Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was the head of the Abwehr, Hitler’s intelligence service, from 1935 to 1944. A vehement opponent of the Weimar Republic, Canaris was an early supporter of the Nazi Party who became increasingly disillusioned in the face of its cruelties. As early as 1938—before the outbreak of WWII—Canaris worked to save individuals from persecution and engaged in secret plots to overthrow the Third Reich, all while continuing to carry out vital duties in its service.
Near the end of the war, secret documents were discovered that implicated Canaris and hinted at the extent of the activities conducted by his Abwehr against Hitler. In 1945, he was executed as a traitor. But Canaris left little in the way of personal documents, and to this day he remains a figure shrouded in mystery and controversy.
Drawing on newly available archival materials, Mueller investigates the double life of this legendary and enigmatic figure in the first major biography of Canaris to be published in German.
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A Naval Cadet from the Ruhr
Wilhelm Canaris was born on 1 January 1887 'with a silver spoon in his mouth', as his biographer Abshagen wrote, to an upper-class, wealthy family in Dortmund Applerbek. His father was technical director of the Applerbek metal plant and became later a board member of a large foundry at Duisburg, part of the Rheinisches Bergbau- und Hüttenwesen A.G. Metallurgy. Mining was the family tradition, going at least as far back as a maternal great-grandfather.
The Canarisi family itself can be traced back to fourteenth-century Como. In the seventeenth century several branches of it left Italy for the Kur-States of the Rhine. In 1880, Wilhelm's father Carl Canaris married Auguste Amelie Popp, daughter of a senior forester at Altershausen in the Duchy of Saxony, and brother Carl and sister Anna were born in 1881 and 1883 respectively, after which the family moved to Dortmund. (Carl graduated in mining at Berlin and was eventually director-general of the August-Thyssen metal plant at Duisburg, and of Krauss-Maffei at Munich. Anna Canaris married engineer Rudolf Buck, later head of the Buderusschen ironworks).
The political ideas of the technical elite in nineteenth-century Germany were invariably national-liberal or conservative and loyal to the monarchy. Kaiser Wilhelm II saw himself as a 'naval emperor' whose destiny was to make Germany into a world naval power. Shortly after ascending the throne, the twenty-nine-year-old Kaiser assured naval officers that his 'last thought would be with the Navy just as grandfather had once said that his dying thoughts would be for the Army'. Naval propaganda infiltrated 'all political forces, from the conservatives to the liberal left to the social democrats'. In 1897 when Admiral Alfred Tirpitz became state secretary at the Reich Admiralty, he coordinated a naval building programme aimed primarily at matching the British Royal Navy. This enforced build-up of a High Seas Fleet robbed German foreign policy of its freedom to manoeuvre and led Germany into that encirclement by Britain, France and Russia so feared by Bismarck. Ultimately, it would bring about the First World War in 1914.
The Kaiser's enthusiasm for the sea lured an increasing number of the sons of middle- and upper-class families, including Wilhelm Canaris, into careers as naval officers. In April 1898 after three years in pre-secondary school he passed the acceptance examination for the Steinbart-Real High School Duisburg, and the next day took his place in a class of thirty-six pupils. His fellow students remembered him as calm, reserved, even occasionally taciturn, but well liked. He was amongst his own kind, sons of the upper class, whose fathers were judges, doctors or businessmen. A high point of the first two school years was the annual sports festival at Kettwig. A contemporary report evinces the militaristic character of the institution:
At six in the morning the headmaster would face his troop of scholars, paraded in two military files, for 'Appell'. The 'platoon leaders' would deliver their reports and then came the order 'Off caps for prayer'. Accompanied by the impressive town band, hundreds of strong, youthful voices would then sing the hymn of the day. After terse military commands, the squad of fresh, happy young men marched off ...
The festivals were discontinued in 1900, probably replaced by 'terrain games' on set afternoons when the military spirit would be encouraged by orienteering, map-reading, distance estimation and bivouac-making.
