World War II Biographies: Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (Germany, 1887-1945)

Figure 1.--

Admiral Wilhelm Canaries was a World War I U-boat commander and war hero. He was appointed to head the Abwehr, German military intelligence (1935). He is one of the most mysterious figures of World War II. While a committed German patriot, he was horrified at SS atrocities in Poland that he personally witnessed. Other atrocities came to his attention such as plans to kill important Polish officials and nobles as well as highly educated and cultured Poles to destroy the Polish intelligentsia --the repository of national culture (Aktion AB). From that point he began to work to prevent a NAZI victory in the war. A great deal is known about his activities, but the full extent of his activities may never be known. He was extraordinarily effective, The NAZIs had no idea of his activities until the last months of the War. He was close to many top NAZIs like Goebbels who trusted him without reservation. Only after the Wehrmacht Bomb Plot (July 1944). Hitler had him hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp (April 9, 1945). Hitler had movies taken so he could watch. The Americans liberated the Camp (April 23). German military intelligence during World War II was highly ineffective. It is unclear just what Role Admiral Canaries played in this.


Wilhelm's father was Carl Canaries, a wealthy industrialist. His mother was Auguste Popp. The family for many years thought that they were related to the Greek admiral and freedom fighter Constantine Kanaris. This was a factor in the young Wilhelm's decision to pursue a naval career. He kept a portrait Kanaris in his office. Like many Germans in the 1930s, the family researched their ancestors and determined that the family came from northern Italy. The original family name was Canarisi. The family was found to have lived in Germany for several centuries (17th century). They were a Catholic family, but his grandfather converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism.


Wilhelm was born on New Years Day in Aplerbeck (1887). this was a town near Dortmund, in Westphalia.


Wilhelm was a good student with a flare for languages. He eventually learned five foreign languages (including English, French, Spanish, and two others). Despite his privileged family background and obvious intelligence, Wilhelm decided not to pursue a university education.

Naval Career

Canaries at age 17 enlisted in the Imperial German Navy (1905).

World War I (1914-18)

Canaries at the outbreak of World War I was serving on SMS Dresden as the intelligence officer. The Dresden was one of the few German vessels on the high seas when the British Royal Navy blockaded the North Sea. The Dresden participated in the Battle of Coronel off Chile (November 1914). Superior German use of radio intercepts was a major factor in the German victory. The Dresden was the only German vessel to survive the subsequent Battle of the Falklands (December 1914). The crews of the sunk vessels did not survive in the bitter cold waters of the South Pacific and South Atlantic. Canaries' clever deception techniques were a major factor allowing Dresden to evade intensive Royal Navy search patrols. The British finally found Dresden in Cumberland Bay. The Germans scuttled Dresden. The crew was interned in Chile (March 1915). Canaries managed to escape, in part because he was fluent in Spanish (August 1915). German merchants in Chile helped him get back to Germany. The Germany Navy gave him an intelligence assignment in Spain. The British attempted to kill him there. He was given command of a U-boat which eventually sank eighteen ships. He ended the War as a celebrated U-boat commander and war hero. His U-boat was in the Mediterranean when the War ended.


Canaries married Erika Waag (1919). She was also from a wealthy industrialist family. They had two daughters (Eva and Brigitte).

Weimar Years (1919-33)

Canaries served in the ultra-nationalist and anti-Communist Freikorps after the War. He was close to Horst von Pflugk-Hartung. Pflugk-Hartung and others were accused of assassinating left-wing politicians. Several left-wing leaders, including Rosa Luxembourg were shot. Canaries was accused of being involved in the assassinations, but eventually exonerated. He managed to get an appointment to the Reichsmarine. It was very restricted by the Versailles Treaty. He was rose rapidly in rank. He became a Captain (1931). He was the Executive Officer of the cruiser Berlin and next the Commanding Officer of the battleship Schlesien. He also was involved in intelligence work. He strongly anti-Communist and got involved in right-wing politics. He was involved in meetings with military leaders, politicians and industrialists seeking to end the political turmoil in Germany. Canaries in the years just before Hitler seized power was deeply involved in right-wing politics, although not a NAZI Party member.

