Wilhelm Canaris was the senior intelligence officer in Nazi Germany during World War Two until his fall from grace. Canaris, like so many who Hitler deemed had betrayed him, was executed shortly before the end of the war.


Canaris was born on January 1st, 1887 in Alperbeck, near Dortmund in Germany. He joined the Germany Navy in 1905 and in World War One, Canaris became a hero for his exploits as an intelligence officer for U-boat operations and by 1917 he commanded his own U-boat with 18 kills to his credit.

At the end of the war, Canaris joined the Freikorps and took part in the Kapp Putsch. In the 1920’s, he remained in the Navy and secretly took part in the development of the German submarine service (German submarines had been forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles) and by 1931 had become a captain in the German Navy (Kriegsmarine)

From seemingly having a career at sea, Canaris changed to military intelligence and by 1935, he was appointed to head the Abwehr Military Intelligence Unit – a position of great importance within the Nazi regime as the Abwehr was tasked, amongst others, with hunting out opponents to Hitler.

In the lead up to World War Two, Canaris was seen almost as a peacemaker. He tried in vain to persuade Hitler not to occupy Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and he used his position to contact General Franco of Spain in an effort to get him not to support Germany’s aggressive moves in Europe. Canaris believed that Germany would lose any war fought in Europe that involved the major powers.

War broke out with the attack on Poland on September 1st, 1939. Canaris visited the war front in Poland to see how the advance was progressing. What he witnessed – the massacre of 200 Jews at Bedzin shocked him. Intelligence officers informed Canaris that they had learned that more massacres had been witnessed and that specific groups (such as the nobility) had been singled out. On September 12th, he went to Hitler’s headquarters – a train stationed then in Upper Silesia – and formally protested to General Keitel, head of OKW. Canaris told Keitel that one-day the Wehrmacht would be held to account for the massacres. It is said that Keitel told Canaris not to take the matter any further and to basically keep quiet about all that he had been told.

While Canaris and the Abwehr were tasked with hunting out opponents of Hitler, he himself was working with some of the conspirators. He appointed his friend, Hans Oster, to be his deputy in the Abwehr. Oster played a key role in developing the resistance movement against Hitler in Nazi Germany. By doing this, the Abwehr could all but cover the tracks of these people from Himmler’s Gestapo.

From 1943 on, Canaris actively worked against Hitler and with the Allies in an effort to bring an end to the war. In April 1943, he secretly met Commander George Earle, F D Roosevelt’s personal representative for the Balkans in Turkey. They discussed ways in which the war could be brought to an end. In the summer of 1943, Canaris secretly met General Stuart Menzies, Chief of British Intelligence, and William Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Santander, Spain. Once again, Canaris discussed his ideas on how to end the war – a ceasefire in the west, the elimination of Hitler and the continuation of the war in the east. Roosevelt was greatly angered by the fact that Donovan had met a very high-ranking figure in the Nazi war machine and refused to discuss the proposals put forward by Canaris. Donovan was also brought to heel by the president who believed that the head of the OSS had exceeded his authority.

Himmler had never developed a positive relationship with Canaris and it is possible that the head of the SS actively worked to bring down the head of the Abwehr. In February 1944, Hitler dismissed Canaris and replaced him with Walter Schellenberg. Most of the Abwehr was then merged with the SD – giving Himmler far more influence in its work. Canaris was placed under house arrest and was in such a position when the attempted assassination of Hitler occurred in July 1944.

Canaris had used his position as head of the Abwehr to cover his tracks in all that he did. However, this all ended after the failure of the July Bomb Plot of 1944. Canaris, along with other senior figures in the Nazi regime, were arrested. Himmler, the great rival of Canaris, was effectively given carte blanch by Hitler to arrest anyone considered to be disloyal and Himmler needed little encouragement to arrest Canaris. He was imprisoned at the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. Here he was kept in a cellar, in solitary confinement and in chains. Incriminating entries in his diary were considered to be all the evidence that the government needed to establish his guilt.

Because of his very high rank in the Nazi machine, Canaris had to endure far greater hardships than most of the others arrested. He was given just a third of the normal measly food rations for prisoners at the Prinz Albrechtstrasse jail, his cell was kept permanently illuminated and when the winter set in, his cell was not heated. The former head of the Abwehr was also made to scrub floors while SS men stood around mocking him.

On February 7th, 1945, Canaris was sent to Flossenburg concentration camp. Despite all manner of brutal treatment, Canaris denied any part in the July Bomb Plot. He also managed to ensure that people in the resistance movement who he knew about were not implicated. In the final few weeks of the war, two SS officers – Thorbeck and Huppenkothen – were sent to Flossenburg to kill Canaris and others who were there charged with involvement in the bomb plot. After a ‘trial’, Canaris, stripped naked, was hanged. Also hanged on the same day – April 9th 1945 – was his close friend Hans Oster. Their bodies were left to rot on the gallows that the SS had hastily erected.

Thorbeck and Huppenkothen stood trial after the war but a court in 1956 ruled that the Nazi government did have the right to execute those deemed to be traitors and that the execution of Canaris was, in effect, legal.

“I die for my fatherland. I have a clear conscience. I only did my duty to my country when I tried to oppose the criminal folly of Hitler.”