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The Abwehr was a German military intelligence (information gathering) organization from 1921 to 1944. The term Abwehr ([ˈapveːɐ̯], German for defence) was used as a concession to Allied demands that Germany's post–World War I intelligence activities be for "defensive" purposes only. After 4 February 1938, its name in title was Foreign Affairs/Defence Office of the Armed Forces High Command (Amt Ausland/Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht).
Despite its name implying counterespionage, the Abwehr was an intelligence-gathering agency and dealt exclusively with human intelligence, especially raw intelligence reports from field agents and other sources. The Chief of the Abwehr reported directly to the High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW). Intelligence summaries and intelligence dissemination were the prerogative of the Operations Branch (as distinct from the Intelligence Branch) of the OKW, and through it to the intelligence-evaluation sections of the Army (Heer), the Navy (Kriegsmarine), and the Air Force (Luftwaffe). The headquarters (HQ) of the Abwehr were located at 76/78 Tirpitzufer, Berlin, adjacent to the offices of the OKW.
The Abwehr has a poor reputation for the quality of its work. The American historian Robin Winks says that it was, "an abysmal failure, failing to forecast Torch, or Husky, or Overlord." English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper says it was, "rotten with corruption, notoriously inefficient, [and] politically suspect." He adds that it was under the "negligent rule" of Admiral Canaris, who was "more interested in anti-Nazi intrigue than in his official duties." For the first two years of the war, Trevor-Roper says, it was a "happy parasite" that was "borne along...on the success of the German Army." However, as the tide turned against the Nazis, the Abwehr was unable to produce the intelligence the leadership demanded, and it merged into the SS in 1944.
The Abwehr was created in 1921 as part of the Ministry of Defence (Germany) when the German government was allowed to form the Reichswehr, the military organization of the Weimar Republic. The first head was Major Friedrich Gempp, a former deputy to Colonel Walter Nicolai, the head of German intelligence during World War I. At that time it was composed of only three officers and seven former officers plus a clerical staff. By the 1920s it was organized into three sections:
The Reichsmarine intelligence staff merged with the Abwehr in 1928.
In the 1930s, with the rise of the Nazi movement, the Ministry of Defence was reorganized; surprisingly, on June 7, 1932, a naval officer, Captain Konrad Patzig, was named chief of the Abwehr, despite the fact that it was staffed largely by Army officers. But perhaps not surprisingly, due to the small size of the organization and its limited importance at that time, it was unsuitable for a more ambitious army officer. Another possible factor was that naval officers had more foreign experience than their Army counterparts and understood more of foreign affairs. However, all three services eventually developed their own intelligence staff.
Because of Abwehr-sponsored reconnaissance flights across the border with Poland, Patzig soon had confrontations with Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. Army leaders feared that the flights would endanger the secret plans for an attack on Poland. Patzig was fired in January 1935 as a result, and was sent to command the new pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee; he later became Chief of Naval Personnel. His replacement was another Reichsmarine captain, Wilhelm Canaris.
Before he took over the Abwehr on 1 January 1935, the soon-to-be Admiral Canaris was warned by Patzig of attempts by Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich to take over all German intelligence organizations. Canaris, a master of backroom dealings, thought he knew how to deal with them. But even though he tried to maintain an at least cordial relationship with them, the antagonism between the Abwehr and the SS did not stop with Canaris at the helm.
It came to a head in 1937 when Adolf Hitler decided to help Joseph Stalin in the latter's purge against the Soviet military. Hitler ordered that the German Army staff should be kept in the dark about Stalin's intentions, for fear that they would warn their Soviet counterparts due to their long-standing relations. Accordingly, special SS teams, accompanied by burglary experts from the criminal police, broke into the secret files of the General Staff and the Abwehr and removed documents related to German-Soviet collaboration. To conceal the thefts, fires were started at the break-ins, which included Abwehr headquarters.
Canaris reorganized the agency in 1938, with the Abwehr being subdivided into three main sections:
Abwehr liaisons were also established with the Army, Navy and Luftwaffe High Commands, and these liaisons would pass on specific intelligence requests to the operational sections of the Abwehr.
Abwehr I was commanded by Colonel Hans Pieckenbrock, Abwehr II was commanded by Colonel Erwin von Lahousen and Abwehr III was commanded by Colonel Egbert Bentivegni.
Under the structure outlined above, Abwehr placed a local station in each military district in Germany, ("Wehrkreis"), called 'Abwehrstelle' or 'Ast'. Following the German Table of Organisation and Equipment model of Abwehr headquarters, each Ast was usually subdivided into sections for
Typically each Ast would be commanded by a senior Army or Naval officer and would be answerable to Abwehr HQ. in Berlin. Operations carried out by each Ast would be in tandem with the overall strategic plan formulated by Admiral Canaris. Canaris in turn would receive instructions on what intelligence gathering should take priority from the OKW or, increasingly after 1941, the Führer, directly. In practice however, each Ast was given considerable latitude in mission planning and execution - a facet of the organisation which ultimately damaged its intelligence gathering capability.
