Wilhelm Canaris: A Traitor to the German Nation

      Adm. Wilhelm Canaris (1887-1945) headed Adolf Hitler’s military intelligence service—the Abwehr—for nine years. He is one of the most enigmatic figures of the Third Reich. Many people see him as a traitor who betrayed German attack plans to the enemy and thus sent German soldiers to their deaths. Other people see him as a leader who did all he could to prevent a war that he foresaw as leading to Germany’s destruction.[i]

      Robert Kempner, the U.S. deputy prosecutor at Nuremberg, said that Canaris had a Jekyll and Hyde split personality. Kempner wrote that Canaris was “the man who organized the National Socialist fifth column, who…introduced the murderous weapons of sabotage and surreptitious infiltration and sent German soldiers on suicide missions and who, on the other hand, permitted individual officers to conspire against the regime.”[ii]

      Karl Heinz Abshagen, who talked at length with Canaris several times beginning in the spring of 1938, said that Canaris has been attacked and denigrated from almost all sides. Abshagen wrote: “While some depict him as a spy, an arrogant nationalist, and a brutal militarist, others (and among them a number of officers of his own rank) affect to see in him a man who stabbed the Germans and their armed forces in the back.”[iii]

      This article discusses the career of Adm. Canaris, and also attempts to uncover the motives of this extremely controversial German.    

Wilhelm Canaris, 1944

Early Years

      Canaris was born to a harmonious, upper-class family at Aplerbeck near Dortmund, Germany. Both of his parents were highly intelligent with varied cultured interests. As a child, Canaris received much benefit from conversations with his highly cultured parents. Canaris also showed a gift for languages early in his life, and read a great deal as a youth.[iv]

      After three years in a pre-secondary school, in April 1898 Canaris passed the acceptance examination for the Steinbart-Real High School Duisburg. Canaris was the only student in his class with ambitions to be a career officer, and his good grades in English, French, Latin and Greek laid the foundations for his future intelligence career. Immediately after graduating from high school, Canaris, on April 1, 1905, enrolled as a naval cadet in the old Deck-Officers’ School at Kiel.[v]

      Canaris served aboard the Imperial Navy training ship SMS Stein after completing his initial course of infantry training. He was promoted to midshipman in 1906 after Stein completed her voyage. Canaris next completed a 12-month training course at the Kiel Naval College, and swore an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser in the autumn of 1907. In November 1907, Canaris was assigned to the small cruiser SMS Bremen, whose duty it was to protect German interests in the Central and South American region.[vi]

      Canaris first became involved in intelligence work when he assisted in setting up networks of informers in Brazil and Argentina for the German naval intelligence service. During his time on Bremen, Canaris received instruction in the procedure for mobilization for war, and was recommended by his superiors for future command of a torpedo boat. After being promoted at the end of August 1910 and completing a sea-mines course, Canaris, in December 1911, joined the small cruiser SMS Dresden, with which he would remain until her sinking.[vii]  

World War I

      After visiting Baltic and North Sea states, Mediterranean countries, Central America, Mexico and other countries, Dresden was called into service for World War I. On August 14, 1914, Dresden stopped the British steamer Hyades near the Brazilian island of Trinidade. Hyades was sunk after the crew was removed to another ship. On August 24, Dresden also sank the British collier Holmwood after removing the crew. Canaris and his fellow crewmen had come to know the inexorable face of war.[viii]

      After Dresden won some more naval battles, on March 14, 1915, the British cruisers Kent and Glasgow spotted Dresden and opened fire. Canaris went aboard Glasgow to protest the bombardment of Dresden in neutral waters as a breach of international law. Glasgow’s captain replied that he had his orders, and could only negotiate with Dresden for an unconditional surrender. Canaris returned to Dresden, where everything had been prepared to scuttle the ship by opening the sea cocks and setting explosive charges. Canaris and the surviving crew members watched the sinking of their ship from onshore.[ix]

SMS Dresden, 1907

      The surviving members of the Dresden crew were brought to the small island of Quiriquina. Canaris was determined to escape this island, and absconded on August 5, 1915. After a dangerous two-month journey, Canaris made it home to Berlin on October 5. He received a promotion and began working with the Naval Inspectorate at Kiel. Canaris was transferred to the Intelligence Section of Admiralty Staff, and arrived in Madrid on January 4, 1916 to provide intelligence services for Germany.[x]

