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Wilhelm Franz Canaris
1 January 1887 (1887-01)9 April 1945 (1945-04-10) (aged 58)
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1979-013-43, Wilhelm Canaris.jpg
Wilhelm Franz Canaris
Place of birth Aplerbeck (a part of Dortmund) in Westphalia
Place of death Flossenburg concentration camp
Allegiance  German Empire
 Weimar Republic
 Nazi Germany
Service/branch  Kaiserliche Marine
Nazi Germany Abwehr
Years of service 1905 – 1944
Rank Admiral
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Iron Cross First and Second Class
German Cross in Silver
Cross of Honor
Wehrmacht's Twelve and Twenty-Five Year Long-Service Ribbons.

Wilhelm Franz Canaris (January 1, 1887 – April 9, 1945) was a German admiral, head of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, from 1935 to 1944 and member of the German Resistance.


Early life and World War I

Canaris was born in Aplerbeck (now a part of Dortmund) in Westphalia, the son of wealthy industrialist Carl Canaris and his wife Auguste (née Popp). Until 1938 Canaris believed that his family was related to the Greek admiral, freedom fighter and politician Constantine Kanaris, which influenced his decision to join the navy. While on a visit to Corfu he was given a portrait of the Greek hero, which he always kept in his office. In 1938, however, research showed that his family was of North Italian descent, originally called Canarisi, and had lived in Germany since the 17th century.[1] His grandfather had converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism.

In 1905, aged seventeen, Canaris joined the German Imperial Navy and by the outbreak of World War I was serving on board the SMS Dresden as intelligence officer. This cruiser was the only ship that managed to evade the British Fleet for a prolonged period during the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, largely due to his excellent deception tactics. Whilst anchored in Cumberland Bay, Robinson Crusoe Island, the Dresden was trapped and forced to scuttle by the British. Most of the crew became prisoners in Chile in March 1915, but Canaris escaped in August 1915, using his fluency in Spanish; with the aid of some German merchants he returned to Germany in October 1917 via, among other countries, England.

He was then given intelligence work and sent to Spain, where he survived a British assassination attempt. Returning to active service, he ended the war as a celebrated U-boat commander from Late 1917 in the Mediterranean, credited with eighteen sinkings. By that time he was an enemy on the top of the list of the MI6 secret service in England. He spoke English fluently (as well as four other foreign languages) and as a naval officer of the old school, he respected Britain's Royal Navy despite the rivalry between the two nations.

In 1919 Canaris married Erika Waag, also the child of an industrialist. They had two daughters, Eva and Brigitte.

Interwar years

Canaris remained in the military after the war, first as a member of the Freikorps and then as part of the Reichsmarine. He was promoted rapidly, becoming a Captain in 1931, the Executive Officer of the cruiser Berlin and then the Commanding Officer of the battleship Schlesien. At this time, he became involved in intelligence work again. He made a series of contacts with high-ranking German officers, politicians and industrialists for the purpose of creating order in German politics. During his Freikorps period, he was on intimate terms with the people such as Horst von Pflugk-Hartung who were accused of political assassinations of leaders of the left, and was even accused himself, although later acquitted, of being involved in the assassinations and other crimes (such as his alleged involvement in Rosa Luxembourg's "trial"). During the 1930-33 period, Canaris was following a course quite parallel to the one followed by the future Nazi party leaders although never a party member himself. Indirectly, though, he promoted the forces that later became part of the Nazi power structure.

After Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Canaris was made head of the Abwehr, Germany's official military intelligence agency, on January 1, 1935. Later that year, he was promoted to Rear Admiral. During the period 1935-36, he made contacts in Spain to organize a German spy network there, due to his excellent Spanish. He was the moving force behind the decision that sided Germany with Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, despite Hitler's initial hesitation to get involved in such an adventure. In 1937 he was still a supporter of Hitler, considering him to be the only solution against communism and a hope for the national revival of Germany. By 1938, however, he had realised that Hitler's policies and plans would lead Germany to disaster and secretly began to work against the régime. His personal style as a gentleman was incompatible with the thuggish behaviour of most of the Nazi party members. A letter from a Spanish contact of his has been preserved and unambiguously confirms his opposition to the Nazi regime. He tried to hinder Hitler's attempts to absorb Czechoslovakia and advised Franco not to permit German passage through Spain for the purposes of capturing Gibraltar. According to written sources, all of Franco’s arguments on this stance were studied and dictated in detail by Canaris, and that simultaneously, a significant sum of money had been deposited by the British in Swiss accounts for Franco and his generals to further convince them to be neutral.[2]

