Wilhelm Canaris

Wilhelm Canaris

Wilhelm Canaris was a senior military figure in Nazi Germany who turned against Adolf Hitler. After witnessing a massacre in Poland during World War Two, Canaris became alienated from the Nazi regime and started to scheme against the government. Hitler eventually caught wind of Canaris’ seditious activities and he was executed in 1945.

Born on 1 January 1887, Canaris joined the German Navy in 1905 and served in World War One. As an intelligence officer he became famous for his deeds focusing on U-boat operations and he was commander of his own U-boat by 1917.

Canaris joined the anti-communist Freikorps once the war ended and was also involved in the Kapp Putsch of 1920. In 1919 he married Erika Waag, with whom he had two daughters.

Canaris stayed in the navy after the war. The Treaty of Versailles banned all German submarines, but Germany tried to find ways around this stark injunction. During the 1920s Canaris was involved in the German submarine service’s development. In 1931 he was made a German Navy captain.

During the 1930s Canaris switched from a career in the navy to a career in military intelligence. In 1935 he became head of the Abwehr Military Intelligence Unit. One of the Abwehr’s responsibilities was to uncover opponents of Hitler.

Canaris was sceptical of Hitler’s plans to wage war in Europe. He tried talking Hitler out of occupying Czechoslovakia in March 1939. He even contacted General Franco and attempted to persuade the Spanish Fascist Dictator to not support German bellicosity in Europe. Canaris was convinced that Germany was set to face certain defeat if she provoked Europe’s major powers.

Canaris’ preferences for peace went unheard. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, 1939; Britain and France refused to renege on their promises to protect Poland. Europe was at war again.

Canaris went to the front line in Poland to witness for himself how the advance was progressing. He was shocked at what he saw: the massacre of 200 Jews at Bedzin. His disquiet increased when intelligence officers gave him news of other massacres where specific groups (for example, the nobility) had been set apart. On 12 September Canaris visited Hitler’s current headquarters consisting of a train in Upper Silesia, and made a formal protest to General Keitel, head of the the OKW (the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces). Canaris told Keitel that Wehrmacht would one day be accountable for the massacres. Keitel apparently ordered Canaris to not pursue the situation any further and remain quiet about what he had discovered.

Horrified by what he had seen and heard, Canaris started working against the government. As head of the Abwehr Military Intelligence Unit, he ostensibly continued to hunt down those opposed towards Hitler. But he also started working with the conspirators. Canaris made his friend, Hans Oster, his deputy in the Abwehr who was heavily involved in developing the resistance movement opposing Hitler in Nazi Germany. The Abwehr had the ability to cover the tracks of conspirators from Heinrich Himmler’s Gestapo.

During 1943 and beyond, Canaris worked actively with the Allies to end the war. This involved risky secret meetings with high-powered Allies. He met in secret with Commander George Earle, F D Roosevelt’s personal representative for the Balkans, in Turkey. Together they came up with ways that the war could be ended. Canaris secretly met General Stuart Menzies, Chief of British Intelligence, and William Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in Santander, Spain during summer 1943. Again Canaris aired his thoughts on how to end the war. He imagined a ceasefire in the West, the assassination of Hitler, and continued war in the East.

Despite Canaris working against Hitler and putting his own life in great danger, Roosevelt was vexed by this contact between Allied representatives and senior Nazi figures. He banned further contact with German military and diplomatic figures. This was in part to avoid offending the Russians and in part because he did not trust any Germans. Donovan was also put under control again by the president who felt that the OSS’ head had overstepped his authority.

Himmler began to suspect Canaris and by February 1944 had convinced Hitler to replace him as the Abwehr’s leader. Canaris was replaced by Walter Schellenberg. Canaris was put under house arrest, preventing him from playing an active role in the attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944.

Canaris was involved in an earlier plan to bring down the Nazi regime. After the July Plot, Himmler started investigating the seditious officers in earnest. One officer, who had subsequently committed suicide, had kept details of this earlier plot in a box. These were uncovered by the SS, as were several other assassination plots. No direct evidence was found against Canaris, but he was strongly implicated by his close friendships or working relationships with the proven conspirators.

Canaris and other important Nazi regime figures were arrested. His great rival, Heinrich Himmler, was given a carte blanche by Hitler to place any disloyal subjects under arrest. Himmler did not require much of an excuse to arrest Canaris and put him in prison at the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, where he was left in solitary confinement and shackled in a cellar. Incriminating diary entries were used as a means to establish his guilt, but he was kept alive until 1945. Himmler planned to use him as a contact with the British, whilst Hitler wanted him to reveal more names of his fellow conspirators.

Due to his former high military ranking, Canaris was forced to endure even tougher hardships than other prisoners. Food rations were already meager at the Prinz Albrechtstrasse jail; he was only given one third of the average portion. His cell was constantly illuminated and remained unheated in winter. Canaris was ordered to scrub floors while SS men hung around to jeer at him.

When Himmler’s plan to use Canaris as a conduit to the British did not work, Hitler approved of a court-martial which would sentence him to death. Canaris was sent to Flossenbürg concentration camp on 7 February 1945. Canaris continued to deny any involvement with the July Bomb Plot. Additionally he ensured that he did not implicate anyone else in the Resistance movement. In the last weeks of the war, Otto Thorbeck and Walter Huppenkothen (both SS prosecutors) were sent to Flossenbürg to kill Canaris and his fellow conspirators. After undergoing a ‘trial’, Canaris was hanged on 9 April 1945. His good friend Hans Oster was executed the same day.

Thorbeck and Huppenkothen had to stand trial when the war was over, but a court ruling in 1956 stated the Nazi government were justified to execute ‘traitors’. Canaris’ execution was, in the eyes of the law, 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.”

(Wilhelm Canaris)

See also: General Dietrich von Choltitz


MLA Citation/Reference

"Wilhelm Canaris". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.

Key facts

Name: Wilhelm Franz Canaris
Birth Date: 1 January 1887, Aplerbeck, Westphalia, German Empire
Death: 9 April 1945 (aged 58), Flossenbürg concentration camp, Nazi Germany
Family: Erika Waag; two daughters
  • Canaris was a renowned U-Boat commander in World War One.
  • In the 1930s he started working in military intelligence.
  • In 1935 he became head of the Abwehr Military Intelligence Unit.
  • During the war, he began working against the Nazi regime.
  • After the failed July bomb plot in 1944, he was implicated in seditious activities against the Nazi government.
  • In 1945 he was executed.
Military Decorations and awards:
  • 1914: Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class
  • 1918: U-Boat War Badge
  • 1914/198: Honour Cross of the World War
  • 1939: War Merit Cross with swords, 1st and 2nd class
  • 1941: Finnish Order of the Cross of Liberty
  • 1943: German Cross in Silver