Overtures to War
Mention of the Abwehr—the German military intelligence service—is likely to be met with a blank or questioning look. Mention Canaris, its enigmatic head from 1935 through the Hitler years until 1944, and eyes are likely to snap into focus. His veiled, secretive nature eluded definition; he was the perfect spy and his name stands for mystery and for the Abwehr itself. Of course, there was an Abwehr before Canaris. Germany’s military intelligence service dates back to the imperial armed forces, but even now, largely because of Canaris, a fog of mystery hovers over it. In 1935, when an integrated U.S. intelligence service and what was to evolve into the OSS was at most a twinkle in Bill Donovan’s eye, in one incarnation or another, Germany had already had such an entity for twenty-two years.
Understanding both the Abwehr and Canaris is crucial to understanding the role they played in attempting to bring down Hitler and his regime, for which it worked. The Abwehr had a history that set it apart from military operations. In this it found parallels with the American intelligence service begun by William Donovan in 1941 that soon became the OSS and later, the CIA. Independence from the military and in staffing had created an organization that sometimes found more agreement at the top levels of its American counterpart—the OSS—than with the regime for which it worked.
In the buildup to war, and even after, significant American businesses were involved in helping Germany rearm. Many top-level people from both sides knew one another, shared business and personal relationships. Over the course of the war, there was often more agreement among them about what should be done and how, than between the military and policy-making arms of their respective opposing governments. Were they enemies or allies? The relationship was certainly not a partnership in any conventional sense, but it was an odd and fascinating collaboration.
Intelligence: A Vehicle of War
World War I had disastrous aftereffects for Germany and left the nation on its knees. The Treaty of Versailles called for reparations that Germany, not surprisingly, was unable to meet.1 Also, the peace terms, intending to emasculate the German military, stipulated permanent disarmament of Germany and limited the size of the Reichswehr to 100,000 men on long-term service.2 To preempt future aggression, Germany’s fleet was reduced to a coastal defense force. Warplanes, submarines, tanks, heavy artillery, and poison gas were forbidden, and there was to be neither a general staff nor a military intelligence service. German delegates had been excluded from the peace conference and complained that the treaty had not been negotiated, but dictated. The treaty’s onerous territorial and financial demands were perceived as a national humiliation and created a great reservoir of wounded national pride, not to mention poverty and hunger.
The new republican government installed in Germany, named after the city in which its constitution had been drawn up, the so-called Weimar Republic was the unhappy child of war and defeat. Countless political parties struggled to control the new postwar, postimperial government, and it was battered by crushing circumstances. Emerging from the deprivations of a long war, Germany was hit by inflation, mass unemployment, and depression so powerful that all hope was effectively erased for many. Always a fragile vessel, the Weimar Republic veered from crisis to crisis in its short life, from 1919 to 1933. The people’s dream of a popular democracy remained unfulfilled.
The turmoil and distress of the 1920s and early 1930s soon began knitting together the strands of a new war that—Allied intentions notwithstanding—found its origins in Germany. In attempting to disentangle at least some of those strands, the offices of the Abwehr, situated along Berlin’s Tirpitzufer, overlooking the Landwehr Canal, are a reasonable a place to begin this book.
After Versailles, the Allied presumption was that Germany would remain powerless, yet during the Weimar Republic the intelligence service evolved from a handful of officers into a sizable foreign and counterintelligence operation. After Hitler came to power in early 1933, he began a conspicuous rearmament program—with no clear protest from the Allies—from which the military intelligence service benefited enormously. But the Abwehr still stood—as indeed it had always stood—at a significant remove from the German military. The top rungs of the Abwehr were able to function independently in World War II, to the point of becoming a locus of resistance to the Nazi power they ostensibly served.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, in charge of the imperial German high command gearing up for first world war, set little store by intelligence; in his view it “did not win wars” and was only an annoyance.3 But in 1913 Colonel Erich Ludendorff, soon to be Hindenburg’s chief of staff, asked Prussian Army Lieutenant Colonel Walter Nicolai to direct the counterintelligence of the Kaiser’s troops. Nicolai’s outfit functioned as section III B of the Prussian general staff until the beginning of World War I.4 Its focus on reconnaissance of the French and Russian armies and the British fleet was complemented by an outstanding German naval intelligence service that worked in support of submarine operations during that war.
