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Book Review: Hitler’s Spy Chief, by Richard Bassett

By HistoryNet Staff 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: September 06, 2012 
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Hitler's Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Mystery, the Most Dangerous Intelligence Man in the World, by Richard Bassett, Pegasus Books, New York, 2012, $27.95

Nazi leaders make wonderful biographical material, though many were rather nasty individuals. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (1887–1945) was an exception—a cultivated career officer—and Bassett delivers a sympathetic biography.

In 1935 Adolf Hitler appointed Canaris—a decorated World War I intelligence officer—director of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. Canaris soon grew to detest his boss. The admiral not only commiserated with like-minded colleagues and encouraged opposition but also took the lead in informing British leaders of Hitler's belligerence. Ironically, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's conviction that Hitler was reasonable made him impervious to these warnings. Canaris made sure Chamberlain knew that German officers planned a coup after the 1938 Munich conference, but Hitler's triumph made him a national hero, torpedoing the plot.

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Learning of massacres after the 1939 Polish invasion, Canaris protested to Wehrmacht leaders, who warned him to keep quiet because Hitler approved. None of Canaris' Abwehr subordinates objected when he commanded them not to participate in anti-Semitic persecution and to reject the methods of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and Gestapo.

Even veteran military buffs will blink at the extent of Canaris' treason as he passed intelligence to the Allies and misinformed his boss (with, for example, exaggerated estimates of British defenses after Dunkirk). Bassett turns up no evidence Canaris was a British agent, but others continue to suggest it. The British became more wary after the Nazi invasion of Russia, for fear of upsetting Joseph Stalin, who believed the Allies might make a deal with Hitler—just as he had.

That Canaris disliked Hitler was no secret to Heinrich Himmler and to the SD under Reinhard Heydrich, a bitter rival of Canaris. Heydrich was on the verge of taking over the Abwehr when assassinated in Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1942. Terrible reprisals followed, but his death kept Canaris in office. In February 1944 Himmler finally persuaded Hitler to dismiss Canaris. Under house arrest, Canaris took no part in the July 20 assassination attempt but was imprisoned and ultimately hanged regardless.

Bassett delivers an approving portrait of an officer whose conscience forced him to betray his country, but he concludes that the anti-Nazi hope of saving Germany by ridding it of Hitler was fantasy. The 1918 uprising that deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II hadn't worked out, so the Allies were skeptical of something similar. Worse, anti-Nazis were convinced Western leaders shared their fierce anticommunism. Some did, but there was no chance they would join a democratic Germany in a war with Stalin.

—Mike Oppenheim


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