Canaris was initially a supporter of Adolph Hitler with hope that he would unite and make Germany great again in the grandest tradition, but he soon realized that Hitler's Nazism was not something he wanted any part of. While he was a good military officer, he couldn't as a Christian actively support Hitler's methods and goals and, as such, used his talents to try and temper the impact of Hitler on Germany from his knowledge of military intelligence. He spoke Spanish fluently (he had served at length in Spain during the 1930s civil war in Spain as a German military advisor to Franco) and was influential in Franco not taking control of Gibraltar following that struggle. Canaris knew if Britain maintained that strong Mediterranean control point it would serve well for the British in the coming war.
Why did he do that? It is really quite simple; Canaris loved the British and wanted a grand agreement between Britain and Germany to jointly fight against what he saw as their ultimate joint enemy, the Soviet Union. But, of course, that wasn't in Hitler's plans. Canaris even secretly encouraged the British to not agree to terms at Munich with Hitler, arguing that the German military would overthrow him if external pressure was strongly applied. But we all know that the British under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave Hitler just what he wanted with the result being war between the two countries, for Hitler rightly saw Chamberlain as the weak leader he was. And when Hitler nearly obliterated the British at Dunkirk, the darkest days between the two nations were assured.
Despite that, Canaris modified intelligence reports sent to the Reich to reflect a much stronger British force available on their homefront, tempering Hitler's desire for a quick ground move on English soil. It was a smokescreen and it worked and the Battle of Britain from the air, while devastating, reinvigorated the British spine and kept her alive until Churchill could gain assistance from the Americans. The British weren't afraid to fight, but they needed supplies desperately in order to do so.
So, how does this all tie in with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young theologian who refused to modify his Lutheran message to water down his church teachings by inclusion of Nazi propaganda and in so doing perform a sacrilege on the Bible. Well, while Bonhoeffer continued his ministry, albeit underground, he also worked as an analyst in the Abwehr, thereby able to gain valuable information to keep his flock safe. Canaris, being a converted Catholic and now a devout traditional Lutheran, had to know he was there and what he was doing but he kept it to himself. This gave Bonhoeffer cover, kept him out of the draft and the limelight, and provided the outward cover showing the young minister to be a supporter of the Reich. And despite constant doubts about the Abwehr and its mission by Hitler's henchmen in the SS and the Gestapo (after all, the one giveaway was that Canaris chose no member of the Nazi Party for his service), the operation remained active until shortly after the attempted assassination of Hitler by senior military officers in 1944. Canaris gave tacit approval to that attempt.
Hitler never trusted his military brass, finding them to be haughty and too cautious. His ego made him think that his experience as a Corporal in World War I gave him the tools to direct the war himself, one of the blessings for the West as he greatly overreached. And his military knew this, plus many of them opposed his methodology and his ideology, like Canaris, and this was sure to reach the boiling point. The attempted coup accomplished just that and, as a result, the Gestapo was given authority over the Abwehr and, following extensive interrogations and record searching, evidence was found sufficient to not only imprison Canaris but Bonhoeffer as well.
The irony doesn't end there, for on the same day in April 1945, only twenty-three days before the official German surrender to the Allies, both Wilhelm Canaris and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were executed by hanging in the same German military prison. We don't know if they knew each other personally, but we do know they were aware of one another and both, in their own way, took risks throughout the preceding years that served to temper the madness of Germany as much as they could. I guess we could call it a leap of faith.
The book is an interesting look at the ongoing within the German establishment during World War II. It's a good read for anyone of faith who also enjoys military intrigue. It's a true story, focused primarily on Canaris, but the background ties to Bonhoeffer are compelling for anyone who doubts the power of faith and what it can do to make us active proponents of furthering God's plans. God be praised!
h/t to Mark Tooley, President of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, for critiquing the book in his article, Bonhoeffer's Protector which was published in Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy.