(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German military intelligence (the Abwehr), has attracted the attention of several biographers and at least one moviemaker. Words such as “inscrutable,” “cryptic,” and “enigmatic” seem to fit him well. On the one hand, he was a dedicated naval officer who fought for his country in two world wars using his considerable naval and intelligence skills to further the military goals of Imperial and National Socialist Germany. On the other hand, he was involved in the opposition to Hitler and Nazism. He provided cover for anti-Hitler activities by several subordinates through his control of the apparatus of military intelligence. Some have seen him as the “guardian angel” of the German resistance, or even more generously as its “inspiration, patron, and brains.”

Heinz Höhne provides us with a very balanced picture of this remarkable man. A West German journalist on the staff of the massive news magazine Der Spiegel, Höhne has several other books to his credit, most notably Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. In the lengthy work reviewed here, he tells us three stories. One is the biography of a patriotic officer who trained for the Kaiser’s navy, hated the revolution which overthrew the Second Reich, and served the Third Reich with professional competence. The second story is that of World War II espionage and counterespionage, intricate in its detail and more fascinating than any James Bond thriller because we see its careful documentation. Third, and perhaps most gripping of all, is the story of the opposition and resistance to Hitler in the very highest circles in Berlin. As Höhne develops these three stories, he shows how an understanding of each is vital to the comprehension of the other two. These three stories will be discussed below in reverse order.

The history of the resistance to Hitler has been the object of intensive research by several excellent historians. Nevertheless, certain problems remain, both because some of the facts are in dispute and because interpretations on such crucial questions as motivation vary widely. By its very nature, a conspiracy leaves no clear trail of documentary evidence behind it. Post-1945 testimony is open to challenge as being self-serving, because once the Führer’s Reich had ignominiously fallen, many wanted to clear their names. Nevertheless, Höhne is able to show conclusively how Canaris was opportunistically loyal to the regime until 1938, when the dismissal of Generals Blomberg and Fritsch through a trumped-up scandal brought him to question Nazi rule. The outbreak of war and the extermination policy of the Einsatzgruppen (SS murder squads) in Poland aroused both his moral indignation and his fears that Hitler had led Germany into a conflict which it could not win. Therefore Canaris protected his subordinates Hans Oster, Hans von Dohnanyi, Josef Müller, and others, who plotted Hitler’s overthrow and who made contacts abroad on behalf of the resistance. He remained personally uninvolved, and he apparently kept himself intentionally ignorant of the details of their activities.

Höhne points out that an important factor in the attitudes of the opposition was the distinction in German law between Hochverrat (high treason) and Landesverrat (betrayal of the country to a foreign enemy). The first was limited to plotting against a particular regime; many a military officer, including Canaris, thought this was quite appropriate during the Third Reich, given Hitler’s own revolutionary disregard of the due process of law. Betrayal of the country to a foreign enemy, however, was considered to be a heinous crime by Canaris and most of his fellow officers. He was quite willing to aid subordinates in establishing surreptitious connections with foreign powers for diplomatic purposes, but he became enraged when he...

(The entire section is 1598 words.)