Hitler's spies (Yves Bonnet)

Hitler's spies (Yves Bonnet)

Admiral Wihlelm Canaries, chief of the Abwehr, and Reinhardt Heydrich, leader of the SD of the SS, were the two main pillars of the intelligence apparatus of the Third Reich. At the heart of this work, Yves Bonnet proposes to paint a crossed portrait of two men, as different as they are essential in the history of intelligence and the history of the Second World War.

Heydrich and Canaris before Hitler's takeover

The author therefore proposes to retrace the journey of two men with very different trajectories, but sometimes crossed. After good studies, Canaris decided in 1905 to join the navy. He puts his intelligence at the service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, providing information on the colonies and countries visited during his travels and missions. The First World War is for him the occasion of a first contact with the intelligence world, when an injury forced him to be assigned outside the fighting, in Spain. Very marked by defeat, he nevertheless accepts the mission entrusted to him by the Weimar Republic of which he is wary, which is to participate in the restoration of order in the Navy. Nationalist, he compromises himself, in this turbulent era of the end of the war in Germany, with Frankish corps. Assigned to Berlin, he began a career at the General Staff, where he participated in particular in a discreet rearmament of the German Navy. However, the victory of the SPD pushed him to return to sea. In 1931, he was a naval captain.

Enlisted in the Free Corps at the age of 15, Heydrich was then enlisted in the Navy, where he met Canaris aboard the cruiser Berlin. The two men then seem to have a good relationship. He entered the world of intelligence following training as a junior intelligence officer and a promotion in 1926. These misconduct however made him expel from the Navy; He therefore joined the SA (armed wing of the Nazi Party) in 1931, and met Himmler in June. Seduced by this great Aryan, the head of the SS suggested that he create an internal security service, set up in August 1931: the SD.

The rise of the two men

If Canaris was not a supporter of Nazism, he experienced a fairly rapid rise after Hitler took power in 1933. The Nazi regime then had several intelligence services: on the one hand, the Abwehr, which was the intelligence service of the Wehrmacht created in 1919; and the SD, the security service of the NSDAP; the Gestapo, under the direction of Goering, but which quickly passed under the bosom of the SS.

Relations between these different services are not cordial, in particular because of the death of several members of the Abwehr during the Night of the Long Knives, a coup organized by the SS against the SA in 1934. This situation leads to resignation the leader of the Abwehr, thus benefiting Canaris, appointed to its head in January 1935. The latter then tried to smooth things over and promote a clear distribution of tasks: the Abwehr was responsible for military intelligence; the SD of the political police and counter-espionage. Through its networks abroad, Canaris is also used to facilitate diplomatic rapprochements, especially in Italy, but especially with Spanish nationalists. Close to Franco, Canaris greatly contributed to the sending of materials, advisers and information to the nationalist forces.

Several cases have come to plague relations between the SD and the Abwehr: the Toukhachevski affair - named after a Soviet marshal executed following a plot by the SD - the Blomberg-Fritsch affair, as well as the Anschluss (attachment of Austria to Germany) in 1938, which exacerbated tensions between the two services. If they contribute to the distancing of Canaries vis-à-vis Nazism, they only reinforce Heydrich's aura with the most radical fringe. In the entourage of Canaris, a conspiracy against Hitler, led by his deputy General Oster, is organized, without the leader of the Abwehr opposing it. The Czechoslovakian affair once again accentuates the gap, Canaris being opposed to armed intervention.

Canaris and Heydrich facing "the realities of war"

In the second part of his book, Yves Bonnet really gets to the heart of the matter, bringing his two characters into the torments of World War II. The invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, preceded a few days earlier by the German-Soviet pact, upset Canaries, without calling into question his loyalty to the regime. The massacres perpetrated by the men of the new RSHA - the new Central Security Office, bringing together the Gestapo, Kripo and SD, created in 1939 and entrusted to Heydrich - lead to massacres which put Canaries off.

Once Poland is defeated, war is brewing in the West. The Abwehr, however, suffered from a critical lack of intelligence on the French and British armies. Moreover, certain soldiers, wanting to cause the fall of Hitler by a German defeat, would have passed by the means of the Vatican the German invasion plans to the Allies, with the consent of Canaries. On the other hand, Canaris is sent to Spain to push Franco to go to war alongside Germany, an option that the Spanish general refuses.

At the same time, Heydrich is at the heart of the policy of extermination of populations in Eastern Europe. This is concretized by the conference of Wannsee, held on January 20, 1942, and in which Heydrich appears as one of the great architects of the “final solution”, namely the systematic extermination of all the Jews. The tall blond is then at the height of his glory: head of the RSHA, he is also "protector of Bohemia Moravia", a region close to Germany that must be kept well. Traveling between Berlin and Prague, he is a very busy man, acting with unparalleled zeal to crush the Czechoslovak resistance. However, this one organizes from London, an operation to assassinate Heydrich. On May 27, 1942, three resistance fighters organized an attack, injuring Heydrich. However, because of the hesitations and the errors of the doctors, this wound worsens: Heydrich dies of sepsis on June 4, 1942. All the high dignitaries, including Canaries, are moved.

The leader of the Abwehr is more and more torn between obedience to the hierarchy and his desire to respect military conventions: so he participates in particular in the rescue of a few hundred Jews. This is worth to the Admiral to be more and more suspected by certain SS, including Schellenberg, senior official of the SD. More and more distant from Nazism, convinced that defeat is near, Canaris is in an untenable position: Schellenberg, in particular informed of the benevolence of Canaris towards certain opponents of Hitler, contributes to his downfall. On February 12, 1944, Himmler created a unified intelligence service, which de facto led to the disappearance of the Abwehr. Canaris is placed under house arrest. Worse, after the failure of the attack against Hitler on July 20, 1944, he is suspected of being one of the instigators of the assassination attempt. Arrested, he was sentenced to death by an SS court, and was executed on April 9, 1945.

Our opinion

Canaris and Heydrich are undoubtedly the two great figures of intelligence under the Third Reich. They symbolize between them, the duality of the Nazi regime, based on the institutions of the State and the army, and on the other hand on Nazi organizations. One is a traditional, nationalist soldier who is gradually distancing himself from the Nazi regime - a distancing which has contributed to the shaping of a legend around Canaris - and a fanatic and radical Nazi, a great architect of the solution final. The paralleling of their two courses is in this sense rather relevant. The book is well constructed, relatively well written and easily accessible.
We can regret some significant shortcomings: in particular the total absence of bibliographical references, especially since the subject of information is sometimes the subject of the most eccentric publications. This lack does not affect our interest in this book, and that we recommend to anyone interested in the history of espionage and the Second World War.


Yves Bonnet is a great intelligence specialist. This is evidenced by his time at the DST (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, a former French counter-espionage service) which he directed between 1982 and 1985, and the multitude of works he has devoted to this question. Now a writer, he proposes to shed light on a prosperous period for intelligence, by questioning two prominent figures in Nazi German intelligence and emphasizing at first glance the natural link between totalitarian rule and practices of surveillance.

Hitler's spies, by Yves Bonnet. Ouest-France Editions, 2012.