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Useful Notes / Abwehr

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The Abwehr was the official intelligence and counterintelligence service of the German military between World War I and World War II. Within Nazi Germany, it was progressively eaten up by the SS's own intelligence organization, the Sicherheitsdienst (the Security Service or SD), in 1944. The Abwehr's original job was to keep spies out of Germany, hence its name (lit. 'Defence').

The Abwehr is not remembered as a terribly competent organization, with good reason. It had to fight against several rival agencies with similar competencies from the moment Hitler came to power, and as the most apolitical alternative in the highly political atmosphere of Nazi Germany it had to fight these battles at a disadvantage. It produced perhaps one great success story, but even this was largely wasted in that it could not be exploited for much of anything. There was also the matter of a large number of members of the Abwehr being ardent anti-Nazis who were disturbed, to say the least, by the directions in which the other agencies were taking Germany. Perhaps most damning of all was their utter deception by British counterintelligence with the Double Cross Committee: the Abwehr not only failed to generate useful intelligence information, but grievously harmed Germany by believing what the Allies wanted them to and convincing others of its truth.


It was led by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who is mainly remembered for having either been a part of or aware of and tacitly supporting the German Resistance against Hitler. Most of his considerable talent was spent on sabotaging his own organization and recruiting every anti-Nazi he could find.

Although his membership is not widely known, the most notable Abwehr agent by a long shot is none other than Oskar Schindler.


Tropes applying include:

  • Cassandra Truth: The Abwehr did discover the code phrases sent by the Western Allies to the French Resistance that indicated the invasion of France was soon to come. When the Germans picked up the broadcasts of these messages, they were largely ignored, partly due to bureaucratic red tape, and partly due to the idea that there was no way the Americans and British would risk telling the French underground when the invasion was coming.
  • Chew Toy: Honestly, the Abwehr seems to have been everybody's Chew Toy. It was unloved by everyone and Canaris was not considered an effective leader or forceful enough to fight the opposing agencies for resources and jobs.
  • Defector from Decadence: A number of Abwehr agents fit this trope. Histories of the organization note that many people who volunteered to spy for them simply wanted to get out of Germany. Others, including some of what they thought were their best agents during the war, had always intended to betray them at the first possible opportunity and acted as double agents from the moment they were recruited.
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  • Enemy Civil War/Inter Service Rivalry: The Abwehr vs SD, and to a degree, Abwehr against the Nazi Party in general. Many Abwehr leaders, including Canaris and his deputy, Hans Oster, actually worked against the Nazis while running the intelligence bureau. Among others, Oster actually told his Dutch colleague when exactly Germany would launch the offensive against the Low Countries and France in 1940, just a few days before the actual invasion (see La Résistance below).
  • Flock of Wolves: Admiral Canaris spent most of his time sabotaging his own organization, hiring the agents who were most fervently Anti-Nazi and sabotaging any who actually believed in the Nazi cause. The British successfully managed to make moles out of every German agent in Britain.
  • La Résistance: While not actively engaged as an organization in this, a large number of the Abwehr's leadership up to and including Canaris were involved in or aware of and took no action against the German Resistance.
  • The Mole:
    • In the greatest example of organized Moledom in history, the British captured and turned every German agent in the UK, creating the Double-Cross System to manage them all and manipulate German perceptions. Most Abwehr agents were already anti-Nazis (Canaris et. al. made sure of that) and went to England with the explicit intent of defecting. The truly Nazi spies were intentionally betrayed in short order.
    • The organization was finally brought down by an SD Mole, who infiltrated a prominent anti-Nazi group. One of the members of the group was connected to a husband-and-wife pair of prominent Abwehr agents; fearing for their lives, they defected and the story was publicized by British propaganda. Canaris was hauled onto the carpet by Hitler and the Abwehr was dismantled by dinnertime.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Inverted. They rationalized their behavior by distinguishing Germany from the Nazi government; thus, the country wasn't wrong, but the leaders were completely insane and pretty much counted as the enemy. Consequently, they had less-than-realistic hopes for Allied peace terms and hoped that the bulk of Germany's empire and strength could be maintained.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The Abwehr are barely remembered to this day and certainly not with the same dreaded reputation as the Gestapo or the SD. For many who do remember them, including those formerly in British Intelligence, they were regarded as an incompetent joke who may as well have been sabotaging their own operations.... Except, of course, they were, since they were effectively being run by the anti-Nazi resistance. Which may count as a Double Subverted trope, if you think that means they were really incompetent to have become so compromised as that (but then again, the Abwehr preceded the Nazi takeover, unlike their rival intelligence organizations).

    The branch of the Abwehr which co-operated with the Fremde Heeres Ost (FHO or "Foreign Armies East") department of the Heer's (Army's) General Staff is remembered as having been fairly competent in the circumstances, though the FHO's assessments as a whole still more often than not failed to reflect reality until early 1943 and directly contributed to the failures of 1941-2. Details of the Abwehr branch's activities remain murky and the entire FHO, including its leader Reinhard Gehlen, was recruited by US intelligence services after the end of World War 2. Unsurprisingly the FHO branch had taken care to make copies of its archives and place them in secret locations around West Germany so they could exchange them for their own safety. Gehlen later became the head of the BND, the postwar (West) German intelligence service.
  • The Rival: To the SD, the Intelligence bureau of the SS, founded and headed by Reinhard Heydrich, who was something of A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil for Canaris, who regarded him (correctly) as their most dangerous and calculating opponent.
  • The Valet Did It : The legendary agent Cicero, who gave the Germans information, was a valet of the British ambassador. Though Cicero may have been reporting to the SD rather then the Abwehr.


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