Each local Ast could recruit potential agents for missions and the Abwehr also employed freelance recruiters to groom and vet potential agents. In most cases, the agents who formed the Abwehr were recruited civilians, not officers/soldiers from the military. The recruitment emphasis seems to have been very much on quantity not quality. The poor quality of recruits often led to the failure of Abwehr missions.
In neutral countries the Abwehr frequently disguised its organisation by attaching its personnel to the German Embassy or to trade missions. Such postings were referred to as "War Organisations" ("Kriegsorganisationen" or "KO's" in German). In neutral but friendly Spain for example, the Abwehr had both an Ast and a KO while Ireland had neither. In friendly countries of interest, occupied countries, or in Germany itself, the intelligence service would normally organise "Abwehr sub-stations" ("Abwehrleitstellen" in German or "Alsts" in German), or "Abwehr adjoining posts" ("Abwehrnebenstellen" in German). The "Alsts" would fall under the jurisdiction of the geographically appropriate Ast, which in turn would be supervised by the Central division in Berlin.
During his reorganisation, Canaris took care to surround himself with a hand-picked staff, notably his second-in-command, Hans Oster and Section II Chief, Erwin von Lahousen. All but one were not members of the Nazi party. The exception was Rudolf Bamler, who was appointed as chief of Section III by Canaris to gain the trust of Himmler. Canaris did make sure to keep Bamler on a short leash however, and restricted his access to operational information. Canaris had good reason to do this because unknown to the High Command and Hitler, during his reorganisation Canaris had peppered the chief operational and administrative staff of the Abwehr with men more loyal to him than to the Nazi Government. While outwardly Canaris appeared to be the model of intelligence-gathering efficiency, evidence exists that he secretly opposed, and actively worked against the wishes of his Commander in Chief. Canaris, Oster and the Chiefs of Abwehr sections I.,II., and III. were all heavily involved in what the Security Police Sicherheitsdienst were to later dub "The Black Orchestra" ("Die Schwarze Kapelle" in German), a plot to overthrow the Nazi regime from the inside. Canaris's operational decisions, his choice of appointments and their decisions, and crucially for the Third Reich–the input each plotter had into Abwehr operations, are all tainted by these secret dealings.
Under Canaris the Abwehr expanded and proved relatively efficient during the early years of the war. Its most notable success was Operation Nordpol, which was an operation against the Dutch underground network, which at the time was supported by the British Special Operations Executive. In March 1941, the Germans forced a captured SOE radio operator to transmit messages to Britain in a code that the Germans had obtained. Even though the operator gave every indication that he was compromised, the receiver in Britain did not notice this. Thus the Germans had been able to penetrate the Dutch operation and maintained this state of affairs for two years, capturing agents that were sent and sending false intelligence and sabotage reports until the British caught on. On the other hand, evidence published by Anthony Cave Brown in Bodyguard of Lies suggests that the British were well aware that the radios were compromised and used this method to feed false information to the Germans regarding the site of the D-Day landings.
But the Abwehr was ineffective overall for several reasons. Much of its intelligence was deemed politically unacceptable to the German leadership. Moreover, it was in direct competition/conflict with SS intelligence activities under Reinhard Heydrich and Walter Schellenberg. The animosity between the SS and Abwehr did not stop there. Many of the Abwehr's operatives—including Canaris himself—were in fact anti-Nazi and were involved in many assassination attempts against Hitler, including the most serious one on July 20, 1944. Canaris even employed Jews in the Abwehr (a good example is the story of the Geographer Paul Borchardt and used the agency to help a small number of Jews to escape from Germany into Switzerland. Another contributing factor was that by 1941 British code-breakers at Bletchley Park had managed to decipher the Abwehr hand cypher, and all the wireless transmissions of Abwehr field agents were read at Bletchley Park. In early 1942 the Enigma machine code was also broken; thus all secret radio messages were intercepted. An interesting piece of evidence on the atmosphere within the Abwehr is revealed by the post-war interrogation report of Thomas Ludwig (Theodor Levin), an officer at AST Istambul. Levin stated that "With Admiral Canaris one could work with a good conscience ... he would never demand of an Abwehr officer anything which his conscience would forbid him to do. Canaris stressed this at any meeting of Abwehr officers and constantly forbade, in the severest terms, any 'murder organisation' under his command."