The Abwehr (1866-1944)

The Abwehr was the Prussian Army's intelligence arm. It was created as war with Austria loomed (1866). Success in the Austro-Prussian War and the subsequent Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) resulted in expanding the organization. Wilhelm Stieber oversaw the Abwehr which collected valuable information on French defenses wand was seen as playing an important role in the Prussian/German victory. One outcome of the War was the unification of Germany around the Prussian state. Thus many Prussian institutions became part of Imperial Germany. The Abwehr became the military intelligence organization of the new Imperial German military. The Abwehr collected valuable information that proved useful when the Germany Army invaded Belgium. Walther Nicolai oversaw the modernization of the Abwehr to accommodate new technologies. The Abwehr ran intelligence and sabotage operations in foreign countries, including the United States during the War. the Abwehr was forced to cease operation after World War I as part of terms of the Versailles Treaty (1919). The German military reactivated an intelligence service (1921). The military intelligence operations included surveillance of political parties. And this included the NAZIs even after they became the governing party (1933). The NAZIs set up their own independent intelligence service--Sicherheitsdienst (SD--Security Service). It was headed by SS officer Reinhard Heydrich. (A cashiered former naval officer.)

German World War II Spying and Counterintelligence

The major German spy achievement may have been before the War in encouraging Stalin's purge of the Red Amy. German intelligence during the War was nothing short of a disaster. The Soviets manage to surprise the Germans with a series of offensives beginning with offensive before Moscow. The Soviet offensive before Mosow was in fact the turning point of the War. The German failure to pick up on Soviet preprations was in part because of effective Soviet camafloge techniques. It also was both a failure of German intelligence and the mindset crated by Hitler in the Wehrmacht. Information on almost all of the German offensives leaked out, although neith ther the Sovirts or the Allies took advantage of this. Of course the German intelligence operation was the fact that the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, was actively working against the NAZIS. The major surprise German operation of the War was the Ardennes offensive which Allied intelligence failed to pick up on (December 1944). While German intelligence was a general failure, the German were very sucessful in tracking down resistance cells trying to send information back to London or get down flyers back to England.

Command of the Abwehr (1935-44)

Canaries was appointed to head the Abwehr, German military intelligence (1935). Thus he was the main German spy master during almost all of World war II. After being appointed to head the Abwehr, he negotiated with SD Director Heydrich over an agreed division of responsibilities. Both as World War II approached trained and maintained their own intelligence forces. Canaries set about reorganizing the Abwehr into three separate branches: 1) espionage, 2) counter-espionage, and 3) sabotage. He appointed three respected Abwehr agents to head the three different branches. He insisted that they could not be NAZI Party members.

Spain (1936)

Admiral Canaris spoke Spanish and had extensive contacts with the Soanish military. He surely was the German military officer with the greatest knowkledge of Spain at the time Francisco Franco launched his rebellion in Morocco (July 1936). Canaris knew many of the conservative officers involved in the revolt. Some authors even believe that he helped inpire the rebellion becaise of his aversion to the left-wing drift iof the Republic. Some sources maintain that Canaris persuaded Adolf Hitler to support Franco and the rebel forces who launched the Spanish Civil War (1936). The historical record is not clear. Hitler took the decesion which was critical in getting Franco's forces from Morocco to Spain. Hitler made the deesion at Bayreuth where Göring and Blomberg were present. Historians differe as to whether Canaris was present. [Whealey, p. 97.] There is no doubt that Canaris strongly supported the decesion and was active in the German military support team that aided Franco. German and Italian aid would prove decisive in Franco's victory.

