The Abwehr was the German military intelligence organization from 1866 to 1944. The organization predates the emergence of Germany itself, and was founded to gather intelligence information for the Prussian government during a war with neighboring Austria. After initial successes, the organization was expanded during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Under the direction of Wilhelm Stieber, Abwehr located, infiltrated, and reported on French defensive positions and operations. The Prussians claimed victory, largely because of the success of Abwehr agents. In 1871, Prussia united with other independent German states to form the nation of Germany. The new country adopted much of the former Prussian government and military structure, including the Abwehr.
The intelligence agency was again tested at the out-break of World War I in 1914. German agents worked to pinpoint the location and strength of the Allied forces, helping the German forces to invade and progress through northern France before stalemated trench warfare began. New military technology changed the nature of espionage. Agency director Walther Nicolai recognized the need for a modernized intelligence force and reorganized the department to include experts in wire tapping, munitions manufacturing, shipping, and encryption. The agency tapped enemy communications wires, intercepting and deciphering Allied dispatches with measured accomplishment. The Abwehr sent several agents to spy on the manufacture of poison gas in France, and tracked munitions production and shipping in Britain. The organization sent saboteurs to disrupt the shipment of arms from America to Allied forces in Europe. Several ships were sunk in transit after being identified by agents as smuggling arms. German agents, often acting on information collected by Abwehr, set fire to several American weapons factories and storage facilities. While the Abwehr was generally successful, the loss of the German codebook to British intelligence somewhat undermined the agency’s ultimate efficacyduring the war.
After World War I, the Abwehr ceased operation under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. The intelligence service was re-established in 1921. When the Nazis gained control of Germany in the 1930s, some members of the intelligence agency began to spy on their own government. The Nazis created a separate intelligence organization, the Sicherheitsdienst , or Security Service, headed by Reinhard Heydrich. In 1935, the new Abwehr director, Wilhelm Canaris, and Heydrich reached an agreement about the roles of each agency, but both trained and maintained their own espionage forces. Canaris reorganized the Abwehr into three branches: espionage, counter-espionage, and saboteurs. He appointed three distinguished Abwehr agents to lead the branches, but only on condition that they were not members of the Nazi party. This aroused the suspicion of rival Security Service. The two agencies came into conflict on several occasions, and as Heydrich gained power, he persuaded the government to investigate members of the Abwehr for espionage and treason. Several members of the Abwehr were arrested in 1939. Though a handful of the agency’s highest ranking officials were active as double-agents or as members of the Resistance, the organization as a whole continued its espionage operations on behalf of the German government.
At the outbreak of World War II, Abwehr resumed operations similar to those carried out during World War I. The agency was in charge of tracking troops and munitions transports, tapping wires and intercepting radio messages, and infiltrating foreign intelligence and military units. Abwehr placed two operatives inside the British intelligence agency for two years, and developed a highly successful encryption device called the Enigma machine. Agents tracked and monitored various resistance movements in occupied Europe, and even sabotaged military and government strongholds behind Allied lines.
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. Abwehr scored perhaps its greatest victories in the area of industrial espionage, as agents managed to steal the blueprint for every major American airplane produced for the war effort.
One of the Abwehr’s responsibilities during World War II was the extraction of information from prisoners of war. While Abwehr agents remained largely in control of seeking strategic information from British, French, and American prisoners, the Nazi government issued a special directive to various branches of the military regarding Russian prisoners of war. The Commissar Order, as it became known, instructed the Army to handle Russian prisoners as harshly as they deemed necessary for the retrieval of military information. At one time, German concentration camps held more that 1.5 million Russian prisoners. Canaris himself raised several objections to this policy, largely on the grounds that it undermined the authority and efficacy of his agency and could cripple the German war effort.
In 1944, Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, assumed control of Abwehr after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler and several other high ranking Nazi officials. Himmler suspected that the plot was the work of agents inside the government, most especially the Abwehr. The July Plot also exposed the work of those Abwehr agents who had intentionally leaked sensitive information to the Allies. Several agents, including Canaris, were charged with treason and executed. The Abwehr was then dissolved.
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