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 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.
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 in order to stay in control of
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.
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. 2 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.
Canaris send one 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.
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.
That he was being misled by Canaris became evident to Adolf Hitler only after the conspirators attempted to kill him in July, 1944. Canaris was arrested and finally confined at Gestapo cellars at Prinz Albrechtstrasse, where he was kept in solitary confinement, and in chains.
On 7 February 1945 Canaris was brought to the Flossenburg concentration camp. 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.
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, pastor 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 .."
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 ..