Wilhelm Canaris

Franz Wilhelm Canaris ( Aplerbeck , Dortmund ; 1 of January of 1887 – flossenbürg concentration camp , 9 of April of 1945 ) was an officer of the Imperial Navy and the Kriegsmarine who participated in the First and Second World War .

He became admiral and chief of intelligence of the Imperial Navy and the German army during the National Socialism in Germany. He was head of the Abwehr and one of the leaders in several conspiracies against Hitler , mainly in Operation Valquiria , of 20 of July of 1944 , by which he was condemned to the gallows .


His life, rich in anecdotes and unique experiences, runs deeply intertwined with the war scenarios of the two wars that led Germany. Canaris was born in Aplerbeck ( Westphalia ) on 1 January as as 1887 . The name seems to have roots that used Greek , but although Canaris conveniently liked to mention among his ancestors the admiral Greek Konstantinos Kanaris marine -also and hero of the War of independence of Greece – it is assumed that his family came from Italy through Of the Canarisi , who moved to Germany in the seventeenth century . His grandfather was converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism . 1 In 1905, at the age of 17, Canaris was enrolled in the German Imperial Navy, and at the outbreak of World War I was aboard the SMS Dresden as an intelligence officer.

He had a relatively low figure, which did not resemble the Aryan ideal; because of his short stature he called it “the little admiral” and he himself used to compare with Churchill referring to himself as “the small toilet”.

Son of industrialist Carl Canaris and Auguste Popp, in 1919 he married Erika Waag, with whom he had two daughters, Eva and Brigitte.

Military trajectory

In the Imperial Navy

Although his family was of industrial tradition, within his education Canaris took classes of Spanish and English and to the 18 years and with the opposition of his father entered the German Imperial Navy . He served as a lieutenant on board the twin cruiser of SMS Emden , the SMS Dresden , from its very launch. He managed the transfer of settled Germans in the port of Veracruz in Mexico , during the civil war.

Canaris was not considered a reckless type, but as a person with diplomatic character; Served as an interpreter on several occasions before the Mexican authorities, since he was the only crewman to master Spanish to perfection.

Easter Island

The beginning of the First World War surprised him in the midst of the Atlantic . The Dresden goes to Tsingtao and awaits orders from the Admiralty . He meets the fleet of Admiral Maximilian von Spee on Easter Island .

On board the Dresden serves as lieutenant, information officer and assistant to Commander Fritz Lüdecke . His comrades nicknamed him Kieka or ‘ peeping ‘ for his gift of observation and deepening things.

Battle of Coronel

Main article: Battle of Colonel

After the Battle of Coronel on the shores Chile the 1 of November of 1914 , where the squadron of Von Spee beats a squadron English, the fleet is heading to the port of Valparaiso . There Canaris serves as interpreter to von Spee before the Chilean authorities. Then the German fleet goes to the Malvinas Islands , where it is defeated the 8 of December of 1914 in Batalla de las Islas Malvinas .

The Dresden is the only surviving ship, which takes refuge for months in the southern channels of the Chilean Patagonia eluding its English persecutors, especially in Quintupeu fjord , where the crew lives on natural resources. Later, when it was intended to be fueled in the More Inside islands , today Robinson Crusoe, of the Juan Fernandez Archipelago in the territorial sea of ​​Chile, is surprised by English forces and sunk by the crew while it was under enemy fire, anchored in the Cumberland Bay of That island

Internment in Chile

The surviving crew of Dresden , Canaris among them, is interned in Chile, on the island of Quiriquina, in front of the port of Talcahuano – and, although they were formally prisoners, the relaxation of the security measures imposed by the Chilean Navy allowed several Of German officers travel to Concepcion on more than one occasion.

The “Chilean” Reed Rosas

On August 6, 1915, with an authentic Chilean passport that was obtained by agents of the German embassy in Buenos Aires, on behalf of Reed Rosas , a modest Anglo-Chilean salesman, Canaris undertook a journey of 500 kilometers by train to Osorno , arriving To this city on August 6 , the choice of its destination was not accidental, as this geographical area of ​​southern Chile is settled by an important German colony settled there from the mid-nineteenth century and in addition, it is close to the Border with Argentina . During his stay in the city he stayed in the mansion of the Von Geyso family. The displacement made use of his excellent command of Spanish .

Finally, Canaris escapes of Chile from Osorno along with other comrades of arms. Von Geyso sends him to the German Eggers family, in the border town of Puyehue , to prepare the crossing of the Andes mountain range , which he did on horseback and without company.