Canaris was the only pupil of his class with ambitions to be a career officer, although many boys who obtained their Abitur (matriculation certificate) at the Steinbart High School later joined the Navy as officer cadets. The Ruhr with its trade and heavy industry had always had close links to the Navy and shipbuilding. In an age of great technical strides the demand was now for naval applicants with a good education in science. This was in contrast to the Army officer corps, where noble origins or a family tradition of service was more important than education, but even in the Army the modern military – though opposed by the traditionalists – had begun to recruit Abituriente with good technical and scientific backgrounds. Between 1898 and 1905, the year when Canaris began his naval career, the percentage of Abituriente of each annual intake rose from 21 per cent to 55 per cent, and by 1909 75 per cent of the officer entry was Abitur-based. Kaiser Wilhelm II supported this new development. By his Cabinet Order of 29 March 1890, those of 'noble mind' in addition to 'noble birth' were eligible to be 'officer aspirants'. As 'bearers of the future', sons of such 'honourable bourgeois houses in which love of King and Fatherland, a warm heart for the soldierly profession and a Christian upbringing and education' prevailed were now to be admitted.
Wilhelm Canaris was a prototype of this future naval officer, but his family did not approve, for there had never been a career officer in the family before. His father attempted to force the boy to abandon his naval dreams by making him apply for entry to the Bavarian 1st Heavy Cavalry Regiment at Munich. Fate took a hand, though, when Carl Canaris died unexpectedly, aged fifty-two, on 26 September 1904 while on vacation at Bad Nauheim. In March 1905 Wilhelm obtained his Abitur. His good grades in English, French, Latin and Greek laid the foundations for his future intelligence career but he also did well in Natural Science, Geography and History; his form-master laid emphasis on his enthusiasm for laboratory work. In German he obtained a 'satisfactory', in Art 'unsatisfactory'.
On 1 April 1905 Canaris went with his certificate to the old Deck-Officers' School at Kiel, one of 159 members of 'Crew 05', as the naval cadet entry was designated in the training ship tradition. His mother had yielded to her son's wishes and taken him before the Sea Cadet Acceptance Commission even before he had matriculated, and she agreed to foot the not inconsiderable cost of the first four years' naval training, a social safeguard to keep undesirable elements out of the naval officer corps.
After completing the initial course of infantry training, Canaris was drafted with fifty fellow cadets aboard the Imperial Navy training ship SMS Stein (2,850 tonnes, a fully rigged three-master with steam auxiliaries) and made voyages to Skagen, Iceland and the Mediterranean. The ship's complement was twenty officers, 449 NCOs and ratings, fifty naval cadets and 210 boys. Stein was notorious for its harsh regime. Before breakfast the cadets had to climb to each of the three topmasts. They were required to scrub the decks with sand and stone like common mariners, learned to ward off sleep in standing night watches, were instructed in reefing, furling and generally handling the ship's rig in all states of wind and weather. Young Canaris's will to master the fatiguing training routine met with approval from one of his instructors, Richard Protze, who in later years became his subordinate at the Abwehr, and found him reserved and adaptable with a dry sense of humour.
At the beginning of 1906 Stein completed her voyage and Canaris was promoted to Fähnrich zur See, midshipman. On 1 April 1906 at the Kiel Naval College he began the twelve-month course in which 'Training as an Officer and a Gentleman was very important. As future representatives of the military and social elite, the midshipmen were introduced to the rigorous code of honour of the naval officer corps and the strict caste system: deck officers at the bottom, above them torpedo and ordnance officers, then the engineers and finally at the top were the navigators. The officers' course included gunnery, torpedo and infantry training. Finally in the autumn of 1907 came the passing-out ceremony in which the cadets swore the oath of allegiance to the Kaiser in the courtyard of the Naval College.
On 1 November 1907 Canaris shipped out on the steamer Cap Frio to report twenty-four days later aboard the small cruiser SMS Bremen on the East American Station where its duty was to protect German interests in the Central and South American region. In his first service assessment signed on 10 June 1908 by Kapitän zur See Alberts, the opinion was that 'he had trained his seamen well and treated them correctly, but could be more energetic. Towards superior officers Canaris is always tactful and modest. He integrates well into the officers' mess and has made an earnest and composed social impression. He has good qualities of character and is a well-liked member of the mess.' This assessment shows the value placed on social integration in ships of the Imperial Navy. Alberts continued: 'He is good at Theory, talented in Practice and during the shipyard lay-up delivered a well-prepared address to his platoons. Speaks fairly good English ... leadership very good. Knowledge of ship very good. Navigational calculations sure and conscientious, very reliable support for the navigation officer. Gunnery very good, nautical knowledge good.' On relinquishing command of Bremen to Kapitän zur See Albert Hopman at Punta Arenas, the retiring captain wrote of Canaris: 'He had been trained as captain's adjutant and promises to become a very good officer as soon as he gains more self-confidence. Military and social forms blameless. Despite a certain shyness socially very well liked for his modest manner.' This may not have fitted the desired image of daring and Prussian impetuosity but accurately summed up Canaris, of whom it was generally said later that despite having gained the soldierly attributes, there remained something unsoldierly about him. He was promoted Leutnant zur See on 28 September 1908. Kapitän Hopman, who had accepted Canaris as his adjutant, agreed with his predecessor's opinion and spoke of Canaris's 'iron industry and unconditional reliability'. He seemed destined for a glittering career.