He also became involved in two abortive plots to assassinate Hitler, first in 1938 and again in 1939. His most audacious attempt was in planning, with Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, to capture and eliminate Hitler and the entire Nazi party before the invasion of Czechoslovakia. At this particular moment, von Kleist visited England secretly and discussed the situation with British MI6 and some high ranking politicians. There, the name of Canaris became widely known as the executive hand of von Kleist in the event of an anti-Nazi plot. The high ranking German military leaders believed that if Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, or any other country, then Britain would declare war on Germany. MI6 was of the same opinion. However, the British reaction to Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland was more cautious. At a meeting with Hitler in Munich, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, (1869 - November 1940), chose diplomacy over war. Munich was a severe disappointment for Kleist and Canaris. It gave Hitler's international reputation an important boost for two reasons: one, he was able to play the part of a man of reason and compromise; and two, he could boast that his predictions that England would not respond with war had proven to be correct. There are claims that Canaris, who was extremely shocked by this 'dishonest and stupid decision' (his own words), decided to be cautious and wait for a better time to act against Hitler.

In January 1939, Canaris manufactured the "Dutch War Scare", which gripped the British government. By January 23, 1939 the British government received information to the effect that Germany intended to invade the Netherlands in February 1939 with the aim of using Dutch air-fields to launch strategic bombing offensive intended to achieve a "knock-out" blow against Britain by razing British cities to the ground[3]. All this information was false, and it was intended by Canaris to achieve a change in British foreign policy[4]. In this, Canaris was successful, and the "Dutch War Scare" played a major role in causing Chamberlain to make the "continental commitment" (i.e. sending a large British ground force to the defense of France) in February 1939[5].

Nevertheless, it appears likely that MI6 maintained contact with Canaris even after the Munich Agreement. 30 September 1938. When Winston Churchill came to power after the resignation of PM Neville Chamberlein in May 1940, Canaris' hopes were renewed, given the new Prime Minister's strong position against Hitler.

World War II

In the meantime, Reinhard Heydrich, previously a naval cadet who had served under Canaris and was at the time the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) leader, despite being his protegé, friend and neighbour, became his rival. Presumably, the Canaris posting in Abwehr had the secret approval of the dynamic Heydrich, who preferred him to his predecessor, Commander Pfatz, who was not in line with the Nazi party members. Heydrich wanted a controllable Abwehr and was keeping a close eye on Canaris. Canaris appeared outwardly to side with his friend Heydrich, but only in order to give Abwehr a chance to grow and become a considerable force. In Bassett's account,[6] Canaris was deeply frustrated by a briefing from Hitler before the attack on Poland. During the briefing, he was informed about a series of exterminations that had been ordered and which Canaris was required to take notes on. These notes, the book confirms, were sent to MI6. After the outbreak of war between Germany and Poland, ends of September 1939, Canaris visited the front and witnessed examples of the war crimes committed by the SS Einsatzgruppen. Among these were the burning of the synagogue in Będzin and how the town's Jewish residents were burned to death. He also received reports from Abwehr agents about many other incidents of mass murder throughout Poland.

Shocked by these incidents, Canaris began working more actively, at increasing risk, to overthrow Hitler's régime, although he cooperated with the SD to create a decoy. This made it possible for him to pose as a trusted man for some time. He was promoted to full Admiral in January 1940. With his subordinate Erwin Lahousen, he formed a circle of like-minded Wehrmacht officers, many of whom would be executed or forced to commit suicide after the failure of the July 20 Plot.

It has been speculated that there was contact with British intelligence during this time, despite the war between the two countries. It is thought that during the invasion of Russia, Canaris received a detailed report of all the enemy positions that was known only to the British. The head of MI6, Stewart Menzies, who shared Canaris’s strong anti-communist beliefs, praised Canaris’s courage and bravery at the end of the war. Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler, however, investigated in detail the sources of Canaris's information on Operation Barbarossa, arriving at the conclusion that there had indeed been contact between him and the British.

After 1942, Canaris visited Spain frequently and was probably in contact with British agents from Gibraltar. In 1943, while in occupied France, Canaris is said to have made contact with British agents: he was conducted blindfolded to the Convent of the Nuns of the Passion of our Blessed Lord, 127 Rue de la Santé, where he met the local head of the British Intelligence Services, code name "Jade Amicol", in reality Colonel Claude Olivier. Canaris wanted to know the terms for peace if Germany got rid of Hitler. Churchill's reply, sent to him two weeks later, was simple: "Unconditional surrender".[7]

During Heydrich's posting in Prague, a serious incident put him and Canaris in open conflict. A British agent — the Czech Paul Thümmel — was arrested by Heydrich, but Canaris intervened to save him, claiming he was a double agent actually working for Abwehr. Heydrich suspected that Thümmel was actually Canaris's MI6 contact. Heydrich requested that Canaris put the Abwehr under SD and SS control. Canaris appeared to retreat and handled the situation diplomatically, but there was no immediate effect on the Abwehr for the time being. In fact, Canaris had established another two links with MI6 — one via Zurich, and the other via Spain and Gibraltar. It is also possible that Vatican contacts provided a third route to his British counterparts.