When Hindenburg and Ludendorff usurped the civilian government of the German Reich in 1916, the intelligence service was given unprecedented powers, unmatched even by the much bigger Amt Ausland/Abwehr—the Office of Foreign Intelligence—of later years. As chief of III B, with Ludendorff’s support, Nicolai had authority for secret intelligence and counterespionage, press censorship, and propaganda, and his aggressive expansion of powers into internal policing and the political arena foreshadowed the later tactics of some of Hitler’s inner circle.5 Leftists were not the only ones who referred to him as “the father of the lie.”6 With Germany’s defeat and the dismissal of Ludendorff, Nicolai’s intelligence career ended, and in the postwar turbulence of a new postimperial Germany his empire collapsed quickly.
In contravention of the terms of Versailles, a German general staff rose from the ashes of World War I in the guise of a Truppenamt, or Troop Department. An organ of the Ministry of War, its main mission was to prepare young officers for military service.7 The army command also established a counterintelligence department, officially designated the Department of Army Statistics of the Truppenamt, or T3. In the summer of 1920 the agency moved into what were to become its permanent quarters on Berlin’s Bendlerblock, and was renamed Abwehr—meaning literally “warding off” or “defense”—to differentiate it from its previous, aggressive character.8 However, it, too, violated the Versailles Treaty and so operated inconspicuously. It consisted of only two or three general staff officers, five to seven officers, and a few secretaries and professed a modest goal: protection of Germany’s troops from espionage, sabotage, and putschists, and the extremes of both left- and right-wing forces.
After the war, only 4,000 of the 34,000 officers serving in the Imperial Armies were able to transfer to the far smaller new Reichswehr. Of those, half the generals were monarchist aristocrats with conservative worldviews.9 Army General Hans von Seekt was determined to keep the Reichswehr out of the reach of the government and turn it into an autonomous “state within a state,” insulated from political forces. Soldiers and officers were not to be bogged down in the quagmire of domestic politics, but were to remain apolitical to the point of renouncing voting rights. To that end, the Defense Law of 1921 prohibited all political activity, including membership in political groups.10 The resulting army was distanced from the political system and from Germany’s first republic—a distance that had an enormous and lasting impact on the thinking of its officers.
Under the watchful eyes of the war’s victors, the leaders of the Weimar Republic began to emerge from international isolation and to rebuild the military. In 1922, foreign minister Walther Rathenau signed the Treaty of Rapallo, an agreement with the Soviet Union that opened the door to the resumption of diplomatic relations, extensive commercial exchange, and the renunciation of reparations.11 Western powers were suspicious and feared a German-Russian rapprochement, but with the exception of a few right-wing politicians and army leaders like Seekt, the German government had no intention of collaborating with Communist Russia. Seekt was certainly no communist either, but under this pact, he initiated cooperation between the Reichswehr and the Red Army. In contravention of Versailles, German soldiers began training in Russian tanks and airplanes and testing new weapons.12
The Rapallo Treaty created opportunities within a strict culture of secrecy and concealment: German officers trained in the Soviet Union in airplanes (forbidden to Germany under the terms of Versailles), and the young Heinz Guderian practiced tank tactics that would lay the groundwork for the blitzkrieg victories in Poland.13
In 1932 the Reichswehr counted just over 4,500 officers in all branches of the forces—a figure in compliance with the Versailles Treaty. Most came from the aristocratic and upper-bourgeois elites of German society and would share a visceral loathing of Hitler and Nazi organizations, such as the paramilitary SA—Sturmabteilung—Storm Troops, and the SS—Schutzstaffel—Protective Squadron. Although a small group of officers contemplated military intervention to keep Hitler from taking power as early as 1932 and 1933, the Reichswehr’s political isolation was a serious impediment to action. Their plans failed.14
General von Seekt’s prohibition against political involvement by the military endured. Not only was it still in effect in the spring of 1935, but it was extended to preclude membership in Nazi organizations while on active duty.15 Predictably, this had a substantial effect on the thinking of the leading officers of the German army during Hitler’s rearmament program. The army, and with it the Abwehr, was still effectively distanced from the political system.
As active Nazis entered the service after 1933, things began to change. The number of officers rose to more than 36,000, and the composition of the officer corps was altered significantly. The expansion created deep divisions between the older army officer corps and the waves of Nazis joining the ranks. The disdain of officers representative of the old Reichswehr toward the Nazi newcomers exacerbated tensions and street clashes erupted with members of the SA and the SS.
