Canaris, Wilhelm

Transfer to the Abwehr

Chief of the Abwehr

A solution of his precarious situation offered itself when the Chief of the Abwehr, (the espionage and counter espionage service of the German forces, which had been established on January 1st , 1921) Kapitän zur See Conrad Patzig, was summarily dismissed and appointed Canaris his successor. Admiral Raeder actually did not want to approve, but when Patzig threatened to transfer the Abwehr back to the Wehrmacht, Raeder conceded (on January, 1st , 1928, the Abwehr and the Marinegeheimdienst (naval secret service) had been merged and the Abwehr ended up under the command of the Reichsmarine). On January 2nd , 1935 Canaris entered office as the new chief of the Abwehr.

During his first months as leader of the Abwehr life was not easy for Canaris. His short appearance (he measured about approx. 5ft 3)) his soft spoken voice with a lisp and his unmilitary appearance made a bad impression. Moreover, Canaris did not possess real qualities of leadership. A member of his personnel described him as: "contradictory in his orders, inequitable, moody and diffuse". Some even said that the new boss was more interested in his two dachshunds he always had with him, rather than in his personnel.

Moreover, Canaris did not like his desk job either, he preferred to "be in the field", as he described the outposts of the Abwehr. He also liked to carry out small espionage assignments himself. During one of his many travels Canaris met the Spanish fascist general Francisco Franco. Both men respected each other and between them they developed a friendly relationship. This was the reason that Canaris was one of the driving forces behind the German military support of the nationalists during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). The Abwehr also had a large network of spies in Spain and they co-operated closely with the troops of Franco.

Hitler in power

On 30 January, 1933, Adolf Hitler (Bio Hitler) had come to power in Germany. Quite soon he made it very clear that he did not intend to adhere to the Versailles treaty any longer and that he wanted to expand the armed forces. Under command of Canaris the Abwehr extended strongly. It was necessary because all military organizations had to grow strongly after Hitler had ordered general conscription in 1935. Consequently the Abwehr had to grow accordingly in order to protect the German war effort against espionage by foreign agents. Before Hitler seized power, the Abwehr had just 50 employees, mid 1935 this number amounted to 1,000 and finally it would increase to a force 13.000 strong. Another consequence was that Canaris was promoted to Konteradmiral on May 1st, 1935.

Canaris also succeeded in reaching an agreement with Reinhardt Heydrich, chief of the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo or Secret State Police) and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD or Security Service). The fact is, Heydrich attempted to merge all police and intelligence services under the Schutzstaffel (SS). As for the Abwehr, its various tasks overlapped many of those of both the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst, which caused conflicts. Heydrich and Canaris renewed their relationship and later on they even became neighbors in Berlin. Heydrich again visited the Canaris family frequently and together with his brother and Erika they played music. Canaris also often went horseback riding with Heydrich. Real friends they possibly were not: they deeply distrusted each other and they also had each other spied on, collecting mutually incriminating material.

Canaris was able to expand the Abwehr into one of the most successful espionage services of his day and age. Because of the many agents and V-men that were available to him both in and outside Europe, he had a pretty good picture of the international situation. This enabled him to make a reasonable estimate about the way the international powers would react to Hitler’s political moves. Canaris also aimed at co-operation with and co-ordination within the secret services of Germany’s allies. Before the Three Partite Pact had been signed on September 27th , 1940 (the official collaboration pact between Germany, Italy and Japan, the so called Axis), Canaris already had close ties with the espionage services of these allies. In addition he also had contacts with the Estonian, Lithuanian and Hungarian intelligence services. Canaris also was the driving force behind the "Anti-Kominternpact". He actually had an intense dislike of communism and he considered the Soviet Union to be the biggest threat to the Third Reich.

Relationship with Hitler

In his capacity as chief of the Abwehr, Wilhelm Canaris held many conversations with Adolf Hitler. Certainly during the first years he was very much impressed by the Führer. In the early 30s Canaris saw Hitler, like so many others, as the only man capable to solve the problems of Germany in an efficient way. Especially Hitler’s anti-Communist feelings and his plans for the re-armament of Germany and the recapture of lost German territories did appeal strongly to Canaris. One of the statements of Canaris of those days was therefore: "He who is a good soldier, will also be a good Nationalsocialist". Canaris had been appointed Chief of the Abwehr because he also was known to be pro-Nazi.

In the fall of 1937 however Canaris started to turn away from Hitler. This was caused by the fact that he was increasingly faced with the crimes (the concentration camps and the loss of civil rights) committed in the name of the Nationalsocialist regime. When he talked to people about those doubts that had arisen, they suggested he should resign as leader of the Abwehr. He is said to have answered: "It has become my fate. If I go, Heydrich will come, then all will be lost. I’ll have to sacrifice myself." Whether Canaris actually has spoken these words is not clear. There is only one direct witness who has reported this.

According to most experts (including historian Guido Knopp and publicist Heinz Höhne) the definitive break up between Hitler and Canaris occured after the Blomberg-Fritsch affair in January 1938. Hitler, prompted by men like Heinrich Himmler (Bio Himmler) and Hermann Göring (Bio Göring), forced the Minister of War and Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht, Werner von Blomberg, to resign after it became clear that his wife had once posed for pornographic pictures. Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch, the Commander in Chief of the army, was sidetracked after accusations of homosexuality. Hitler used these events to remove a number of critical officers and to increase the power of the Nazi party within the armed forces. Canaris was shocked by these events that deeply affected the independence of the forces, which he strongly disapproved. As one of the few, he assisted Von Fritsch to refute the (more than obviously) false accusations and that lead to his rehabilitation. Subsequently, Von Fritsch was given a subordinate position as a regimental commander and he would be killed in action in September 1939 during the campaign in Poland.

