Admiral Wilhelm Canaris: “Hitler’s Spy Chief, A Man Of Mystery”

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris: “Hitler’s Spy Chief, A Man Of Mystery”

The remarkable thing about this diminutive Admiral was that his numerous enemies in the murky Nazi waters of the Fatherland didn’t somehow scuttle the bows of his leaking spy ship much sooner than they did.

Indeed the naked audacity of the Admiral, albeit in supplying the allies with information during the war and always under the prying eyes of Himmler and others, is still a mystery-and please remember this is Germany’s chief of intelligence service-no less.

At times sometimes almost alone he attempted to bring the war to an early conclusion and in this, he failed but not by his own mistakes and the open apathy of others who declined his offer to thwart Hitler’s mad grab for world supremacy. And how through all of this intrigue did he keep his nerve has to be frequently asked.

Or did it perhaps all go back to his youth when as a young midshipman in the Kaisers navy, he learned very quickly to steady his sea legs when dangerous waves pounded his vulnerable vessel.

For Wilhelm Canaris, it would always be about personal survival for himself, his family and of course the fatherland. Much later he would be called a traitor, however, Canaris was in no one’s pocket. And I suggest that had he survived the war he would have received a medal from the King of England, maybe a “Companion of Honour” and perhaps escaped the waiting gallows of the Nuremberg jail. Who knows.

Born in Nr. Dortmund in 1887, the young Wilhelm sought adventure and excitement in the Kaisers pre-war navy.

Then later during the Great War he served as a flag lieutenant and intelligence officer to escape his scuttled ship and would later work his way back across the Atlantic via Spain to report back for duty in Germany (and via Paris perhaps?) His initiative and cunning were very evident here and they would serve him well in the dark days of World War Two.

One fanciful fable claims that in Paris he controlled the First World War spy Mata Hari. Was he indeed then swimming in the vapours of espionage or was this one legend he perpetrated about himself. I rather suspect that Canaris, who was small in stature, did if nothing else nurse a large ego about his past achievements and this lasting lie would be one of his legacies that was never denied.

The 1920s allowed Canaris to make the personal acquaintance of Karl Donitz, Erich Raeder, and Reinhard Heydrich. (Canaris first became acquainted with Heydrich in 1923, they got along so well it seems that Canaris enthusiastically invited him to bring his violin to play in a string quartet that performed in his house in Kiel.) They were all Naval men of course and all Nazi criminals as well. These men’s political paths would dangerously cross many times during the coming War. And maybe Admiral Canaris may even have been a member of the “Thule Society,” with its strange occult beliefs. Perhaps he was a Knights Templar but he would certainly have known of them and have studied their secret temple rituals. All Spymasters want to know everything don’t they.

One revealing American newspaper article I came across of the 1940s claimed that the Canaris’ detective agency made its debut in 1929. This was six years before Hitler would appoint him at 47 years old as the chief of the Abwehr or German military intelligence. This would explain perhaps why he was able to later build up profitable profiles on the Nazi party elite by having the dirt on Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich (apparently both the Heydrich and Canaris families lived in the same street and frequently enjoyed Sunday afternoon high teas together. There were even games of croquet to enjoy as well. All very cosy!) But all of this covert spying would place him in a pivotal position of power (and being fluent in six languages would also be useful.) I rather suspect that by the time he was appointed by Hitler to lead the Abweher (a surprise choice it seems) Canaris was aware of all the favoured vices and disgusting tastes of the then emerging nazi rat pack.

But so much of this man is like a Russian babushka doll-remove one and another takes its place.

But what of the man and his preferences, well one colleague who knew him well wrote: “Canaris was highly intelligent and a sensitive man with many likeable qualities. He loved his dogs and his horse (he would jauntily trot in the beautiful Berlin Tiergarten every morning it seems) almost more than any other living creatures, he often said to me always remember the goodness of animals. You see my dachshund is discreet and will never betray me-I cannot say that of any human being.”

So speaks the spymaster whose creed was always, “you can never be too paranoid and always know your enemy.” One visitor to his office in Tirpitzufer 22 recalled him as a tiny man with a florid complexion, dressed in a full thick overcoat with the ubiquitous dachshunds sniffing and examining any strangers ankles.

Of his health, we are informed that he was thin blooded by perhaps a thyroid problem? Again we are also informed that he sampled a variety of medications and pills for his numerous ailments.

Wilhelm Canaris was of Italian descent though he claimed Greek hereditary perhaps because of the exciting exploits of that country’s great sailor Admiral Kanaris, another sailor the Admiral admired. The family had earlier converted from Catholicism to Lutherism. Canaris was also married to Erica and they had two young daughters and when time allowed he tended to his roses. Yet as early as 1942, the Admirals safety was no longer secure. His throwaway remarks after leaving a war briefing from Hitler was indeed accurate and heard by many: “I have just seen a madman” but that madman still had many fanatical devotees in his lair and all loyal to his command. (Interestingly in that same year an American newspaper published rumours that the Admiral might toil for the overthrow of the Nazi regime…and they even hinted that he might be on the payroll of the Russian Secret Police (NKVD) as well!)

