Wilhelm Canaris’ role as the head of the Abwehr, German military espionage, before and during World War II has been openly debated since his execution by the Nazis in 1945. Some historians argue that he supported the Nazi regime when it was convenient and others who argue he was always in opposition to Adolf Hitler and saw himself as trying to save western civilization from the twin evils of Nazism and Communism. Richard Bassett posits in HITLER’S SPY CHIEF: THE WILHELM CANARIS BETRAYAL that Canaris had a tremendous impact on the course of the war by building an efficient intelligence system that refused to engage in the evil practices of the Gestapo and SS; further he should be credited for altering the course of the war through his support of General Franco against Hitler’s goal of seizing Gibraltar, thereby saving the Mediterranean Sea for the British navy; and lastly, his deliberate over-estimation of British forces available in his intelligence estimates after Dunkirk being the vital factor in delaying and cancelling the Nazi invasion of England and ultimately causing the defeat of Germany. There is an element of truth in all of these assertions, however they rest on somewhat dated sources and should be grounded in further research. The author presents many theories in the form of conjecture, and to his credit he tries to present both points of view, but then does not reach totally viable conclusions, i.e.; Canaris’ role in possibly achieving an Anglo-German demarche in 1943. After reading the book I am not certain how pro-Nazi Canaris really was and to what level did his anti-Semitism reach. Despite these drawbacks there are aspects of the book that are praiseworthy.
Bassett does an excellent job exploring the ideological and policy fissures that developed between Carnais and the Head of the SD, Reinhard Heydrich. Their relationship takes up a significant portion of the book ranging from Heydrich’s attempt to foment military purges in the Soviet Union in 1937 that resulted in Carnaris questioning the goals and tactics employed by the Nazis. Bassett follows their competition for control of the German military intelligence community that pitted the Abwehr against the SD closely as Carnaris saw himself as the antithesis of “the Butcher of Prague” who would be assassinated by Czech and Slovak agents working for the British in 1942. The author’s discussion of Canaris’ relationship with Winston Churchill is important and the conclusion seems to be had the British Prime Minister followed Carnaris’ lead perhaps the war could have been prevented in 1938 or at least ended in 1943. These suggestions are supported somewhat, but are not totally convincing. Another area of interest is Canaris’ interactions with “C,” Sir Stewart Menzies, the Head of British Intelligence during the war. Bassett alludes to a close relationship that impacted strategy, but does put forth enough supporting evidence to make his assumptions totally viable. Overall the book is an interesting read, but the author should rely on more up to date secondary sources and greater primary materials in support of his theories to gain further credibility.