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 Wilhelm Canaris was born in Apelbruck in 1887, the son of a wealthy industrialist. He joined the German Imperial Navy in 1905, inspired in part by his belief that his ancestor was Constantine Kanaris, the Greek admiral, though he later learned this was not so. Nonetheless he did well in the navy, serving on the SMS Dresden as an intelligence officer during World War I. He managed to help the Dresden evade capture by the British after the Battle of the Falkland Islands in late 1914, though they were forced to scuttle the ship when the British eventually caught up with them in March of 1915. Most of the crew was taken prisoner, he managed to escape imprisonment in Chile in August, thanks in great part to his fluency in Spanish. Some German merchants smuggled him back to Germany, and he was given intelligence work in Spain, which he completed despite an attempt on his life by the British. In the last years of the war he was put in charge of a U-boat in the Mediterranean, and was credited with 18 sinkings. In 1919 he married his wife Erika Waag, with whom he had two daughters.  

Character Evolution

After the was he remained in the army, serving in the Freikorps and later the Reichsmarine. By 1931 he had been promoted to captain, and was later Executive Officer of a cruiser and later still a Commanding Officer of a battleship, as well as becoming re-involved with intelligence work. In 1935, after Adolf Hitler had risen to power, Canaris was put in charge of the Abwehr, Germany's intelligence agency, even though he was not a member of the Nazi Party. It was due in large part to him, and his spy network in Spain, that Germany got involved in the Spanish Civil War on the side of dictator Francisco Franco. By 1938 Canaris had begun to doubt Hitler's policies, believing they would lead Germany to ruin. It was at this point that he became involved in working to counter the Nazi agenda, secretly convincing Franco to forbid German passage through Spain to Gibraltar by a combination of his connections and simple bribes. He was also involved in two separate assassination attempts, in 1938 and 1939, that failed due to a lack of British support. In 1939 he engineered the "Dutch War Scare" in the hopes that creating a belief in England that an attack from Germany was imminent would change British foreign policy to one oriented against Hitler. It ultimately led to Neville Chamberlain sending troops to defend France. During these two attempts he worked closely with MI6.  

World War II  

Reinhard Heydrich, a protege of Canaris' from the navy, began to keep a close watch on his old friend, hoping to gain some power over the Abwehr. Canaris cooperated only insofar as it gave the Abwehr more power. He kept detailed notes on Hitler's plans, the war crimes that he observed and which were reported to him. He sent the former to MI6 agents, and kept the war crimes notes in a personal diary. After massacres in Poland in 1940, he went to Upper Silesia to register a formal complaint with Hitler himself, but was told by one of Hitler's generals that Hitler himself had planned the massacres. Disgusted, Canaris began to throw himself more deeply into his plans to overthrow Hitler, at greater and greater personal risk. Despite this, he maintained a facade of support for the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) led by Heydrich, and was promoted to Admiral in 1940. He was in frequent contact with British agents, through his frequent visits to Spain and later in occupied France, where he learned that if he was to get rid of Hitler, the British would only accept unconditional surrender. In Prague, Heydrich arrested a man, Paul Thummel, on whose behalf Canaris intervened, claiming he was a double agent. Though Heydrich suspected he was an MI6 contact, no action was taken against Canaris or the Abwehr. Canaris was involved in rescuing a number of people, including Jews, either by smuggling them into Spain or giving them "training" as Abwehr agents and then obtaining documents that would allow them to leave the country. It is possible that Heydrich's 1942 assassination was done in part to protect Canaris.  
Heinrich Himmler, who had long suspected Canaris of being a double agent, finally succeeded in his campaign to have him removed as head of the Abwehr in 1944. Canaris was placed under house arrest shortly thereafter, leaving him unable to participate in the 20 July plot. However, a man who had participated, a confederate of Canaris', was found to have in his possession documents detailing a plan to overthrow the Nazi high command and arrest and imprison Hitler that had been created by Canaris prior to his capture. Other Canaris-led plots were found to have been initiated and covered up when they failed. Nonetheless, Himmler and Hitler both had reasons to keep Canaris alive, Himmler because he hope to use Canaris' British contacts to negotiate a peace in which he was Germany's leader, and Hitler because he hoped to extract the names of more conspirators from Canaris. Eventually, however, he was sent to a court-martial and sentenced to death. He was executed by hanging on April 9th, 1945, mere weeks before the end of the war.  

In Other Media

A 1954 movie, Canaris, was based on his memoirs. He is briefly mentioned in the Colin Forbes novel The Heights of Zervos (1970). He was played by Anthony Quayle in the 1976 movie The Eagle Has Landed. He is mentioned in the Frederick Forsyth novel The Odessa File, though the method of his execution is incorrectly given as by firing squad. He appears as a willing conduit for British misinformation in the 1980 novel The Paladin by Brian Garfield. In The Unlikely Spy (1996) by Daniel Silva, Canaris was involved in an infiltration that was intended to gain information on the invasion of Normandy.

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