Canaris also intervened to save a number of victims of Nazi persecution, including hundreds of Jews[8]. Many such people were given token training as Abwehr "agents" and then issued papers allowing them to leave Germany. One notable person he is said to have assisted was the then Lubavitcher Rebbe in Warsaw, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn.[9] This has led Chabad Lubavitch to campaign for his recognition as a Righteous Gentile by the Yad VaShem holocaust memorial. [10]

The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, organized by MI6, was done in part to preserve Canaris in his important position.

Downfall and execution

Flossenburg concentration camp, Arrestblock-Hof: Memorial to members of German resistance executed on April 9, 1945

The evidence that he was playing a double game grew, and at the insistence of Heinrich Himmler, who had suspected him for a long time, Hitler dismissed Canaris from the Abwehr in February 1944, replacing him with Walter Schellenberg and merging most of the Abwehr with the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). Some weeks later, Canaris was put under house arrest, preventing him from taking part directly in the July 20 Plot, 1944, to assassinate Hitler.

However, just after the Stalingrad disaster, Canaris had already planned a 'coup' against the entire Nazi regime in which many Nazi officials would be accused for known crimes, while Hitler would be arrested as an insane person based on his exposure to poison gas in World War I, then imprisoned for life. After the July 20 Plot, Canaris's long-time rival, SS leader Heinrich Himmler discovered that one of the officers involved in the plot, a friend of Canaris' who committed suicide, had kept the plot details in a metal box. The investigations also revealed that a number of other assassination plots (possibly another 10 or 15) had been activated but had failed and were covered up at the last minute. Most people who participated in these plots were people Canaris knew well.

Himmler kept Canaris alive for some time because he planned to use him secretly as a future contact with the British in order to come to an agreement to end the war with himself as the leader of Germany. Hitler also wanted to keep him alive in order to get the names of additional conspirators. When Himmler's plan failed to materialize, he received the approval of Hitler to send Canaris to an SS drumhead court-martial presided over by Otto Thorbeck with Walter Huppenkothen as prosecutor that sentenced him to death.

Together with his deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, theologian Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Ludwig Gehre, Canaris was humiliated before witnesses and then executed on April 9, 1945, in the Flossenburg concentration camp, a few weeks before the end of the war. At the time of his execution, Canaris had been decorated with the Iron Cross First and Second Class, the Silver German Cross, the Cross of Honor and the Wehrmacht Twelve and Twenty-Five Year Long-Service Ribbons.

Erwin Lahousen and Hans Bernd Gisevius, two of Canaris' main subordinates, survived the war and testified during the Nuremberg Trials about Canaris' courage in opposing Hitler. Lahousen recalled a conversation between Canaris and General Wilhelm Keitel in which Canaris warned Keitel that the German military would be held responsible for the atrocities in Poland. Keitel responded that they had been ordered by Hitler. Keitel, who also survived the war, was found guilty of war crimes at Nuremberg and hanged.

Popular culture

  • The 1954 movie Canaris is based on his biography.[11]
  • In the 1970 Colin Forbes novel The Heights of Zervos, Canaris is mentioned along with the Abwehr.
  • In the 1976 film The Eagle Has Landed, Canaris was played by actor Anthony Quayle.
  • In the Frederick Forsyth novel The Odessa File, set in the mid-1960s, the hero infiltrates the organisation of former SS members by claiming to have commanded, as a 19-year-old sergeant, the firing squad which executed Canaris. This is not in fact how Canaris was executed, which was by hanging.
  • In the 1980 Brian Garfield novel The Paladin, Canaris is visited by an agent acting for Churchill. It is apparent that in this book, Canaris is acting as a knowing conduit for British misinformation.