The Abwehr, too, was affected by this expansion, and its name and status changed several times. Before 1933, France’s massive fortifications along the Maginot Line still seemed an impregnable obstacle to an Abwehr hampered by a lack of manpower and resources, so it turned its eyes and ears east to Poland. Then, as it evolved from a small national defense unit into a well-funded modern intelligence service, it concentrated on the military strength of Germany’s European neighbors and their reactions to Hitler’s politics of rearmament and expansion.
Secret intelligence had always been dominated by the army, and the June 1932 appointment of naval Captain Conrad Patzig as new head of the Abwehr in June 1932 caused a sensation. A naval officer, no matter how qualified, was greeted with distrust—a distrust that was heightened by the still vivid memory of a scandal involving the navy’s Captain Walter Lohmann, who had defrauded the German Treasury of millions in an attempt to build up his own naval intelligence operation, leaving the Treasury 26 million Reichsmarks in debt and the navy’s reputation in tatters. Yet even as Patzig was greeted with suspicion, he was expected to extend his trust and confidence to Abwehr section heads who had always been granted considerable independence and responsibility in the decentralized structure of the organization.
Previously the Abwehr had served as an organ of the Ministry of War on the domestic front, but Patzig’s tenure marked an important shift. The Abwehr now began to develop into a military intelligence service with an expanded role in foreign policy. This was especially true after Hitler became Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933. His shameless flouting of the terms of Versailles met with only feeble protestations from the Allied powers that did little to impede his drive to restore the luster to German military prowess, of which augmented intelligence operations were a feature. For the Abwehr, the Nazi seizure of power meant a dramatic budget increase and an expanding role. But like the army, it still stood at a critical remove from the political system, a factor that played a significant role in Hitler’s seizing and maintaining power.
Patzig quickly recognized the threat posed by Nazi paramilitary organizations—the SS and SD—Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service of the SS)—operating independently of the Wehrmacht. He, like many others, awoke to the SS’s insatiable quest for power with the murders of Ernst Röhm and many brown-shirted Storm Troopers on June 30, 1934. Patzig’s Abwehr predecessor, General Kurt von Bredow, was among the victims on the “Night of the Long Knives,” an operation meticulously planned by Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, and Bredow’s assassination hit many Abwehr officers hard.
After the SS’s eradication of the SA, its main political rivals, simmering tensions between Patzig and the Nazi Party organizations escalated. Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD, the SS intelligence branch, had been pressing Patzig for matters that were not his business, such as a list of secret weapons plants in Germany. There was no list, Patzig replied. Were such a document to fall into the wrong hands it would be far too dangerous. Heydrich complained to Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, Hitler’s minister of war, and continued to press Patzig, who later recalled that “with Heydrich there was always ‘trouble’”—and here he used the English.16 Patzig tried to fend off the Nazis by welding the Abwehr and the Foreign Ministry into a united front, but relations deteriorated to the point where he no longer found any points of agreement with Blomberg.
On December 31, 1934, Patzig asked to be relieved as head of the Abwehr. He preferred to return to active duty in the navy, to take command of the armored cruiser Graf Spee. In a final interview with Blomberg, called the “Rubber Lion” behind his back for the tough demeanor that was intended, but failed, to mask his obvious political malleability, Patzig spoke his mind about recent political developments.
He told Blomberg that, after the death of Hindenburg, “the German people look to you, as the senior officer of the Wehrmacht, in the hope that you can protect them from the encroachment of the SS.17 Today you still command the necessary authority to save the Wehrmacht and the people from these good-for-nothings; in six months, it may be too late.” Blomberg was only in touch with the higher echelons, Patzig said, and had no idea what was really happening in the streets. As head of the Abwehr, he had come to understand that the SS was a catch basin for rootless lives and criminals who would stop at nothing that might enhance their power—not even murder. He could easily have made a deal with the SD or the Gestapo, he said, but doing so would have made him a “traitor to the Wehrmacht” and compromised its independence.18
“I won’t have such remarks, Captain Patzig!” Blomberg shouted. “The SS is an organization of the Führer.”
“Then I regret that the Führer doesn’t know what a bunch of rogues he is in charge of,” Patzig replied.
Asserting his authority, Blomberg insisted curtly that he alone had “political responsibility for the Wehrmacht, and my assessment of the situation is very different from yours. The future will prove who is right.”19
Patzig’s attempt to ward off the Nazis had failed. The Abwehr would need a new and astute leader, and Patzig said he could think of no one better suited than Captain Wilhelm Canaris. There were solid reasons behind his choice.
Copyright © 2006 by Agostino von Hassell. All rights reserved.