficient during the early years of the war. Its most notable success was Operation Nordpol, which was an operation against the Dutch underground network, which at the time was supported by the British Special Operations Executive. In March 1941, the Germans forced a captured SOE radio operator to transmit messages to Britain in a code that the Germans had obtained. Even though the operator gave every indication that he was compromised, the receiver in Britain did not notice this. Thus the Germans had been able to penetrate the Dutch operation and maintained this state of affairs for two years, capturing agents that were sent and sending false intelligence and sabotage reports until the British caught on.
But it was ineffective overall for several reasons. Much of its intelligence was deemed politically unacceptable to the German leadership. Moreover, it was in direct competition/conflict with SS intelligence activities under Reinhard Heydrich and Walter Schellenberg. The animosity between the SS and Abwehr did not stop there. Many of the Abwehr’s operatives — including Canaris himself — were in fact anti-Nazi and were involved in many assassination attempts against Hitler, including the most serious one on July 20, 1944. Canaris even employed Jews in the Abwehr and used the agency to help a small number of Jews to escape from Germany into Switzerland. But perhaps the biggest reason was that Canaris himself sought to undermine the Nazi cause, although not Germany’s war effort itself.
Despite the Abwehr’s many intelligence coups, its effectiveness was more than negated by agents who — with Canaris’s blessing — aided the Allies in whatever covert means were necessary. He personally gave false information which discouraged Hitler from invading Switzerland (Operation Tannenbaum). He also persuaded Francisco Franco not to allow German forces to pass through Spain to invade Gibraltar (Operation Felix). He even provided intelligence to the Allies on German intentions as well.
The SS continually undermined the Abwehr by putting several Abwehr officers under investigation, believing them (correctly) to be involved in anti-Hitler plots. The SS also accused Canaris of being defeatist in his intelligence assessments, especially on the Russian campaign. One such briefing reportedly resulting in Hitler seizing Canaris by the lapels, and demanding to know whether the intelligence chief was insinuating that Germany would lose the war.
The Frau Solf Tea Party and the end of the Abwehr
The incident which eventually resulted in the dissolution of the Abwehr came to be known as the “Frau Solf Tea Party,” which took place on September 10, 1943.
Frau Johanna (or Hanna) Solf, the widow of Dr. Wilhelm Solf, a former Colonial Minister under Kaiser Wilhelm II and ex-Ambassador to Japan, had long been involved in the anti-Nazi intellectual movement in Berlin. At a tea party hosted by her, a new member was included in the circle, an attractive young Swiss doctor named Reckse. It turned out that Dr. Reckse was an agent of the Gestapo, to which he reported on the tea party and turned over several incriminating documents.
The Solf circle was tipped off and had to flee for their lives, but they were all rounded up on January 12, 1944. Eventually everyone who was involved in the Solf Circle except Frau Solf and her daughter, the Countess Lagi Gräfin von Ballestrem, were executed.
One of those executed was Otto Kiep, an official in the Foreign Office, who had friends in the Abwehr, among whom were Erich Vermehren and his wife, the former Countess Elizabeth von Plettenberg, who were stationed as agents in Istanbul. Both were summoned to Berlin by the Gestapo in connection with the Kiep case. Fearing for their lives, they contacted the British and defected.
It was mistakenly believed in Berlin that the Vermehrens absconded with the Abwehr’s secret codes and turned them over to the British. That proved to be the last straw for Hitler. Despite the efforts of the Abwehr to shift the blame to the SS or even to the Foreign Ministry, Hitler had had enough of Canaris and he told Himmler so twice. He summoned the chief of the Abwehr for a final interview and accused him of allowing the Abwehr to “fall into bits.” Canaris quietly agreed that it was “not surprising,” as Germany was already losing the war.
Hitler fired Canaris on the spot, and on February 18, 1944, Hitler signed a decree that abolished the Abwehr. Its functions were taken over by the RSHA. This action deprived the armed forces (and the anti-Nazi conspirators) of an intelligence service of its own and strengthened Himmler’s control over the generals.
Canaris, by this time a vice admiral, was cashiered and given the empty position of chief of the Office of Commercial and Economic Warfare. He was arrested on July 23, 1944 in the aftermath of the July 20 Plot against Hitler and executed shortly before the end of the war, along with Oster his deputy. The functions of the Abwehr were then totally absorbed by the Sicherheitsdienst, a sub-office of the Schutzstaffel (SS) security command, the RSHA.
Chiefs of the Abwehr
- Col. Friedrich Gempp (1921–1927)
- Major Günther Schwantes (1927–1929)
- Lt. Col. Ferdinand von Bredow (1929–1932)
- Rear Adm. Konrad Patzig (1932–1935)
- Adm. Wilhelm Canaris (1935–1944)