Wilhelm Canaris

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 in order 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. 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.

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 send 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 for instance 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.

April that same year Canaris made contact with the former governor of Pennsylvania, Commander George H. Earle, Roosewelt'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.    

Stuart Menzies

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 ...