Partly because he had defended Von Fritsch, Canaris made contact with opponents of the regime like Hans Oster (Bio Oster), a former military who worked for the Abwehr since 1931 and Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer and former associate of the Reichsgericht (States’ court) in Leipzig who had received a job in the Abwehr on Oster’s initiative. Together with a few others they formed a front against the SS. Canaris also started collecting evidence of the crimes that were being committed by the Gestapo. He channelled this incriminating material to high ranking officers of the Wehrmacht in order to fuel their resistance against the SS. Within Wehrmacht circles, there actually was an aversion against the SS, which was generated by the fear to loose influence to that organization.

In this respect Canaris found support in the fact that the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) (supreme command of the armed forces) Wilhelm Keitel, had appointed him Chef der Amtsgruppe Allgemeine Wehrmachtsangelegenheiten (Chief of the administrative division of the Wehrmacht). In this position, which he combined with his task of chief of the Abwehr, Canaris obtained the new authority to maintain the communication between the Wehrmacht, the OKW, the N.S.D.A.P., the police and the press. After the rehabilitation of Von Fritsch, Canaris tried to get the SS and the Gestapo convicted. He hoped that Generaloberst Walther von Brauchitsch (the new commander in chief of the army) and Ludwig Beck (chief of the general staff of the army) would submit a formal declaration to Hitler, demanding the dismissal of the leaders of the SS and the Gestapo, as co-operation with them had become impossible. For unclear reasons however, the generals refused all co-operation and the initiative evaporated.

As a result of a new reorganization Canaris lost his communication tasks again; these appeared to be too much of a burden to him. A new department in the OKW was formed: the Amt Ausland/Abwehr (department of foreign intelligence). The Abwehr thus became an integral part of the OKW. The authority of the division was also extended: a department was added which would be engaged in psychological warfare and in the support of activities hostile to the state in other countries (Abwehr II). On April 1st, 1938, Canaris was promoted to vice-Admiral.


Term used for the German military intelligence unit during the WW1 and WW2. From 1935 onwards under command of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. The organisation often came into conflict with other secret services such as the SD and the Gestapo. During World War 2 under Canaris frequently a source for conspiracies against the Nazi regime until in 1943 a major conspiracy by a number of prominent members of the Abwehr was discovered and the Abwehr was placed under command of Himmler. After the assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944, Canaris was discharged and the Abwehr was dissolved. The conspirators and Canaris were prosecuted and in 1945 they were executed atc oncentration camp Flossenburg.
Cooperation of the people with the occupying forces, more generally spoken the term for individuals who cooperate with the occupying force is collaborator.
Political ideology originating from the work of Karl Marx “Das Kapital” written in 1848 as a reaction to the so-called class struggle between the proletariat (labourers) and the bourgeoisie. According to Marx the proletariat would take over power from the well-to-do classes though a revolution. The communist movement aspires an ideal situation where the means of production and the means of consumption are common property of all citizens. This should end poverty and inequality (communis = common).
Military unit, usually consisting of one upto four regiments and usually making up a corps. In theory a division consists of 10,000 to 20,000 men.
Largest Soviet ground formation. It was attached to a certain area which gave its name to the units involved. For instance the Voronezh front.
German word for leader. During his reign of power Adolf Hitler was Führer of Nazi Germany.
“Geheime Staatspolizei”. Secret state police, the secret police in the Third Reich.
Military intelligence service.
Abbreviation of a national socialist.
“Oberkommando der Wehrmacht”. German supreme command of the Armed Forces, Army, Air Force and Navy.
Resistance against the enemy. Often also with armed resources.
Schutzstaffel (SS)
The Schutzstaffel commanded by Heinrich Himmler was a very powerful organisation within the Third Reich. The original goal of the SS was to protect Adolf Hitler and other Nazi’s but soon the SS was deployed for several military, security and police tasks. The SS guarded inter alia the concentration camps and manned the Einzatzgruppen. The armed branch of the SS was the Waffen-SS.
Soviet Union
Soviet Russia, alternative name for the USSR.
Spanish Civil War
Fierce and cruel civil armed conflict in Spain from 1936 to 1939 between left (from anarchic to liberal) and right (church, nobility and army). In 1936 the fascist-oriented general Franco started military uprisings. With the help of Hitler and Mussolini he beat the republicans who vainly were supported by the International Brigade.
German armed military forces, divided in ground forces, air force and navy.

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Hitler meets Franco in 1940. Canaris was an important relation of the Spanish Dictator.

Left to right: Werner von Blomberg, Werner von Fritsch and Erich Raeder at the eighth party day in 1936.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv)

Canaris during a visit by the South African Minister Pirow to Berlin, 1938. The chief of the Abwehr is on the right of the minister.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv)

Canaris, on the left, is present in the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin on 21 April, 1939 at the celebration of Hitler’s birthday.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv)

Hans Oster. Abwehr employee and leader of the military resistance against Hitler.
(Source: Wilco Vermeer)


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