      British and French spies were soon on to Canaris, and he returned to Berlin in October 1916. Canaris’s superiors praised his work. The Kaiser awarded Canaris the Iron Cross First Class on October 24, 1916.[xi]

      Canaris passed the U-boat commanders’ course, served for two months in training aboard U-16, and took command of U-16. Germany and Canaris had begun unrestricted U-boat warfare on February 1, 1917. Canaris commanded other U-boats until October 1918, when all navigable U-boats were ordered to return home. The Armistice conditions promulgated on November 11, 1918 for the German navy required that all U-boats be handed over within 14 days. World War I was over for Canaris.[xii]

Post World War I  

      Owing to his family connections and influence, Canaris could have certainly chosen a civilian career. His knowledge of foreign countries and languages would have helped him obtain a good job almost anywhere. However, Canaris was so fond of the navy and devoted to his country’s service that he never thought about leaving the navy. From 1920 onward, Canaris entered upon a period of unremitting work and of undeflected pursuit of his aims.[xiii]

      Like most Germans, Canaris did not recognize the validity of the Versailles Treaty, which limited the Germans to only a few ships of limited firepower and small tonnage. As far as the navy was concerned, he was determined to do all in his power to defeat the provisions of the treaty. At first, there was little Canaris could do to help the navy. He spent two years in Kiel on the staff of the admiral commanding the Baltic squadron and, in 1922, he served as first officer of the cruiser Berlin. This appointment lasted two years, during which time Canaris was promoted to commander.[xiv]

      Although Canaris carried out his daily duties on the Berlin with a commendable zeal, what most interested him was the building up of the German navy. Canaris took part in numerous attempts made outside of Germany to carry on practical and theoretical experiments, especially as applied to submarines. Canaris hoped the knowledge he gained on these projects would one day be used to strengthen the German navy.[xv]

      Canaris began a new phase of his professional career when he was appointed to the staff of the chief of the Naval Command in the Defense Ministry. His principal assignment was to secretly build up the German navy which, up to them, he had been handling in a private capacity. After about four years of service in the Defense Ministry, in June 1928 he took up his appointment as first officer of the Schlesien. Canaris was later appointed to the command of this ship.[xvi]

      Canaris’s appointment to the Schlesien terminated in the autumn of 1934. He had by now resigned himself to comparative inactivity after years of strenuous work and tension. However, just when it looked as if Canaris was near the end of his career, his new career was just beginning.[xvii]                                 

Chief of Intelligence

      Canaris fully supported Adolf Hitler’s regime during its early years. Like millions of other Germans, Canaris saw in Hitler a potential savior and an enemy of Bolshevism that was his sworn enemy.[xviii]

      Being a patriot in the best sense of the word, Canaris found it quite natural to cooperate with the new regime. On November 1, 1934, Canaris’s superior officer, Rear Adm. Max Bastian, made the following entry to his personal file:

      I must stress that, for the second year running, Capt. Canaris has been tireless in his efforts to acquaint his crew, through the medium of personal lectures, with the ideas of the national movement and the principles underlying the development of the new Reich. [Canaris] has performed exemplary work in this field.[xix]

      The position of chief of intelligence became available when Field Marshall von Blomberg ordered Adm. Erich Raeder, the commander-in-chief of the navy, to get rid of Capt. Conrad Patzig, a naval officer, as head of the Abwehr. Although Raeder wanted to keep the job of intelligence chief in the navy, he hesitated to appoint Canaris to this position. Raeder had no particular liking for Canaris, and thought that Canaris was too secretive. However, Raeder overcame his misgivings about Canaris, appointing him head of the Abwehr on January 1, 1935.[xx]

Field Marshall von Blomberg with Hitler, April 1934.