From Punta Arenas Bremen rounded the Horn and showed the flag at Buenos Aires, receiving the typical fanatical welcome accorded to German warships by the patriotic and nationalistic expatriate community of those pre-First World War years. At the time there were 10,000 Germans in Buenos Aires and 30,000 in Argentina as a whole; they were mostly business people, engineers, technicians and farmers, and German instructors trained the Argentine Army. 'The German colony gave us a wonderful welcome,' Hopman recalled, 'quite apart from invitations to the officer corps from leading personalities of the colony, the German Soldiers' Union and various other associations threw a huge garden party for the Bremen crew, which drew thousands together. Although the most varied elements were represented, it was saturated with the spirit of true love for the homeland and national pride.' Hopman, who credited the twenty-two-year-old Canaris with 'far more understanding and intelligence than was to be expected for his junior status in the Service', had his adjutant accompany him on visits inland to friends in Brazil and Argentina. During this period Canaris became involved in intelligence work for the first time when he assisted in setting up networks of informers in Brazil and Argentina for the Etappendienst, the German naval intelligence service. It was thus on the Bremen voyages that Canaris began to acquire the Spanish language and became familiar with the countries of Central and South America that had inherited the Ibero-American and Spanish culture.
At Rio de Janeiro the Brazilian war minister Hermes da Fonseca came aboard to observe naval manoeuvres; off Trinidad the gun and torpedo crews exercised before the ship proceeded to Venezuela. On 23 November 1908 the Venezuelan state president and dictator Cipriano Castro had left for Berlin to undergo surgery and in mid-December his vice-president, Juan Vicente Gomez, took the opportunity to stage a coup. During the Bremen's four-day stay in February 1909, Gomez awarded Canaris his first military decoration, the Medal of the Bust of the Liberator, Fifth Class. The reason for the award remains unknown, although it is speculated that Canaris might have been involved the previous year in talks with Gomez on President Castro's visit to Germany.
After calls at the Dutch Antilles, Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala, Bremen spent the next three months off the North American coast. During this time Hopman instructed his young adjutant in the procedure for mobilisation for war and he was impressed by Canaris's grasp of detail. In September 1909 the cruiser took part in the celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city of New York. Delegations from 'all seafaring nations' were invited; Imperial Germany was represented by four warships. A naval review of 1,000 ships passed down the Hudson River before the vice-president, the governor and the mayor. A historical festival, banquets and a ball followed. 'Dazzling', Hopman found it:
We were inundated with invitations, ate at tables covered with the most glorious mantles, adorned with the rarest orchids, the finest porcelain, silver plate and golden dessert spoons, were seated next to stylish ladies who wore expensive perfume and metre-long necklaces of pearls: we made trips in automobiles and dog-carts, danced the new two-step and generally 'had a good time'.
It was the glorious twilight of an era fast approaching its end; the splendid lull before the storm.
In November 1909 Hopman and Canaris shipped for home aboard the steamer Sachsenwald. As watchkeeper aboard various torpedo boats, Canaris endured the ritual of autumn and spring naval exercises in the cold North Sea and was recommended by his superiors for future command of a torpedo boat. But he had contracted malaria in Central America, and the recurrent bouts he suffered over the years weakened his constitution. In the raw climate of northern Germany he contracted a severe bronchitis that kept him on the sick list for months.
