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Canaris: The Life and Death of Hitler's Spymaster

Michael Mueller
Who sups with the devil must use a long spoon ..

Michael Muller's biography of the enigmatic Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (1887-1945), WW2 head of Hitler's Abwehr, was first published in 2005 in German. Here we have a welcome Pen and Sword paperback reprint of the 2007 English translation.

Canaris' early career from being just another watchkeeping officer in a cruiser to escaping back to Germany from internment in Chile to organising espionage cells among German expats all over Latin America to successful U-boat command made most interesting reading. The collapse of Germany and particularly its Navy produced a dedicated German nationalist and virulent anti-communist with a considerable distrust of democracy. We follow Canaris' shadowy, sometimes shady part in the chaos that followed the Armistice, as he learned to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. This segues into Germany's deliberate default on the Versailles treaty, with Canaris, amazingly for a junior naval officer, negotiating for the building of U-boats and torpedoes in Spain including the international finance to support that. The narrative continues with its attempt to penetrate Canaris' labyrinthine process of intrigue, disinformation and (sometime successful) double-dealing in the background of the Spanish Civil War and the Czech and Austrian crises.

Canaris (like Beck and many other generals) knew that a war, particularly against Britain, would be a disaster for Germany and came to know that the Fuhrer's military interventions were toxic. Hence the fizzled-out 1938 plot to assassinate Hitler, and the failed bomb plots of March 1943. Ironically the July 1944 plot only failed because of a minor physical obstruction and that was maybe a good thing as the German generals, left to themselves, might have kept the war going longer. Canaris may have been one of those who harboured the conceit that Germany could do a deal in the West and then take on Stalin, but the put-downs on this score were explicit.

However anti-Hitler his views, Canaris still had to appear to deliver, and to be a convincing Nazi in public - survival demanded that morality take second place to expediency. What he was really up to is hidden as his diaries and notes did not survive their last minute - April 1945 - discovery, which finally earned him a piano wire necklace. Why he was protected by Himmler in 1944 remains a mystery; my own theory has Canaris facilitating currency dealings for Himmler, but if there were any surviving evidence of this I am sure the author would have dug it out. Brilliant in many ways, nevertheless one needs good luck in one's life and when that ran out, it was bad luck that got Canaris in the end. The account of the vindictive humiliations and cruelty attending his final captivity is interesting but of course only a shadow of what thousands were subjected to, and often died of, at the hands of thousands of other Germans elsewhere in the Reich.

There are some curious, even disturbing parallels to be drawn from this book such as the hounding of Generaloberst Freiherr von Fritsch on totally false charges, much as Lord Bramall suffered in our own day. Perhaps the police mind possesses attributes that are independent of any political situation.

Sometimes one seems to be drowning in a sea of names and organisational entities but this is probably inescapable, given the scope of Canaris' contacts and of the machinery of the Nazi government, the latter reflecting Hitler's deliberate policy of competitive overlap. However some things are very clear and the reader is left in no doubt as to the ghastliness of German atrocities in Poland and the Soviet Union while their régime thought it was on a roll.

As too often, I had to manage two bookmarks throughout because of relevant asides (including often useful translator's comments) relegated to the 77 pages of notes at the rear of the book. Citations are carefully annotated and are supported by 23 pages of German and British official references and bibliography. The included photographs, besides illustrating Canaris' life and career, show him hobnobbing with Himmler, Goebbels and Heydrich - the last once Canaris' friend and protege´.

This probably the final, definitive attempt to chronicle Canaris and even so trying to find the truth is like trying to grab a hologram. I found this a fascinating book and probably takes us as close to the subject as we shall ever get - he remains an enigma.
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