On the other side, at one end of Lake Nahuel Huapi , he was expected by another member of the Eggers family, who crossed it by boat to San Carlos de Bariloche , for a few days in the room of Luis von Bulow. There he was received by the German consul and founder of the city, the Chilean Carlos Wiederhold Piwonka, who provided him with help.

Canaris finally manages to embark towards Germany in a Dutch freighter that took it to Rotterdam , from where it returned to Germany, where it was well received and quickly promoted to captain .

Later he was transferred to the nascent offices of Intelligence of the Navy by the German foreign intelligence services, and given his knowledge of the Spanish, he was sent to work for the German Embassy in Madrid , Spain , where he spent a year in counterintelligence and logistics , For which he used as cover his false identity of “Chilean Reed Rosas”, ensuring – when asked – come from a small town in southern Chile called Osorno.

Later it was assigned like commander of a submarine in the Mediterranean , being credited to him 18 sinkings, by which it was decorated with the Iron Cross of First Class.


After the war, it remained within the military. During the revolutionary period of 1918 , when he provided help as an organizer of the Freikorps , paramilitary bodies created to fight the Communists in their revolutionary endeavor, Canaris would have planned the assassination of two of the leading German Communist leaders. In his memoirs, Baldur von Schirach , while remaining imprisoned in Spandau prison after the Nuremberg trials , recalls that the Great Admiral of the German Navy ( Kriegsmarine ) during World War II, Erich Raeder , confessed that Canaris was responsible Of the murder of the Spartakist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht . “Canaris prepared that murder and managed to be appointed judge in the process, so that it was possible to influence the investigation and to get the author, who had acted in accordance with his orders, to be well off. it”. 2

In the Reichsmarine of the Republic of Weimar

During the call Republic of Weimar Canaris assumes in 1922 the command of the battleship Schlesien and after the cruiser Berlin , in 1923. Following these tasks receives under his command, between the aspirants, to which would be its future antagonist, Reinhard Heydrich , who at that time Was a shy officer, outstanding in sports and with excellent instruction.

There is evidence to support that Canaris sponsored Heydrich’s entry, as the latter’s home had the Canaris as neighbors. In addition, the latter, not belonging to the German high society, would have been excluded. In 1930, Heydrich is expelled because of a personal affair related to problems of skirts.

Chief of Staff of the North Sea Command

In 1930 he was appointed Chief of Staff of the North Sea Command . In 1932 he is given the command of the ship of line Schlesien .

In 1933 he welcomes the advent of National Socialism because of its marked anticommunism and its hope in the revision of the Treaty of Versailles . In 1934, returns to the active service and is named commander of the strength of Swinemünde , in the Baltic Sea .

The Abwehr

Once Adolf Hitler arrives to power, and already showing the rank of Captain of Ship and given his prestige, experience in espionage work, levels of contact and outstanding abilities, he is assigned the head of the Abwehr . This office was an intelligence and counter-espionage organization, which he assumed in January 1935 , replacing his counterpart, Captain Conrad Patzig . He was 47 years old.

The office of Canaris was in Berlin on the street Tirpitzufer 74-76 (today Reichpietsufer ), and the SS called it contemptuously the lair of the “Santa Claus”.

At the time of receiving his new dispatches, he is warned by his predecessor of the sinister plans of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich together with Walter Schellenberg (who at that time worked in the Central Security Office of the Empire or RSHA), to make attempts to annex the Office and all intelligence bodies to the SS.

He tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement with the SS, but the intrigues against the office itself, carried out by Heydrich, Schellenberg and supported by Himmler, did not cease during Canaris’s management, despite apparently having good relations with them.

Canaris did not profess anti- Semitic ideas , but he managed very intelligently to remain in the position making confidential information of its antagonists, using the same technique that the SS. This kept Heydrich and his followers at bay for a while.

As events unfolded, Canaris anticipated the future of Germany with great success, and when the Eastern Front opened its perceptions of having Germany between two fronts and the atrocities of Himmler’s hosts not only in Poland , but in The Soviet Union , disenchanted definitively of the National Socialism .

His personality

It was the antithesis of who was supposed to handle the threads of military espionage. It is surprising that Nazi Germany had him in one of the highest positions, since he was not a National Socialist. Although some sources describe him as a convinced Nazi, his actions demonstrate ambiguity and, later, a clear departure from the ideals of Nazism. This change occurred during the Invasion of Poland , after seeing the atrocities committed by Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen (groups of operations) and the escalation of atrocities committed mainly by SS troops on Russian territory.