      The Abwehr was a small department inside the Ministry of War when Canaris took over. After the abolition of the War Ministry in 1938, the Abwehr was raised in importance and attached to the High Command of the armed forces. The Abwehr was concerned with obtaining intelligence, which was immediately passed on to the competent branch of army, navy or air force High Command. During World War II, reports were also sent to Gen. Alfred Jodl, who was the chief of the operations staff of the Armed Forces.[xxi]

      Under Canaris’s leadership, the Abwehr performed a variety of tasks and initially achieved results which compare favorably with what was achieved by the secret services of other nations. The Abwehr performed its duty of supplying the military authorities with information concerning conditions abroad and the enemy’s strength, preparations and plans. The members of the Abwehr were mostly loyal Germans who served their country to the best of their ability. However, some Abwehr officers came to believe that Hitler’s policies were creating a grave danger for the German people.[xxii]

      One such Abwehr officer who played a notable role in the life of Canaris and the German anti-Hitler resistance movement was Maj. Hans Oster. Although their natures were very different, Canaris and Oster united against what they regarded as Hitler’s misguided foreign policy and internal terror regime. Lt. Col. Helmuth Groscurth, who enjoyed Canaris’s confidence to a considerable degree, was another prominent Abwehr officer who worked actively for the overthrow of Hitler’s regime.[xxiii]   

Maj. Hans Oster.

      Canaris began debating with himself as to whether he should continue to serve Hitler’s regime, or whether he should retire from the navy, take his pension and have nothing more to do with Hitler. Canaris decided to stick with his job. In the years to come, Canaris took an ever more active part in Oster’s plans for the overthrow of Hitler’s regime.[xxiv]                             

World War II

      Canaris was deeply disturbed by Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The Abwehr was forced to play a role in the roundups of the Polish intelligentsia, Catholic priests, Jews and others deemed enemies of the state. The executions of many of these Poles greatly distressed Canaris. German diplomat Ulrich von Hassell, who saw Canaris after he returned from Poland, wrote in his diary: “Canaris has come back from Poland completely broken after he had seen the results of our brutal conduct of the war.”[xxv]

      The Abwehr had established links to many parts of the British establishment by the time World War II began. It was privy to top secret technology being developed in Britain, and was fully apprised of British moves in obtaining U.S. support. However, the Abwehr was not always loyal to German interests. For example, Canaris and Oster sent an agent to Rome to warn the British that Germany was planning to invade Belgium and Holland on or soon after May 10, 1940. Despite this warning, the German Wehrmacht quickly defeated the Allies.[xxvi] This certainly was an act of treason.

       Canaris also played a role in keeping Spain out of World War II. After studying extensive documentation concerning the state of Spain’s land, sea and air forces, Canaris concluded that it would be unwise for Spain to enter the war. Canaris told Spanish leader Francisco Franco that, given the state of Spanish armament, Spain’s entry into the war would be a catastrophe for all concerned. When Hitler asked Franco to enter the war by January 10, 1941, Hitler was disappointed by Franco’s decision to stay neutral in the war.[xxvii] Hitler did not know that Canaris had been scheming behind his back.

      When the Abwehr became involved in preparations for Operation Barbarossa, Canaris wrote that the time factor would be crucial in such a war:

      In the first year of an attack on the Soviet Union, Germany will have the advantage. If Russian strength is not crushed, in the second and third years the forces on either side will be counter-balanced. From the third year onwards and by the latest in the fifth year the nationalist-fanatic masses of at least 25 million Russian soldiers will be in a position to overwhelm any army with an unstoppable impetus. An attack on the Soviet Union will therefore only succeed if one destroys the command center for the centrally controlled Russian armed forces from the outset, or unleashes a strong freedom movement opposed to Communism. Since neither possibility exists, any war of aggression against the Soviet Union will not only terminate in defeat, but turn into a deadly threat towards the attacking nation.[xxviii]

      Hitler dismissed Canaris’s assessment with contempt. From late summer 1941, Canaris and his staff became dismayed by the reports they received regarding inhumanities committed by the German military during its advance in the Soviet Union.[xxix]

From the Holodomors to the Gulags, the aggressiveness and brutality of the Soviet regime since 1917 was known.

