Book Review: CANARIS: The Life and Death of Hitler's Spymaster


by Michael Mueller

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007. Pp. xvi, 368. Illus., notes, index. $34.95. ISBN: 159114101X

The Enigma that was Wilhelm Canaris

A biography of the chief intelligence officer of the Third Reich, Wilhelm Canaris (1887-1945), who would end his life executed Hitler for his role in the “July Plot” against Hitler. 

Unlike most accounts of Canaris’ life, this work by journalist and intelligence historian Mueller, first published in Germany in 2006, devotes far more attention to the man’s early career.  Nearly a third of the book deals with Canaris’ life before Hitler came to power in Germany, with a fairly detailed look at his career in the Imperial Navy, both afloat, most notably in the light cruiser Dresden during the First World War, and particularly as an intelligence operative. It covers his involvement in post-war anti-republican movements, including the Freikorps, and covert efforts to subvert treaty limitations on the German Navy.

A great deal of the book is devoted to Canaris’ views on and activities during the rise of Hitler, and this is the most valuable part of Mueller’s account.   In his often detailed treatment of the man’s services to the Third Reich, Mueller tends to agree with earlier biographers that Canaris’ personal vision of German nationalism was the basis of his support for the Nazis. In short, once the regime diverged from his vision, and plunged Germany into an unwinnable war, Canaris bent his efforts toward trying to salvage something from the disaster, which ultimately led to his death. This part of the book isfull of double dealing, covert contacts, peace feelers, secret missions, and, high stakes bureaucratic machinations, and, of course, plots against the regime. 

Mueller has given us the most comprehensive account of Canaris’ life and work, clearing away some of the myth that had clung to the man (often due to his own efforts, he apparently enjoyed being a man of mystery), and will prove valuable reading for anyone interested in intelligence operations, the Nazi regime, or either world war.

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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