He was very diplomatic, good conversationalist, gifted and skilled in dealing. He liked besides the severe austerity and had an office so simple that it was not according to the position. He was rarely uniform and only did it if protocol required it. He also hated that the military should appear before him with his medals, so that they put them in good stead before interviewing him.

The machinations of the National Socialists disgusted him, and when he was involved in one of them, only the direct order of Hitler made him intervene. Hitler maintained distance with Canaris, and Walter Schellenberg considered to him a mystic . Himmler was distant, and they rarely communicated.

He loved the dogs and always had a couple of them with him everywhere. The drivers of the Abwehr had precise instructions to avoid running over one of them. Before presenting any report, his collaborators had to endure a previous talk about canine fidelity.

He took action against some purposes of the Hitler regime, and in the Third Reich he was regarded as one of the most important traitors. Canaris was considered primarily as patriotic as Count Claus von Stauffenberg .

Its management in the German espionage

He had access to privileged information and handled it in the most convenient way possible, in accordance with his convictions. He skillfully handled and managed information – often distorted – for Hitler’s plans, so that he would be discouraged from carrying out certain warlike actions. Its internal management was constantly monitored by the Gestapo .

However, their infiltration groups, the so-called Brandeburgs , carried out joint actions with the Einsatzgruppen , supporting destabilization and subsequent repression in Poland.

The Skoblin incident

In 1937 , Canaris obtained information from a dissident Russian general , Nikolai Skoblin , in which he asserted that there was a combined intrigue of Russian and German officials determined to overthrow Stalin . Heydrich learned of this information (since he had agents infiltrated in the Abwehr), and using a covert intelligence operation, he stole this documentation from the offices of the Abwehr , setting it afire to leave no trace. Since then Canaris and Heydrich (along with Himmler) would be irreconcilable enemies.

The documentation was handled by Hitler with the help of Heydrich, which led to the purge in the Red Army , with the elimination of more than 3,000 officers, among them Mikhail Tujachevsky , maximum theoretician of the mechanized war in the Soviet Union .

In 1938 , and after this episode, the office was reorganized with personnel of his confidence. With the consent of Hitler it happened to be called Amt Ausland / Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht ( Office of Defense against foreign espionage of the General Staff of the Armed Forces ) with its headquarters in Berlin . This new organization had greater power in relation to foreign affairs, such as counterespionage, sabotage tasks and issues of technical and economic information rescued from enemy territories.

The hidden function of the Abwehr in the war

At the beginning of World War II he got information from the English codes, especially in Operation Nordpol . However, with the passage of time the antagonism between the Abwehr and the SS was taking a dangerous side to Canaris. Not to be a National Socialist , to have among his collaborators Jews and to help secretly escape to many of Germany just before the beginning of the conflict, were facts known by the SS. In addition Canaris had provided information about the decisions of Hitler to Franz Halder that was part of the Conspiracy of Zossen against Hitler in 1938 .

Canaris witnessed the actions of the SS Einsatzgruppen with support from the German army on Polish territory , and was shocked by the extreme cruelty against the Jews. He intervened before General Keitel informing him of what he had seen. Keitel replied that Adolf Hitler himself had ordered it himself. From that moment he began to carry out subversive actions of undermining the regime.

He devised Operation Pastorius , which consisted of landing two groups of German agents engaged in the sabotage of the war industry on US soil at the beginning of 1942 on the East Coast (Florida and Maine) of the United States from submarines . However, such groups were discovered and disarticulated as soon as they landed on American soil , being executed. This and other incidents created some mistrust among the Americans , and many foreigners were suspected of espionage. [ Citation needed ]

Canaris was personally sent to Spain by Hitler to try to convince Francisco Franco of the expediency of going to war. Franco, after weighing the proposal of Canaris, finally rejected to join Hitler when this one visited ( interview of Hendaya ). Franco disguised the real role of Canaris during that time and was later very grateful to him, even sending him a personally autographed portrait, and granted his widow an economic pension until the day of his death. During their travels to Spain through the Castilian plateau, they were caught between a flock of sheep crossing the road and told their companions, “raise your arm never know where we can find a superior.” [ Citation needed ]

The admiral tried as hard as possible to discourage Hitler when he requested reports on future operations, overwhelming him with discouraging information about the enemy and exaggerating the particular situation.