  1. ^ Richard Bassett, Hitler's Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Mystery (Cassell 2005), 65. A family tree prepared in 1938, showing the Canaris family's Italian origin, is in his family papers.
  2. ^ Bassett, 2005.
  3. ^ Watt, D.C. How War Came, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989 page 101
  4. ^ Watt, D.C. How War Came, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989 pages 103-104
  5. ^ Watt, D.C. How War Came, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989 pages 102-103
  6. ^ ibid.
  7. ^ Is Paris Burning by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, published by Pocket Books, 1977
  8. ^
  9. ^ Altein, R, Zaklikofsky, E, Jacobson, I: "Out of the Inferno: The Efforts That Led to the Rescue of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch from War Torn Europe in 1939-40", page 160. Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, 2002 ISBN 0826606830
  10. ^ Chabad: Make Nazi commander a 'righteous gentile', By MATTHEW WAGNER,, Aug 5, 2009.
  11. ^ Canaris (1954) at the Internet Movie Database
  • Knopp, Guido (2000). Hitlers Krieger. Goldmann Verlag. ISBN 3-442-15045-0.  
  • {{cite book| author=Anthony Cave Brown | title=The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, Spymaster to Winston Churchill | publisher=New York, MacMillan Publishing | year=1987, ISBN 0025173901. Major General Sir Stewart Menzies, (1890 – 29 May 1968) was Chief of MI6, British Secret Intelligence Service, during and after World War II.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

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.

Wilhelm Franz Canaris (January 1, 1887April 9, 1945) was a German admiral and head of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, from 1935 to 1944. Together with his deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, theologian Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Ludwig Gehre, Canaris was dragged naked before witnesses and then executed on April 9, 1945.


  • 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.
    • Quoted in "Admiral Canaris - Chief of Intelligence" - Page 210 - by Ian Colvin - 2007
  • Please don't worry about me, Captain Patzig. I'm an incurable optimist. And as far as those fellows are concerned, I think I know how to get along with them.
    • To Captain Konrad Patzig. Quoted in "The Game of the Foxes" - Page 5 - by Ladislas Farago - 1972
  • You can talk to the man. He is reasonable, and sees your point of view, if you point it out properly.
    • About speaking to Hitler. Quoted in "Hitler's Spies: German Military Intelligence in World War II" - Page 234 - by David Kahn - True Crime - 2000
Please don't worry about me, Captain Patzig. I'm an incurable optimist. And as far as those fellows are concerned, I think I know how to get along with them.
  • As the officer before the World War was naturally a it is naturally understandable be a National Socialist...The Wehrmacht has become the tool of the National Socialist will for development.
    • 1938. Quoted in "Hitler's Spies: German Military Intelligence in World War II" - Page 234 by David Kahn - True Crime - 2000
  • General Franco made it clear that Spain could enter the war only when England was about ready to collapse.
    • Quoted in "The Last European War" - Page 114 - by John Lukacs - History - 1976
  • You know, my dear Lahousen, the students of history will not need to trouble their heads after this war, as they did after the last, to determine who was guilty of starting it. The case is, however, different when we consider guilt for prolonging the war. I believe that the other side have now disarmed us of the last weapon with which we could have ended it. 'Unconditional surrender', no, our generals will not swallow that. Now I cannot see any solution.
    • To General Erwin Lahousen. Quoted in "Admiral Canaris - Chief of Intelligence" - Page 163 by Ian Colvin - 2007
  • Badly mishandled. Nose broken at last interrogation. My time is up. Was not a traitor. Did my duty as a German. If you survive, please tell my wife...
    • Final message to Colonel Landing, in the cell next to his. Quoted in "Canaris‎" - by Heinz Höhne - 1979
  • One day the world will hold the Wehrmacht responsible for these methods since these things are taking place under its nose.
    • Alternate version: A day will come when the world will find the Wehrmacht responsible for these methods, inasmuch as the things happen with our tacit consent.
    • September 1939. Quoted in "Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story Behind D-Day‎" - Page 178 - by Anthony Cave Brown - 2007
He loved his dogs and his horse almost more than any other living creatures. He often said to me, 'Schellenberg, always remember the goodness of animals. You see, my dachshund is discreet and will never betray me — I cannot say that of any human being...'

About Canaris

  • His skill in acting a part, his cunning, his imagination, the ease with which he affected naive stupidity and then emerged into the most subtle reasoning disarmed the security agents who interrogated him.
    • Fabian von Schlabrendorff
  • Canaris was a highly intelligent and sensitive man with many likeable qualities. He loved his dogs and his horse almost more than any other living creatures. He often said to me, 'Schellenberg, always remember the goodness of animals. You see, my dachshund is discreet and will never betray me — I cannot say that of any human being...'
    • Walter Schellenberg
  • 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.
    • Hans Bernd Gisevius
  • He hated Hitler, his system and his methods. He hated war. He was a human being...
    • Erwin Lahousen

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