After being promoted Oberleutnant zur See at the end of August 1910 and obtaining a 'very good' classification in a sea-mines course, in December 1911 Canaris joined the small cruiser SMS Dresden with which he would remain until her sinking. In 1911/12 the 3,600-tonne cruiser won the coveted Kaiser's Prize for Small Cruisers of the High Seas Fleet in gunnery, and visited neighbouring Baltic and North Sea states and Norway. The outbreak of the First Balkans War between Germany's ally Turkey and the Balkan Federation of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro in October 1912 required German interests to be protected, and the Kaiser ordered a Mediterranean Division formed under Konteradmiral Trummler. The new battlecruiser Goeben and the small cruiser Breslau were sent to the eastern Mediterranean to reinforce existing units and on 6 April 1913 Dresden, commanded by Fregattenkapitän Fritz Emil Lüdecke, joined them.
It was a voyage fraught with difficulties. Released prematurely from a refit, much maintenance work remained uncompleted. Excessive fuel consumption forced Dresden to make an unscheduled coaling stop at Gibraltar, then turbine damage slowed her down and finally more engine damage left her virtually unmanoeuvrable, drifting before the Dardanelles minefields. She limped into Constantinople to join an international gathering of European warships that were monitoring the local situation closely. At embassies and aboard flagships the pressing question was how to secure the Foreign Quarter and its inhabitants in the event of a siege of the city. Turkey's enemies held back, however, the Peace of London was signed and the tension evaporated for a few months. Canaris's biographer, Abshagen, reported that over this dramatic period off Constantinople Canaris studied the complex implications of politics in the 'Golden Horn' and held numerous conversations with Germans working on the Baghdad Railway, which was financed by the Deutsche Bank and was being built by German firms.
Dresden returned to Germany via Malta, Sicily, Gibraltar and Cadiz. At Kiel, Fregattenkapitän Lüdecke relinquished command to Fregattenkapitän Erich Köhler, with Canaris continuing as captain's adjutant. On 27 December 1913 Dresden sailed for Central America to relieve Bremen on the East American Station, arriving off the Mexican naval base of Veracruz on 21 January 1914, greeted by two Mexican gunboats and various international warships. Civil war had broken out in Mexico. The previous year, with the help of the military, Victoriano Huerta had overthrown the elected president, Francisco Madero, and seized power. Now Huerta was facing a revolt led by the legendary bandit Pancho Villa, amongst others. In early February a large oil harbour on the banks of the Rio Panuco at Tampico came under threat from the rebels. Köhler had received a plea for help from the German consul and had sailed to assist, but as soon as he saw the ruined waterworks, disease and general chaos there he put back to Veracruz to solicit the help of British and US warships for a general evacuation of refugees – even the stock of cash at a bank was brought aboard to deny it to the rebels. After the kidnap of two men from a naval cutter, on 22 April 1914 US troops occupied Veracruz. US citizens at Tampico, mostly oil workers and their families, took up arms and barricaded themselves in the town's two hotels. One of the oil workers came aboard Dresden, which was already crammed with refugees, to request help. Nieden, the first officer, and Burchardi, gunnery officer, brought the women and children aboard and later ensured the safety of the other Americans. Some time previously the American naval squadron had retired offshore, out of the range of rebel artillery.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nazi Spymaster"
Copyright © 2017 Michael Mueller.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations vii
Part I Officer of His Majesty 1
1 A Naval Cadet from the Ruhr 3
2 The Epic Last Voyage of the Dresden 10
3 Agent on a Special Mission 19
4 U-boat War in the Mediterranean 26
Part II The Struggle Against the Republic 35
5 Servant of Two Masters 37
6 The Murderers' Helpers' Helper 43
7 On the Side of the Putschists 49
8 Agent of the Counter-Revolution 56
9 Military-Political Secret Missions 63
10 The Shadow of the Past 73
Part III Rise Under the Swastika 85
11 Hitler's Military Intelligence Chief 87
12 The Duel with Heydrich 94
13 Between Führer, Duce and Caudillo 102
14 Ousting the Generals 112
15 A Double Game 120
16 Between Obedience and Conscience 127
Part IV Finis Germaniae 141
17 The Will for War 143
18 The Madness Unfolds 152
19 The War of Extermination - Act One 159
20 The Spirit of Zossen 170
21 'Now There is No Going Back' 178
22 Operation Felix 186
Part V The Triumph of the Barbarians 197
23 The War of Extermination - Act Two 199
24 The Struggle for Power with Heydrich 209
25 With His Back to the Wall 220
26 The Undoing of Canaris 234
Part VI Hitler's Revenge 249
Sources and Bibliography 336