In a meeting of review of scenarios, Canaris showed in a comment that the victory of Germany was a fictitious fact. Hitler raped Canaris and took him from the lapels and out of his head, shouted at him, asking if the Wehrmacht’s own intelligence chief was suggesting that he would lose the war. Canaris did not reply and retired offended of that meeting, and soon was in contact with the surprised general Friedrich Olbricht to join the plot that was woven between the high Prussian officialdom led by Count Claus von Stauffenberg . At the end of 1942 Canaris reached the rank of vice – admiral .

The 27 of maypole of 1942 , the governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia , Reinhard Heydrich , suffered attack organized by the resistance Czech in Prague, for which he would die eight days later. This partially alleviated his situation, since “only” remained Himmler , Bormann, and Kaltenbrunner (Heydrich’s successor) as serious opponents .

End of the Abwehr : the Solf case (1944)

In September of 1943 a tragic event caused the collapse of the Abwehr and Canaris approached its end. Hanna Solf , widow of Dr. Wilhelm Solf , Minister of the Colonies under Emperor William II and former Ambassador of Germany to Japan, was implicated in the intellectual antinazi movement of Berlin ( Solf Kreis ). In a snack whose host was Hanna Solf, was included in the inner circle a new member, one doctor named Paul Reckzeh , who proved to be an agent of the Gestapo .

The members of the circle of Solf, fled, but all were captured on December of January of 1944 and executed, except Hanna Solf and her daughter. Among the dead was Otto Kiep , who had connections with the Abwehr . The marriage Erich Vermehren and Elisabeth Vermehren , both agents of the Abwehr assigned to Istanbul , Turkey , was urgently summoned to the office of the Gestapo in Berlin, but fearing for their life, deserted surrendering to the English.

The Nazis mistakenly believed that the Abwehr’s intelligence codes had been handed over to the Allies . Himmler briefed Hitler, who had already lost confidence in Canaris. On 18 February the end of the Abwehr’s activities was decreed and relegated to Canaris to a second-order position in the Ministry of Propaganda . This deprived the Prussian conspirators of their own intelligence, but accelerated plans to end Hitler.

Operation Valkyrie, the Attack against Hitler and execution of Canaris

Its enemy Heinrich Himmler discovered that Canaris had conspired several times against Adolf Hitler and persuaded the Führer to execute Canaris, who was taken to the concentration camp of Flossenbürg . There, he was humiliated by SS guards .

In court martial, a jury of the SS presided over by Otto Thorbeck sentenced him to death; Was executed along with General Hans Oster , General Karl Sack , Ludwig Gehre and Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer .

The 9 of April of 1945 , Canaris was hanged in the concentration camp Flossenburg , by SS guards. His body was cremated.

His subordinates Erwin Lahousen and Hans Bernd Gisevius survived the war and testified at the Nuremberg Trial about Canaris’s opposition to Hitler. Lahousen reported on a conversation between Canaris and General Wilhelm Keitel where he warned that the German army was responsible for the atrocities in Poland to which Keitel replied that they were orders of Hitler. [ Citation needed ] Keitel, one of the signatories of Germany ‘s unconditional surrender , was sentenced to death by hanging in Nuremberg .

Books and films

Starring or appears in:

  • Canaris (1954) – Full cast and crew
  • The Heights of Zervos , 1970 novel by Colin Forbes .
  • The Eagle Has Landed , (1976) Canaris was played by Anthony Quayle .
  • The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth
  • Ciao Neapolitan! , Novel of 1991 of Juan Grompone

Notes and references

  1. Back to top↑ Richard Bassett, Hitler’s Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Mystery (Cassell 2005), 65. A family tree prepared in 1938, which demonstrates the Italian origin of the Canaris family, is among the family’s roles.
  2. Back to top↑ “I Believed in Hitler”, Baldur von Schirach.


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  • Bassett, Richard, The Enigma of Admiral Canaris. History of Hitler’s chief of spies. ISBN 84-8432-726-4 . Cast. De Gonzalo G. Djembé: The Enigma of Admiral Canaris , Barcelona, 2006 .
  • Brissaud, André, Canaris , Paris, 1970 . Trad. Cast. Of Encarnación Caus, Canaris: The Spanish War and World War II , Barcelona, 1972 .
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  • Gehlen, Reinhard, Der Dienst , Wiesbaden, 1971 . Trad. Cast. By Andrés Bosch: Secret Service. Memoirs of the head of the German Intelligence Service , Barcelona, 1972 .
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  • Michael Soltikow: Ich war mittendrin. Meine Jahre bei Canaris. ; 1986
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  • Heinz Höhne: Admiral Wilhelm Canaris ; (Hrs.): Primus Verlag, Darmstadt 1998, ISBN 3-89678-083-2 , Seite 53-60