But who knows, maybe Hitler only tolerated him because they were both dog lovers. Remember even dictators have spared many people for much less than this.

Another aspect of this secretive man was that he certainly clocked up the air miles and all in the pursuit of a permanent peace, but sometimes for pleasure, it seems. Countries where his private plane touched down (a fully fitted Junkers JU 52 perhaps?) were Spain (always a favourite) Portugal, Italy Holland, Hungary, Poland, Finland or Scandinavia. He had also visited Turkey, Japan, Gibraltar and N. Africa.

I would also suggest Switzerland (to liaise with Alan Dulles) perhaps the Vatican, San Remo to name but a few exotic locations fit for a spy chief.

One of the Admirals hero’s was Winston Churchill and they even shared the same initials coincidently. There was also a rumour that the two men had parlayed in 1938, the year incidentally when Hitler promoted him to Vice Admiral. This meeting cannot be confirmed nor can the tryst with the head of British SIS Sir Stewart Menzies. I came across a quote from Menzies made after the murder of the Admiral and it’s quite poignant about him: “Damned brave and damned unlucky” and although I do not like profanities this does seem to be a sincere tribute from one spymaster to another. William Donovan then head of the OSS was another contact Canaris made base with and another story was of an American diplomat in the Balkans who recalled Canaris turning up on his doorstep in slouch hat and long coat one early morning (even in that stifling heat the Admiral always suffered from the cold!) Also getting in on the role of peace were Franz Von Papen and Cardinal Spellman. Even the Russians gave him the title of “The most dangerous intelligence man in the world.” Some “praise” from them I have to add!

Field Marshal Keitel would recall at Nuremberg that, “I always had trouble with Canaris” and well he may have because Canaris had witnessed liquidations in Poland of civilians, clergy and others. He would severely warn Keitel of this butchery that was going on. Someone somewhere would pay for this he warned. The Field Marshall merely remarked these were Hitler’s instructions and had to be obeyed. This attitude would come to haunt Keitel at his trial in 1946 in Nuremberg.

Canaris would be involved with a premature attempt on Hitler’s life and perhaps even have prevented the kidnapping of the pope (not sure how) as well as dispatching eight unprepared German spies who would be covertly landed by submarine number U-584 on the east coast of America, all would be quickly captured with eight men later being executed.

It is amazing his reign of supporting the allies and feeding valuable information to them allowed him to survive so long as he did. His biographer Richard Bassett rightly points out that, “Canaris bore a charmed life,” but what of Himmler and Heydrich and their fraught relationship with the Admiral. Again Bassett writes, “Himmler had a superstitious respect for Canaris.” This does sound an odd choice of words to describe someone. And also why was the Admiral, Heydrich’s preferred choice to head the Abhwer? Indeed was there perhaps some Masonic affection about this or something more personal that existed between these ambitious men of the Militarily Reich.

Also, mention of Heydrich and of his own sexuality cannot be ruled out within the upper ranks of the Nazi party, even then homosexuality was rife. It could be argued that not only did Canaris have information on Heydrich’s sex life, could not the same damaging material be used by Heydrich against Canaris.

(One Intelligence chief who heard the two men bickering observed: “It was a bit like a lovers tiff.”) And although Canaris was married with young daughters we learn that in his office hung a picture of his predecessor Conrad Patzig, again rumours of his homosexuality were frequently washed up at his own front door. Canaris was certainly genuinely moved to tears at Heydrich’s funeral when we read: “He had, however also lost someone he had undoubtedly once loved as a protege,” again so writes Richard Bassett in Hitler’s Spy Chief. It was also bizarre that Canaris seems to have been charmed in particular by a young Hungarian officer whose photograph of this young man adorned his desk. All very questionable behaviour for a married man with a young family, but then these were strange times that the world at war was experiencing.

By 1944 Canaris was becoming paranoid (as well he might do.) Now afraid for his life, it seems he had turned to the proverbial bottle for Dutch or German courage. But it was all spinning away for him and his Abwehr. Both his physical strength and mental energy was draining rapidly. Now after two recent attempts on Hitler’s life, it had all become too dangerous for him and those others who had committed themselves to the removal of Adolph Hitler by whatever means they could. (When hearing the news of an unsuccessful attempt on the Fuehrer life in July of 1944 and cautiously waiting until it was confirmed that Hitler was still alive, Canaris dispatched a telegram to Hitler from him and loyal staff addressed to “his beloved Fuhrer” but nobody was fooled. Time was running out for him.

Those and other conspirators were totally (and some suggest foolishly) committed to the success of Operation “Valkyrie” such as Count Von Stauffenberg (there were even rumours about his sexuality.) Ludwig Beck, and General Fromm. (Included was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was recruited into espionage by the Admiral. However, a born-again Christian cannot be involved in Government change. This world is not ours. It is not our mission to reform it we are but merely passing through. In Romans 13:1-7 the Apostle Paul is quite clear: Christians must submit to authority, however difficult that may be for their conscience. Those brave Germans by willingly committing this treasonable act were actually signing their own death warrants.