      The Abwehr chief in Prague, Paul Thummel, was working for Czech intelligence and was, like Canaris, committed to preventing a National Socialist domination of Europe. Thummel was arrested when his traitorous activities were discovered by the Gestapo. With Canaris’s help, Thummel was released from prison but put under close surveillance. Thummel was rearrested and continued to deny treason. Thummel, like so many other enigmatic links of the Abwehr to London, would eventually be executed, two weeks before the war ended.[xxx]

      Reinhard Heydrich, as head of the Security Service, continued to carefully watch Canaris and the Abwehr, and posed a serious threat to Canaris’s authority. This threat ended when Heydrich died on June 4, 1942 from wounds incurred from an attack by Czech agents. Many people believe that British intelligence was behind Heydrich’s assassination.[xxxi]               


      The Allied policy of unconditional surrender was announced at a press conference in Casablanca on January 24, 1943. This Allied policy of unconditional surrender helped to ensure that the war would be fought to its bitter end.[xxxii] However, Canaris and the Abwehr continued to search for an early, peaceful settlement to the war.

      Recognizing that what governments say and what they do are often quite different, Canaris secretly opened up negotiations with the Americans on a number of fronts. Canaris continued his contacts with Sir Stewart Menzies, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service. The Abwehr also pursued whatever possibilities were presented in places as diverse as Istanbul, the Vatican, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland.[xxxiii]

      In February 1943, Canaris met with German Gen. Henning von Treskow, who was a key conspirator against Hitler. Hans von Dohnanyi, a member of Canaris’s staff, went into a meeting with Treskow where it was agreed that an attempt would be made on Hitler’s life when he visited the Army Group. Despite his reservations concerning murder, Canaris appears at this time to have seen little alternative if an agreement with the West was to be reached. In an interview in 1970, German agent Reinhard Spitzy said that Canaris knew everything about the assassination attempt.[xxxiv]

      The pressure began to be applied against Canaris and the Abwehr. The Allies seemed to back-pedal on chances of an agreement, and the Gestapo began to uncover evidence of Canaris’s links with the Allies through the Vatican. When Hitler accused Canaris of unacceptable performance in carrying out the tasks of his position, Canaris calmly replied that this was “hardly surprising given that Germany was losing the war.” This was not what Hitler had wanted to hear and, after firing Canaris, Hitler dissolved the Abwehr on February 18, 1944. A unified German intelligence service under Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Kaltenbrunner replaced the Abwehr.[xxxv]

      Three days after Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed assassination of Hitler, Canaris was arrested by his friend Walter Schellenberg. After a stay at Fürstenberg Prison, Canaris and other alleged conspirators were kept in the Gestapo headquarters in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse. Canaris skillfully mislead his interrogators with secondary plots, camouflaged the truth, and offered occasional half-admissions of irrelevant matters to throw his interrogators off the scent. In this way he kept many of the other conspirators out of prison.[xxxvi]

      Canaris and other conspirators were driven to Flössenburg Camp on February 7, 1945. The decision to execute Canaris and other conspirators at Flössenburg was made by Hitler on April 5. Historian Andre Brissaud wrote that his research convinced him that Hitler gave his order of execution after Hitler glanced through the notebooks and diaries discovered from some of the conspirators. Canaris was hanged shortly after 5:30 a.m. on April 9, 1945.[xxxvii]                                                          

“What we in the German resistance [against Hitler] during the war didn’t want to see, we learned in full measure afterward; that this war was ultimately not waged against Hitler, but against Germany.”


      Many people have asked why Canaris remained as head of the Abwehr after he had become disillusioned with Hitler. One colleague later wrote that Canaris felt that “he must remain at his post because that mattered more than his opinion of Hitler or the Third Reich. He felt it was his duty to maintain this powerful organization, the Abwehr, with its thousands of agents, its network throughout the world and its enormous budgetary resources which he controlled. He wanted it to be identified with a high concept of human rights, of international law and morality.”[xxxviii] 

      However, after the war, it was widely recognized that the Abwehr and Canaris had seriously sabotaged Germany’s war effort. For example, Gen. Alfred Jodl, in his final address to the International Military Tribunal, said that German military leaders had to conduct the war “with an intelligence service which in part was working for the enemy.”[xxxix]       

      Gen. Jodl’s assessment is confirmed by British historian Ian Colvin. After the war, Colvin asked a British undersecretary of state how good the British Intelligence Service was during World War II. The British undersecretary of state remarked with a certain emphasis: “Well, our intelligence was not badly equipped. As you know, we had Adm. Canaris, and that was a considerable thing.”[xl]

      It is this author’s opinion that Wilhelm Canaris always acted in what he considered to be the best interests of Germany. However, once he became disillusioned with Hitler’s regime, Canaris should have resigned from the Abwehr. Many of his actions were an abuse of power for which he could easily and properly be convicted of treason.

