Canaris, Wilhelm


Canaris certainly was a unique personality within the Third Reich and it can be said he played a dual role during the Second World War. On the one hand he did everything possible to win it and to that end, anything was permissible. On the other hand, he helped and protected people who wanted to overthrow the regime. In this respect he was an active helper of Hitler as well as his opponent. He might be considered to have been an opportunist; initially he supported Hitler when he promised he would reinstall the glory of Germany, but as he increasingly disagreed with Hitlerís military strategy, he started to resist him. This however would do little justice to Canaris as he had already been involved in an attempt to overthrow Hitler in 1938 before the war had broken out. Probably Canaris was not opposed against the war as such but rather more against the great influence of the party and of the SS and the disastrous consequences.

In recent years however, a transition in the way people write about Canaris is becoming apparent. British historian Max Hastings for example writes that Canaris, in his opinion, has received the status of hero of the resistance undeservedly. He characterises him as an opportunist who lacked both the moral courage to really oppose the Nazis whom he abhorred as well as the capabilities to run an efficient secret service in their interests. According to Hastings Canaris was not really good at delegating and he selected incapable employees. In his view, there actually is not a shred of evidence for the assumption that he actually attempted anything at all against Hitler. Canaris did mention treason but actually he did very little to stimulate this. He did not want to be a bad person, but according to the British historian, he lacked the courage to be a good human being.

Despite the many biographies we actually do know little about Wilhelm Canaris, the man. It is therefor always partly guesswork as to his real thoughts and personality. His diaries could probably help clarify this but they have disappeared after the war and whether they will ever turn up is doubtful.

Was Canaris a hero of the resistance, or was he, as Hastings states, only a incompetent servant of an evil Germany? Probably we will never know for sure. The deputy American prosecutor in Neurenberg, Robert Kempner, qualified him as follows: "On the one hand the man who organized the Nationalsocialist fifth column, introduced the murderous weapons of sabotage and infiltration and sent German soldiers on their way with orders to kill and on the other hand he allowed individual officers to conspire against the regime".


Quiet incursion into enemy lines prior to an attack.
The will of the troops/civilians to keep fighting.
Resistance against the enemy. Often also with armed resources.
Art of warfare, the way in which war should be conducted in general.


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Wilhelm Canaris, 1940. Resistance member, supporter of Hitler or opportunist?
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Translated by:
Arnold Palthe
Article by:
Wesley Dankers
Published on:
Last edit on:
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