The Abwehr was active in North Africa during the Desert Campaigns of 1941-42. Major Witilo von Griesheim was sent to (Italian) Libya in early 1941 to set up AST Tripoli (code name WIDO). He soon set up a network of agents and wireless stations gathering information in Libya and in the surrounding French territories. Simultaneously, an Abwehr commando under the command of Major Nikolaus Ritter was sent to Libya in February 1941 (including the Hungarian desert explorer László Almásy with a mission to gather intelligence from British occupied Egypt. After Ritter's injury and departure Almásy took command, and organised the 1942 Operation Salam which succeeded in delivering two German agents to Egypt across the Libyan Desert behind enemy lines. The Abwehr was also responsible for Sonderkommando Dora, a mostly scientific mission based in Hun (Libya) to study desert topography and terrain and assess results for military use.
Canaris made the United States one of Abwehr's primary targets even before America's entry into the conflict. By 1942, German agents were operating from within all of America's top armaments manufacturers. Operation Vinland, a particularly intriguing case, centered around a female Abwehr agent who infiltrated a US Naval shipyard in the Midwest (Evansville, Indiana) but escaped. The Abwehr also suffered a very public debacle in Operation Pastorius, which resulted in the executions of six Abwehr agents sent to the United States to sabotage the American aluminum industry.
The Abwehr's effectiveness was impaired by agents who aided the Allies in whatever covert means were necessary. Canaris personally gave false information which discouraged Hitler from invading Switzerland (Operation Tannenbaum). He also persuaded Francisco Franco not to allow German forces to pass through Spain to invade Gibraltar (Operation Felix).
The SS continually undermined the Abwehr by putting several Abwehr officers under investigation, believing them (correctly) to be involved in anti-Hitler plots. The SS also accused Canaris of being defeatist in his intelligence assessments, especially on the Russian campaign. One such briefing reportedly resulted in Hitler seizing Canaris by the lapels, and demanding to know whether the intelligence chief was insinuating that Germany would lose the war.
On 10 September 1943, the incident which eventually resulted in the dissolution of the Abwehr took place. The incident came to be known as the "Frau Solf Tea Party."
Frau Johanna (or Hanna) Solf was the widow of Dr. Wilhelm Solf, a former Colonial Minister under Kaiser Wilhelm II and ex-Ambassador to Japan. Frau Solf had long been involved in the anti-Nazi intellectual movement in Berlin. Members of her group were known as members of the "Solf Circle." At a tea party hosted by her on 10 September, a new member was included into the circle, a handsome young Swiss doctor named Reckse. It turned out that Dr. Reckse was an agent of the Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo), to which he reported on the tea party, providing several incriminating documents.
The members of the Solf Circle were tipped off and had to flee for their lives. But they were all rounded up on 12 January 1944. Eventually everyone who was involved in the Solf Circle, except Frau Solf and her daughter (the Countess Lagi Gräfin von Ballestrem), were executed.
One of those executed was Otto Kiep, an official in the Foreign Office, who had friends in the Abwehr, among whom were Erich Vermehren and his wife, the former Countess Elizabeth von Plettenberg, who were stationed as agents in Istanbul. Both were summoned to Berlin by the Gestapo in connection with the Kiep case. Fearing for their lives, they contacted the British and defected.
Hitler had long suspected that the Abwehr had been infiltrated by anti-Nazi defectors and Allied agents, and the defection of Vemehren after the Solf Circle arrests all but confirmed this. It was also mistakenly believed in Berlin that the Vermehrens absconded with the secret codes of the Abwehr and turned them over to the British. That proved to be the last straw for Hitler. Despite the efforts of the Abwehr to shift the blame to the SS [Schutzstaffel], or even to the Foreign Ministry, Hitler had had enough of Canaris and he told Himmler so twice. He summoned the chief of the Abwehr for a final interview and accused him of allowing the Abwehr to "fall to bits". Canaris quietly agreed that it was "not surprising", as Germany was losing the war.
Hitler fired Canaris on the spot, and on February 18, 1944, Hitler signed a decree that abolished the Abwehr. Its functions were taken over by the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt or, RSHA) and Major General of Police Walter Schellenberg replaced Canaris functionally within the RSHA. This action deprived the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) and the anti-Nazi conspirators of an intelligence service of its own and strengthened Himmler's control over the military.
Canaris, by this time a full admiral, was cashiered and given the empty title of Chief of the Office of Commercial and Economic Warfare. He was arrested on 23 July 1944, in the aftermath of the "July 20 Plot" against Hitler and executed shortly before the end of the war, along with Oster, his deputy. The functions of the Abwehr were then totally absorbed by Amt VI, the SD-Ausland, a sub-office of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA, which itself was part of the Schutzstaffel or SS.