Childhood & Early Life
Wilhelm Canaris was born on January 1, 1887, in Aplerbeck, Westphalia, Germany. His father was Carl Canaris and his mother was Auguste Popp. He had two brothers and a sister. The family was wealthy and young Wilhelm grew up in comfort.
Wilhelm’s father was an engineer who worked in the steel industry, first at ‘Aplerbecker Hütte’ and then at ‘Niederrheinsche Hütte’. The family moved with him frequently, finally settling down in 1892 at their luxurious country house with a park and a tennis court in Duisburg.
Wilhelm Canaris attended the local secondary school ‘Steinbart-Gymnasium’ from 1898. He was an intelligent pupil but did not have many friends and choose to keep to himself. His classmates nicknamed him Peeping Tom because he liked to experiment with invisible ink and had aliases.
During a visit to Greece in 1902, he came across a statue of Greek admiral Constantine Kanaris which inspired him to have a career in the navy. He decided to join the naval academy after he finished his studies at the Gymnasium.
Wilhelm Canaris’ father was not too keen on his son’s choice of a navy career. He felt that the noble cavalry with its rich heritage was a better choice. Wilhelm was a good horseman so the cavalry seemed a good fit.
After his father died in 1904, Wilhelm Canaris convinced his mother to let him apply to the ‘Sea Cadet Entry Commission’ in Kiel where he was accepted as his family was able to pay the fees of 4800 Reichsmark.
Passing his Gymnasium exams with high marks, Wilhelm Canaris joined the Imperial Navy training at Kiel in 1905. There he did well in most aspects of the training except for the physical part. He wasn’t a sportsman and needed extra effort to keep up with his contemporaries.
After successfully completing his naval training, he was posted on SMS Bremen which set sail for a flag showing tour of South America. During the trip, he mastered the Spanish language.
Apart from German, Canaris could speak English, French, Spanish and Russian. His knowledge of languages proved useful when the captain of Bremen asked him to set up a network of intelligence gatherers. This network was a crucial provider of intelligence during the First World War.
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In his early years in the Navy, Wilhelm Canaris served on ships in South America, the North Sea and in the Mediterranean. At the start of the First World War, he was posted on SMS Dresden. When the war began the Dresden which was harboured in Haiti was ordered to hunt down Allied merchantmen and navy vessels.
In 1915, the SMS Dresden which had managed to escape the Royal Navy was discovered. The ship was attacked by British cruisers and the crew decided to scuttle the ship themselves.
The crew was then forced to land on Juan Fernandez island 400 miles from Chile and sent to internment camps. Not the one to give up, Wilhelm Canaris escaped from the camp making a two-week journey through the Andes on horseback all the while being pursued by Chilean police.
He masqueraded as Reed Rosas, son of a Chilean father and an English mother. On reaching Buenos Aires, the German embassy provided him with false identity papers. He subsequently traveled back to Germany on a Dutch steamer.
His miraculous escape bought him to the notice of the German naval intelligence and he became involved in setting up of German intelligence network in the Mediterranean.
In 1916, he trained as a U-boat commander and graduated on September 11, 1917. He was a successful commander and was able to sink many ships. For his service, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class.
After the war ended in 1918, Wilhelm Canaris joined the ‘Freikorps’ the right-wing paramilitary that was involved in suppressing the activities of the Red Army in central Europe. He also took part in the ‘Kapp Putsch’ which attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic.
Wilhelm Canaris was a member of the tribunal that tried the murderers of socialist Karl Liebknecht and left political theoretician Rosa Luxemburg. Most of the murderers were acquitted. Canaris helped one of the accused officer, Kurt Vogel, to escape from prison on 17th May 1919.
In 1925, Wilhelm Canaris was sent to Spain to persuade the Spanish shipyards to build submarines according to German design. He was also asked to set up a new intelligence network. He spent the next few years in Spain accomplishing both tasks.
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In 1928, Canaris was moved from intelligence and was made a First Officer aboard battleship Schlesien. In December 1932, he became the captain of the ship. A few months later Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. Wilhelm Canaris was enthused by this new development and gave lectures on Nazism to his crew.
Canaris became chief of the `Abwehr', the espionage service of the German forces, on January 2 1st , 1935. He strengthened the ‘Abwehr’ workforce and turned it into one of the most successful services. He also set up networks and links with espionage services of Germany’s allies.
Wilhelm Canaris was an ardent National Socialist, he supported Hitler’s views and dreamed of rebuilding a great Germany. However, by 1937 he had begun to feel differently. The atrocities in the concentration camps and the increase of Nazi power in the armed forces were instrumental in his breaking away from Hitler.
Wilhem Canaris formed a secret resistance group. Among others in the group were two other ‘Abwehr’ employees Hans Oster, an ex-military man, and Hans von Dohnanyi, a former lawyer. He also started collecting incriminating evidence of Gestapo crimes.
Wilhelm Canaris was also opposed to Hitler’s foreign policy. In 1938, when it seemed likely that Germany would go to war Canaris tried to prevent it.
In 1939, when Poland was attacked by Germany, Canaris was appalled by the killing of civilian Poles. He instructed his network of spies to collect information on the crimes and pass them on to the Vatican and in this way tried to help the catholic resistance against Hitler.
In 1942, Wilhelm Canaris assisted a group of seven Jews to escape. He told the head of the Gestapo that they were his agents. The seven were handed over to the ‘Abwehr’ where they were taught a few codes to make them look like agents and then smuggled out of Germany.
By 1943, the military resistance against Hitler was gaining force. Another coup was planned in which Canaris and the ‘Abwehr’ members were involved. Two assassination attempts were made on Hitler. At the same time, Canaris reached out to British MI6 to work out terms of peace if Hitler was overthrown.
Wilhelm Canaris gradually became increasingly disinterested in his job at the ‘Abwehr’. Many intelligence failures started occurring and the SS and the Gestapo started getting suspicious that he was passing on information to the enemies. He was fired on February 12, 1944.
After the failed Valkyrie attack on Hitler’s life, many people including Hans Oster were arrested. Canaris was arrested on July 23rd, 1944. There was no direct evidence to show his involvement in the plot. He was interrogated, ill-treated and ill-fed in prison but did not confess to anything.
On February 5, 1945, Wilhelm Canaris along with Oster and others were transferred to the Flossenbürg concentration camp. They were bound by chains at all times and kept in isolation in a bunker.
On 4th April 1945, secret diaries of Wilhelm Canaris were discovered. The diaries had enough material to implicate him and were used as evidence to try him and other conspirators.
After a hurried trial in which Wilhelm Canaris finally confessed, he and the others were sentenced to death. On 9th April 1945 all the accused were made to march naked to the gallows, where they were hanged just two weeks before the camp was liberated by Allied soldiers.