Canaris - the Life and Death of Hitler's Spymaster, Michael Mueller

Canaris - the Life and Death of Hitler's Spymaster, Michael Mueller

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris began his military career in the Imperial German Navy, and served on the cruiser Dresden and in U-boats. He is most famous as the head of the Abwehr, the German Army's military intelligence service. This made him one of the most senior figures in Nazi Germany, but his actions as head of the Abwehr were unusual to say the least!

Canaris is an intriguing character. Some of his closest associates within the Abwehr were leaders of the German resistance to Hitler - in particular Hans Oster and Hans Gisevius, but at the same time he was on good terms with Heydrich (despite the normal political infighting between parts of the Nazi machine), and appears to have had a good working relationship with Himmler. His organisation was less tainted by war crimes than most parts of the German military, but did take part in some on the Eastern Front. The opponents of the Nazis were generally restricted to the upper reaches of the organisation (and didn't include everyone at that level), and most members of the Abwehr attempted to do their jobs loyally (if not always terribly effectively).  Canaris was directly responsible for saving a number of Jews, often by giving them jobs within the Abwehr, and then moving them out of Nazi controlled territory.

It is fair to say that senior German officers made very bad plotters. In 1938-40 they always seeming to be waiting for someone else's actions, and as a result never actually acted. When they did finally move against Hitler in 1944 the plot was badly thought out, and unravelled in a day. To make things worse they kept detailed notes of what they were doing, and kept many of them in official buildings! Canaris was no better than the rest - his diaries, the documents that triggered his execution in the last weeks of the war, were actually found in a safe in a bunker in an Abwehr office within the OKW complex at Zossen, the home of the German Army High Command during the Second World War. Canaris was clearly supportive of the first wave of plots, although like the Generals seems to have felt that it was someone else's task to actually carry out the plots. In 1944 he was probably aware of what was going on, but not involved.

Canaris's early career was just as interesting. He entered the Imperial German Navy, and served on the cruiser Dresden, taking part in her voyages in the Pacific and Atlantic early in the First World War, fighting at the battles of Coronel and the Falklands, and escaping from internment in Chile. He then went on to command U-boats, and was at sea in that role when the German naval mutinies of 1918 began the fall of the Kaiser's regime. In the post-war period he was a member of the right-wing opposition to the Weimar Republic, despite staying within the Navy. He helped shield some of the most notorious criminals of that period, and eventually had to go to sea to avoid more controversy. It was this grounding in post-war politics that brought him to the Abwehr, and at least initially made him a support of the new Nazi regime (probably).

This is an interesting biography of a most unusual man. We get a great deal of information on what Canaris did, but not a lot on his motives. As the author explains at the start, we simply don’t have the sources to access Canaris's motives - there are no personal diaries, very few letters, and even the professional diaries only survive in fragments. The author has done a good job of ignoring the large scale post-war speculation about Canaris, which tended to portray him as one of the 'good Germans', a dedicated anti-Nazi. The true picture is clearly more complex, although it is still remarkable that someone who was clearly involved in plots against his own government could serve as head of a major intelligence agency for so long.

Part I: Officer of his Majesty
1 - A Naval Cadet from the Ruhr
2 - The Epic Last Voyage of the Dresden
3 - Agent on a Special Mission
4 - U-boat War in the Mediterranean

Part II: The Struggle against the Republic
5 - Servant of Two Masters
6 - The Murderer's Helpers' Helper
7 - On the Side of the Putschists
8 - Agent of the Counter-Revolution
9 - Military-Political Secret Missions
10 - The Shadow of the Past

Part III: Rise under the Swastika
11 - Hitler's Military Intelligence Chief
12 - The Duel with Heydrich
13 - Between Führer, Duce and Caudillo
14 - Ousting the Generals
15 - A Double Game
16 - Between Obedience and Conscience

Part IV: Finis Germaniae
17 - The Will for War
18 - The Madness Unfolds
19 - The War of Extermination - Act One
20 - The Spirit of Zossen
21 - 'Now There is No Going Back'
22 - Operation Felix

Part V: The Triumph of the Barbarians
23 - The War of Extermination p Act Two
24 - The Struggle for Power with Heydrich
25 - With His Back to the Wall
26 - The Undoing of Canaris

Part VI: Hitler's Revenge

Author: Michael Mueller
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 288
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2017 edition of 2007 original

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