A version of this article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of The Barnes Review.

[i] Mueller, Michael, Canaris: The Life and Death of Hitler’s Spymaster, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2007, p. XIII.

[ii] Höhne, Heinz, Canaris, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979, p. 296.

[iii] Abshagen, Karl Heinz, Canaris, London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1956, p. 10.

[iv] Ibid., pp. 15, 17, 21.

[v] Mueller, Michael, Canaris: The Life and Death of Hitler’s Spymaster, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2007, pp. 4-5.

[vi] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[vii] Ibid., pp. 7-8.

[viii] Ibid., pp. 8-12.

[ix] Ibid., pp. 17-18.

[x] Ibid., pp. 19-20.

[xi] Ibid., pp. 20-25.

[xii] Ibid., pp. 26-31.

[xiii] Abshagen, Karl Heinz, Canaris, London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1956, pp. 40, 55.  

[xiv] Ibid., p. 55.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 58-59, 64.

[xvii] Ibid., pp. 66-67.

[xviii] Bassett, Richard, Hitler’s Spy Chief, New York: Pegasus Books, 2012, p. 92.

[xix] Höhne, Heinz, Canaris, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979, p. 133.

[xx] Abshagen, Karl Heinz, Canaris, London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1956, pp. 67-68.

[xxi] Ibid., pp. 73-75.

[xxii] Ibid., pp. 91-92.

[xxiii] Ibid., pp. 83-87.

[xxiv] Ibid., pp. 119-120.

[xxv] Bassett, Richard, Hitler’s Spy Chief, New York: Pegasus Books, 2012, pp. 178-179.

[xxvi] Ibid., pp. 175, 190-191.

[xxvii] Abshagen, Karl Heinz, Canaris, London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1956, pp. 211-213.

[xxviii] Mueller, Michael, Canaris: The Life and Death of Hitler’s Spymaster, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2007, p. 200.

[xxix] Ibid., pp. 200, 206.

[xxx] Bassett, Richard, Hitler’s Spy Chief, New York: Pegasus Books, 2012, pp. 209, 228-231.

[xxxi] Ibid., pp. 236-238.

[xxxii] Hankey, Maurice Pascal Alers, Politics, Trials and Errors, Chicago: Regnery, 1950, pp. 125-126.

[xxxiii] Bassett, Richard, Hitler’s Spy Chief, New York: Pegasus Books, 2012, pp. 262-264, 274.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 264.

[xxxv] Ibid., pp. 275, 282.

[xxxvi] Ibid., pp. 284-287.

[xxxvii] Brissaud, Andre, Canaris: The Biography of Admiral Canaris, Chief of German Military Intelligence in the Second War, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1974, pp. 328-331.

[xxxviii] Bassett, Richard, Hitler’s Spy Chief, New York: Pegasus Books, 2012, p. 145.

[xxxix] Final Statement Alfred Jodl TracesofWar.com

[xl] Colvin, Ian, Master Spy, New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc., 1951, p. 1.

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4 Responses

  1. Badger Down says:

    I don’t think this article uncovers the motives of Adm. Canaris. Hitler had tried negotiating with the Brits to avoid war. And even in those days everyone knew the US wasn’t agreement-capable. Canaris worked to make Germany lose the war.

  2. hermod says:

    In the part “World War I” of this article, it’s written “October 2016” instead of “October 1916”.

  3. Kök Böri says:

    Wilfred von Oven, “Wilhelm Canaris. Der Admiral und seine Mitverantwortung am Verlauf des Krieges”- a highly recommended book to the topic, written by the former member of the staff of Dr. Goebbels.

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