Stalin's Purge of the Red Army

The Popular Leningrad leader Sergi Kirov was murdered (1934). Most historians believe that Stalin was probably responsible, but no actual evidence exists. Kirov was one of Stalin's important associates as he seized control of the Party. The two were very close. Kirov gradually came to question Stalin's methods. Stalin Subsequently launced massive purges of Soviet society--the Great Purges (1936). Eventually Stalin and his principal instrument, the NKVD, go around to the Red Army (1937). Stalin ordered the arrest of General Mikhail Tukhachevsky (May 22, 1937). He and seven other senior Red Army commanders were charged with organizing a "right-wing-Trotskyist" military conspiracy and spying for NAZI Germany. The arrests were reportedlu based on confessions obtained from other arrested officers. Of course in the Soviet system this meant that these officers were simply tortured until they confessed to what Stalin wanted them to say. Some Western historians until the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), insusted that the case against the Red Army generals was based on forged documents planted by Admiral Canaris' Abwehr in an effort to weaken the Red army. It was argued that the Abwehr documents convinced Stalin that Tukhachevsky was orcestrating a Red Army plot to depose him. Following the disolution of the Soviet Union, Soviet archieves were partially opened to Western researchers. Most historians now believe that Stalin from the beggining concocted an entirely fictitious plot as [part of his wider program of purges. He chose the best known and most respected of his generals-- Tukhachevsky. And the charges of treason were used to eliminate him and others in a believable manner. [Lukes, p. 95.] There was a German connection. Stalin's ordered NKVD agent Nikolai Skoblin to pass information to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the German Sicherheitsdienst (SD) intelligence unit fabricated information proving that Tukhachevsky and the other Soviet generals were plotting to depose Stalin. (Heydrich was earlier involved with forging documents in the Night of the Long Knives operation.) Heydrich saw an opprtunity to not only weaken the Red Army, but also undermine his rival, Admiral Canaris. He ordered that documents be forged implicating Tukhachevsky and other Red Army commanders. As a result of the Rapollo Accords, many Red army commanders had contacts with Wehrmacgt officers. These documents were passed to the Soviets through Czech President Beneš and other neutral parties. Stalin's archives were found to include some of these documents which puport to show a connection between Tukhachevsky and the NAZI leadership. Heydrich and other NAZIs were convinced that they had tricked Stalin into executing his best generals. It now appears that they had simply aided Stalin in pusuing the purge that he had concoted on his own. Of course it could be that they did help convince Stalin that there were in reality traitors working against him./ It is difficult to know just what was happening in the depths of Stalin's mind. Unlike many other important officials tried as part of the purges, Tukhachevsky and other top generals were not tried in public. The court martial to the extent it actually occurred was conducted in secret (June 11). The German documents apparently were not used, but rather confessions extracted through torture or extortion (threats asgainst the family) was the principal evidence. Tukhachevsky and his fellow officers were shot immediately after the court martial. [Rayfield, p. 324.] While the German role appears to have been minimal. The impact on the Red Army was not. The execution of Tukhachevsky and his colleagues was just the beginning. A massive purge of the Red Army followed which eliminated many of the most competent and experienced commanders and officers. This undoubtedly was a factor in the poor perfornmance of the Red Army at the onset of Barbarossa.

Czechoslovakia (1938-39)

Admiral Canaries was involved in efforts to dissuade Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia. It is unclear hat his motives were. Some Wehrmacht officers attempting to discourage Hitler, not so much for moral reasons, but because they did not believe Germany was strong enough to prevail in another European war. Canaris at this time certainly saw the Soviet Union as Germany's major adversary and understood that invading Czechoslovakia was an absolute violation of the Munich agreenment and make any future cooperation with Britain and France impossible. We do not know just what arguments he present to Hitler.

Poland (1939)

Admiral Canaries was horrified at SS atrocities in Poland that he personally witnessed. He traveled to the front to watch Wehrmacht operations (September 10). At Bedzin, he watched SS troops drive 200 Jews into a synagogue and then set it on fire. The Jews all burned to death. Admiral Canaries was shocked. Other atrocities came to his attention in the reports he received from his intelligence officers. He also learned of plans to kill important Polish officials and nobles as well as highly educated and cutured Poles to destroy the Polish intelligencia--the repository of national culture (Aktion AB). He was unaware that Hitler had personally set the SS killing machine in operation. He went to Hitler’s headquarters train, the Amerika, which was in Upper Silesia (September 12). He met with General Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the Armed Forces High Command. He told Keitel, “I have information that mass executions are being planned in Poland and that members of the Polish nobility and the clergy have been singled out for extermination. The world will one day hold the Wehrmacht responsible for these methods since these things are taking place under its nose.” Keitel was more of aware of Hitler's involvement and urged Canaries to take the matter no further. If he had, he probably would have been removed from command of the Abwehr. From that point he began to work to prevent a NAZI victory in the war. A great deal is known about his activities, but the full extent of his activities may never be known.