Incidentally one the main coterie of conspirators was Admiral Canaris and it’s rather puzzling to me that in the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie the old boy is curiously omitted from the cast list. However for the historical record the word (vael Kreri) is from the Norse myth and that any of the beautiful maidens who serve Odin and ride over the battlefields to claim the dead heroes chosen by him will be taken to Valhalla. Certainly, Alfred Rosenberg would have appreciated this false myth.

The last nine months of Canaris’ life would see him suffer humiliation, coldness and brutal torture. And I might add that of all the Nazis we have profiled in this serious Admiral Canaries was the most formidable in trying to understand the psyche of this insecure man and his intrinsic motives and beliefs.

After his arrest in 1944, the Admiral would after a brief stay in Furstenberg be escorted to the notorious Gestapo headquarters at Prinz Albrechtstrasse in Berlin, there to be confined in one of the underground pens. My son James and I visited the remains of this building some years ago and incidentally, it was destroyed one night by RAF bombs. On our Berlin visit then I stood in one of those damp cells and was strangely aware of how narrow and depressing it must have been for anyone who had to spend hours alone. I also like to speculate that perhaps another brave German martyr, Sophie Scholl, was perhaps forcibly detained in a dungeon rather like this one.

Now with Gestapo interrogators questioning him about other plotters, he remained apparently mute to all their accusations. But I rather suspect the most severe torture for him was in the bitter winter in Berlin that year that he must have endured. Also, some of those cells were flooded after a heavy rainstorm. Here frost and damp would share a cell with the unrepentant Admiral. One wonders what he thought about in those long dark hours alone and shivering. And once it seems he generously offered a fellow prisoner his coat, which was gratefully accepted, while on death row.

Finally, on 7 Feb. 1945, Himmler ordered him to be dispatched to Flossenberg concentration camp. Then after the routine inspection, he was placed in cell 21 and this would be his last living abode on earth. (It’s also interesting that the Navy connection even applied here because the camp commandant, Jakob Weisenborn, served in the navy for eighteen years. I suspect the two men certainly knew each other but it is a coincidence!)

It is said that his Christian faith sustained him during this period but did he ever seriously repent during those dark hours of freedom? Again the Bible tells us, “For whosever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13.)

What a wonderful promise granted to the all guilty sinners.

By now the old spy chief was able to use simple Morse code to communicate with his next cellmate and his final message would be very revealing, perhaps his final testament to the world.

At his trial on 8 April he pleaded not guilty, later he would be found guilty by that Nazi court. The sentence when read out would be hanging by the rope until dead.

Now alone in his cell, he was able to tap out a final communication that has been preserved, it reads:

“That will have been the last…..I think. Badly treated. Nose broken.”

It seems his hands and feet were to be shackled, now he waited with others for the executions to be performed.

Actually, there are a number of different accounts of what did occur on that early morning. These seem to be:

  1. Canaris was stripped naked then led to the gallows and hanged. However, just before death he was cut down revived with the words: “to give you a foretaste of death” then strung up again. If true did his tormentors wish to extract a final confession from him or were they just sadists enjoying their hideous work.
  1. Or was Canaris slowly garrotted in an iron collar taking thirty minutes to expire? An SS man later at his trial confirmed this method of a slow agonizing death. I personally can buy into both of these terrible versions of his demise; nothing surprises me about these fallen men who hold the lives of men in their hands.

Soon afterwards the corpse was taken down from the gallows and placed upon a pyre then burned. The swirling ashes it seems hung over the camp for many days afterwards.

Ten days later the advancing American 90/97 Infantry division liberated that terrible place and even assisted in burying the dead. At last Hitler was dead. The war was finally finished and a fragile peace had just begun.

But what of the man: Was he a patriot or traitor? (This) is one of the riddles of the Second World War. Or was he spirited out of Germany with the assistance of Alan Dulles bringing millions of dollars of Nazi gold with him that would later it is claimed help fund the new CIA out of the ashes of the old OSS? It’s all speculation of course and highly unlikely.

Today a brass plate is placed in the silent grounds of Flossenberg Camp

“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,” Canaris words were spoken before his execution.

Spying, as they say, is all about dark glamour but from our Biblical perspective, its method was confirmed in the Bible in the books of Joshua, Exodus and Deuteronomy. Here God’s practise of using spies (see the 12 picked spies in Numbers 13 for example) is for the benefit of the then Jewish tribes, the then chosen race and of their survival.)

In Luke 20:20 the chief priests and scribes sent out devious spies to entrap Jesus Christ but we are told, “he perceived their craftiness and said unto them, why tempt ye me?” His time had not yet come, only these fools did not realize this.

Spying as someone remarked is the second oldest profession in the world. We let you, however, discover what the first is!

Very soon after the War, two Spanish diplomats would accompany the admiral’s widow and daughters to begin a new Life in Spain as guests of General Franco.

“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27.)

References books:

Hitler’s secret enemy: Ian Colvin

OPJB: C.Creighton

Hitler’s Spy Chief: Richard Bassett




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