Wilhelm Canaris Biography

(5th Chief of the Abwehr (1935 - 1944))

Birthday: January 1, 1877 (Capricorn)

Born In: Germany

Wilhelm Franz Canaris was a German admiral and the chief of German military intelligence. An enthusiastic National Socialist at first, Canaris slowly turned against Hitler and his policies and became part of the resistance. Canaris was born into a wealthy and cultured family. He joined the navy after leaving school. During the First World War, he was an intelligence officer on the naval ship Dresden. His daring escape from Chile during the war brought him to the notice of the German intelligence. He later became the chief of the German intelligence network. Canaris was a supporter of Hitler when he came to power. He played an active part in the Nazi regime’s expansion plans. By 1938, he had changed his stance and started supporting the resistance movements. He was an enigma as on the one hand he seemed to aid Nazi policies while on the other hand he actively participated in anti-Nazi efforts. He is said to have suggested that the Jews wear the ‘Star of David’ for easy identification and yet it was he who used his position to smuggle 500 Dutch Jews out of Germany. Some historians have labelled him as an opportunist while others have hailed him as a heroic figure. His contradictory actions along with his general reticence have made him one of the most mysterious figures in the history of WWII.
Quick Facts

German Celebrities Born In January

Also Known As: Wilhelm Franz Canaris

Died At Age: 68


Spouse/Ex-: Erika Waag (m. 1919)

father: Carl Canaries

mother: Auguste (née Popp)

children: Brigitte Canaris

Born Country: Germany

Military Leaders German Men

Died on: April 9, 1945

place of death: Germany

Ancestry: Italian German

Cause of Death: Execution

More Facts

awards: Third Class Military Merit Cross
German Cross in Silver

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.
Family & Personal Life
Wilhelm Canaris married Erika Waag in 1919. The couple had two daughters, Eva (born in 1923), and Brigitte (born in 1926). The marriage was said to be an unhappy one.
He had a relationship with a Polish spy named Halina Szymanska. It was through her that he passed on information about Operation Barbarossa to the Allies.
Wilhelm Canaris was only 5ft 3 inches tall. He had a soft voice, spoke with a lisp and had a very un-military demeanour. His friend, Hans Bernd Gisevius, wrote in ‘The Bitter End’ that he was well-read and oversensitive and an outsider in every respect.

See the events in life of Wilhelm Canaris in Chronological Order

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