German Patriotism

He is one of the most mysterious figures of World War II. Canaris was a committed German patriot and fervent abnti-Communist. As World War II developed, Canaris began workihg against his own Government. His actions were directed toward the Western Allies. He continued to hope that the Germany could defeat the Soviets or at least prevent a Soviet occupation of Germany. Historians provide a range of view on Canaris. One author insists that after the Polish campaign, Canaris worked in many ways to prevent Hitler from winning the war, which he believed would be a disaster. [Johnson] Canaris probably had a greater impact on undermining the German war effort than all the other German anti-NAZIs combined.

Britain (1940)

Canaris exaggerated British strength in meetings with Hitler which helped to dissuade Hitler from launching Operation Sealion.

Spain (1940)

Admiral Canaries' most effective coup was probably in Spain. He had worked with Generalissimo Franco during the Spanish Civil war. Both Hitler and Mussolini had aided Franco. The two men had developed a close reputation. Canaries personally went to Spain and met with Franco after the Fall of France (1940). The Germans at the time were considering an attack on Gibraltar through Spain. Canaries advised Franco not to allow German troops to pass through Spanish territory. Canaries reasoned correctly that while Hitler might commit a force capable of seizing Gibraltar, he was so involved with plans for Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) that he would not divert the resources needed to invade Spain. Hitler subsequently met with Franco at Hendaye on the French side of the Spanish border. He tried to get Franco to enter the War, both so he could attack Gibraltar and to get Spanish support for Barbarossa. Franco refused and the meeting became heated. Hitler expecting a more cooperative Franco was incensed. He said afterwards that he would rather have teeth pulled. Canaris essentially undermined NAZI diplomacy and Germany was unable to activate Operation Felix. . The consequences are incalcuable. Had Hitler brought Spain into the War, the Gernmans could have surely taken Gibraltar and Malta would have been untenable. And the British ability to interdict Axis supply routes to the Italian and subsequent German forces in North Africa almost surely would have enabled the Afrika Korps to seize Suez and opened the way to the Iraqi oil fields.


Canaris was horrified by the Holocaust. There he was little he could do to stop. Any open opposition would have resulted in his immediate removal and possible arrest. He did, however, managed to save several hundered Jews. More importantly, his action undermining the NAZI-war effort probanly save hundres of thousands if not the millions of European Jews that survived the Holocaust.

Tunisia (1943)

Canaris managed to prevent the execution of captured French officers in Tunisia.

Italy (1943)

Cabnaris misled Hitler into believing that the Allies would not land at Anzio.

Hiding His Activities

He was extraordinarily effective, The NAZIs had no idea of his activities until the last months of the War. He was close to many top NAZIs like Goebbels who trusted him without reservation. Goebbels reported meetings with Canaries in his diary. One entry read, "I had a long talk with Admiral Carais concerning the reprehensible attitude if a number of OKW and OKH officers. In his opinion one of the chief reasons is because the Seehaus Service [foreign broadcast transcripts] is being distributed so widely among officers and officials. I had a list of subscribers furnished me from which it appears that the Seehaus Service has become a veritable fountainhead of defeatism." [July 25, 1942-- Goebbels, p. 48.]

Bomb Plot Investigation

Suspicion as to Admiral Canaries' loyalty only began with the investigations following the Wehrmacht Bomb Plot (July 1944).


Hitler had him hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp (April 9, 1945). Hitler had movies taken so he could watch. The Americans liberated the Camp (April 23).

German Intelligence

German military intelligence during World War II was highly ineffective. It is unclear just what Role Admiral Canaries played in this.


Goebbels, Joseph. ed, Louis B. Lochner, The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943 (Doubleday: New York, 1948), 566p.

Johnson, David Alan. Righteous Deception: German Officers Against Hitler.

Lukes, Igor. Czechoslovakia Between Stalin and Hitler: The Diplomacy of Edvard Beneš in the 1930s (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and His Hangmen: The tyrant and Those who Killed for Him (New York: Random House, 2004).

Whealey, Robert H. Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.


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