Canaris, Wilhelm

Career at a dead end

Operation Barbarossa

Hitler was not happy with this operation in Greece by the way. He had already focused his attention on the East. According to him, the time had come to settle accounts with the Soviet-Union. Canaris fiercely resisted this plan. At a meeting of high ranking officers of the Abwehr he stated : "The German troops will bleed to death on the icy plains of Russia and after two years we won’t find a trace of them". He even tried to convince Hitler of this idea. Canaris was called a pessimist however.

Canaris did not have a well-established network of agents in the Soviet Union at his disposal, therefor he was not able to provide the intelligence required by the military staffs. After the signing of the German-Russian non-aggression treaty on 23 August 1939 (Pact 23-08-1939), Hitler had prohibited all activities of the Abwehr in the Soviet-Union. The German knowledge of the Soviet armed forces and the potential of the Soviet industry was vastly insufficient as a result. This was to have disastrous consequences later.

The Abwehr attempted to set up a campaign of disinformation, aimed at disguising the real objectives of the German armed forces. By spreading false rumors they hoped the enemy intelligence services would get the idea that an invasion of England would be the main objective of the Germans. It remains unclear what result this produced. Fact is that prior to Operation Barbarossa Joseph V. Stalin received numerous warnings about the imminent German attack. He ignored those warnings completely though.

When Operation Barbarossa was launched on June 22nd , 1941, the attack caught the Soviet forces completely off guard. Partly due to this, the German troops could advance with lightning speed and conquer large areas.

When Canaris learned what kind of violence accompanied the German advance, he protested against it. He was particularly shocked when he learned that personnel of the Abwehr had been involved in the planning of the assassination of 5,000 Jews by the Romanian secret service, early July 1941. By means of a letter, which had been drafted by Helmut James Graf von Moltke, a human rights lawyer working at the Amtsgruppe Ausland of the Abwehr, Canaris complained to Wilhelm Keitel. He argued that the German actions were in violation of international human rights. Keitel answered that in a war which was aimed at the extermination of an ideology, international law did not play a part.


The admiral’s attitude regarding the Holocaust is not entirely clear. A number of departments of the Abwehr was actively involved in the persecution of Jews, in particular the Geheime Feldpolizei mentioned before, which regularly assisted the Einsatzgruppen. Also, Canaris grew up in an anti-Semitic environment and a number of anti-Jew statements by him have been preserved. Moreover, some sources state that Canaris is supposed to have been an advocate of the introduction of the Star of David for the Jews to wear as identification. Heinz Höhne writes about this: "In 1935/1936 Canaris had proposed to identify the German Jews, by means of the Star of David, as special citizens who only possessed the rights of guests in the Reich." How big his role has been in the actual introduction of the Star of David as a means of identification, is not clear however.

Canaris himself also made a number of efforts to save Jews: the Abwehr had a some Jewish employees, which meant exemption from deportation. Canaris also assisted a number of Jews to seek refuge abroad, including Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, who was able to flee from Warschau to the United States in September 1938 with the help of Canaris. The suggestion has been made to award Canaris posthumously with the Yad-Vashem decoration for this but no decision has been taken yet.

The downfall of a master spy

All this seemed to affect Canaris deeply. His colleagues found that he looked more and more worried. He made a tired, sloppy impression and started drinking and using drugs more and more. He seemed to increasingly lose interested in his work. This made him lose control of the Service and it made the department heads and later on also the other, junior agents just going their own way. The spies the service thought to have recruited in enemy territory were in reality mainly double agents working for the Allies. Many reports were also fabricated by department heads wanting to make the impression they had access to an important source, while in reality they had achieved nothing at all. The agents made themselves guilty of corruption on a large scale and some even took to smuggling stolen goods. Canaris did not step in, which caused the once so successful Service to decay rapidly.

In addition, the Abwehr was discredited by the SS. Heinrich Himmler (Bio Himmler) accused Canaris of employing Jewish V-men and that with his approval Jews were assisted in escaping to ther countries. This has actually happened. (500 Jews had fled to South America with the assistance of Abwehr employees) but Canaris was able to convince Hitler that the accusations of the SS were all lies.

It is a fact though, that the quality of the Abwehr diminished strongly. As Canaris lost his grip and because he was fighting a shortage of manpower anyway, he was no longer able to provide accurate intelligence to the military staffs. Neither could the Abwehr cope effectively with the increasing Communist espionage in the Reich. The efforts of the Abwehr during the last years of the war demonstrated such a degree of incompetence, that high officers of the British secret service voiced the suspicion that Canaris was a Russian agent. This was not true though but it indicates the number of failures occurring in the service and what kind of impression this made. When the Abwehr failed to foresee the raid on Bruneval (February, 27th , 1942) and the invasions of North Africa (November 1942) and later on of Sicily (May 1943), Hitler and with him the generals of the Wehrmacht, lost almost all confidence in the organisation.

All this meant that competition between the Abwehr on one side and the SD and the Gestapo on the other side flared up again. Under pressure by Reinhard Heydrich Canaris had been forced in May 1942 to transfer a number of responsibilities in the sphere of counter espionage to the R.S.H.A., the umbrella organisation of the various secret police and intelligence services.

It has been said that by the end of 1941, Canaris made a renewed effort to get in touch with the Allied powers in order to sound out peace terms. The Allied governments however did not react; they would only accept the unconditional surrender by Germany.


“Taskforces of Deployment Squads”. Special units composed of various SS and police services under supervision of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA). Einsatzgruppen were deployed during the invasion of Poland in 1939 and during operation Barbarossa in 1941. In 1939 these units were ordered to eliminate the Polish intelligentsia. In the Soviet Union they were deployed to execute various political and racial enemies of the Third Reich, like Jews, gypsies and communists. The “Holocaust by bullets” in the Soviet Union was the horrendous first act of the eventual “final solution”.
“Geheime Staatspolizei”. Secret state police, the secret police in the Third Reich.
Term for the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis. Holokauston is the Greek term for a completely burnt sacrifice.
A collection of principles and ideas of a certain system.
Armed incursion.
Middle Eastern people with own religion that lived in Palestine. They distinguished themselves by their strong monotheism and the strict observance of the Law and tradition. During World War 2 the Jewish people were ruthlessly persecuted and annihilated by the German Nazis. . An estimated 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated.
Fast military raid in enemy territory
Soviet Union
Soviet Russia, alternative name for the USSR.
German armed military forces, divided in ground forces, air force and navy.

Pagina navigatie


Canaris with Oberst Franz Eccard von Bentivegni (department head of the Abwehr) shortly before departure from an airfield at Smolensk in the Soviet Union, 29 October, 1941.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv)

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke in January 1945. He was a collaborator of Canaris and an associate in the resistance against Hitler.


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