German theologian and anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer is justifiably celebrated for his brilliance and devotion unto death. But there is less attention for his patron, German military intelligence chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, whose Abwehr protectively employed the pastor, shielding him from the military draft and from earlier exposure of his anti-Hitler subversion.
Hitler’s Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Mystery, the Most Dangerous Intelligence Man in the World, by British journalist Richard Bassett, is a recent biography that captures much of the Admiral’s mystery and enigmatic power. Unfortunately, it speaks little of Bonhoeffer, just as Bonhoeffer biographies say little about Canaris. It’s unclear whether the two even directly met, though they were at the end incarcerated at the same camp and hanged on the same day. Certainly they were very aware of each other. And arguably one cannot be fully understood without the other.
Although less explicitly than Bonhoeffer, Canaris apparently was also motivated by faith, believing in Christian civilization, against which Naziism was a pagan revolution. Descended from Italians who migrated to Germany, his Catholic grandfather converted to Lutheranism, in which Canaris was raised. Later he would be described as a “Catholic mystic” because he relished the majesty of Spanish cathedrals.
Having distinguished himself during WWI in Latin America, where the ship he commanded nearly evaded the Royal Navy before scuttling, Canaris spoke flawless Spanish, which served him well then and later. He helped persuade Hitler to aid Franco during Spain’s civil war, for which Franco was naturally grateful. In 1940 he coached a trusting Franco on how to defy Hitler’s appeal for Spain to enter WWII and help Germany seize Gibraltar from Britain. Goering would pronounce that failure to subdue Spain for this purpose as the Third Reich’s “gravest mistake,” guaranteeing Britain’s control of the Mediterranean.
Canaris’ maneuver with Franco was only one of his countless subversions against Hitler, whom he had initially supported as a bulwark against Bolshevism, until he realized the full scope of Nazi gangsterism. Starting with his distress over the invasion of Austria, the Admiral became the main incubator and protector of anti-Hitler plotting, even as he shrewdly sustained cordial personal trust with Hitler and most of the Nazi hierarchy.
Certain that seizure of Czechoslovakia would ignite WWII, Canaris signaled to Britain that Germany’s military would overthrow Hitler if the West defied his threats. Instead Chamberlain anxiously flew to Hitler for an appeasing peace, which Bassett’s book argues the British premier did precisely to preempt such a coup, preferring Hitler to the instability of a junta.
Canaris, long an Anglophile who dreamt of German-British alliance against the Soviet Union, was dumbfounded, but still he strove to assist Britain throughout the eventual war as the only means to remove Hitler. Reputedly Canaris inflated Abwehr reports about British defenses after Dunkirk to deter German Invasion, for which Churchill credited him after the war. In return, British intelligence may have orchestrated SS henchman Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination in Prague to prevent Heydrich’s ongoing attempt to subsume the Abwehr under the SS.
Horrified by monstrous German atrocities in Poland and later in the Soviet Union, in which whole peoples were targeted for extermination, Jews above all, Canaris warned senior generals they would be judged for their complicity. They in turn warned him that these murderous instructions originated with Hitler. Of course, some senior officers shared Canaris’ views and quietly aligned with various conspiracies. Canaris sheltered them and other dissidents, including Jews, under the umbrella of the Abwehr, with its vast resources and virtual cart blanche for travel.
Himself frenetically crisscrossing Europe in his private plane, Canaris desperately sought diplomatic channels with the West to communicate anti-Hitler organizing and to negotiate peace for a post-Hitler Germany, to little ultimate avail. His sabotage of German war-making, Bassett claims, included discouraging German scientists working on atomic weapons, even as the Admiral feared America might aim its eventual atomic weapon on German cities.
Amid speculation that Canaris may have actually been a British agent, Bassett insists the Admiral remained an independent actor focused on saving Germany and the world from Hitler. Despite his savvy and intrigue, Canaris finally lost the Abwehr to the SS, and was himself arrested after the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler. Offered a chance to escape, Canaris refused, either confident he could outwit his interrogators, or resigned to his fate. Discovery of his diary, which chronicled the Third Reich’s crimes, and which was shared with Hitler, sealed his doom. During his final hours, after torture, he tapped to a fellow prisoner: “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.”
Of the prisoners hanged with Bonhoeffer only weeks before American troops arrived, Canaris was said to have been the last, and possibly he was hanged twice, to prolong his agony. After the war, his widow and daughters were spirited to Spain to live under Franco’s protection. Stories claim they were pensioned by later CIA chief Allen Dulles, who did reveal after the war that Canaris had fed the OSS intelligence about Germany’s rocketry.
Bonhoeffer, unlike Canaris, never supported Hitler, having astutely discerned Nazi malevolence from the start. But surely Bonhoeffer appreciated the repentance of a soul who heroically, terrifyingly, for years, with almost inhuman discipline, coddled Nazi kingpins, even hosting family cookouts with the hideous Heydrich, while plotting their demise, and protecting some of their targeted victims. Like Bonhoeffer, he unswervingly suffered and humiliatingly died for his commitment to human decency and faith.
Dulles, in congressional testimony, remarked that by German standards of the time Canaris was a “traitor.” Bassett’s biography praises Canaris for his independence and, more ridiculously, contrasts him with British and American intelligence officials who in 2003 supposedly pandered to political overlords by erroneously justifying the Iraq War with false claims.
Canaris of course fed Hitler plenty of false intelligence so as to inhibit his power and conquests, even though in some cases it resulted in German deaths. He knew Germany’s salvation ultimately may require its defeat, making him a patriot, not traitor.
When are state functionaries justified in following Canaris’ subversive example? Must the regime morally equal Hitler? Canaris and Bonhoeffer were faithful not to ego or caprice, but, with prudent discernment, in collaboration with other courageous spirits, to transcendent moral order aligned with Christian civilization. The Admiral and the pastor he protected will always be lodestars of humanity & godly resistance.