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 was created in 1921 as part of the Ministry of Defence when Germany was allowed to form the Reichswehr, the military organization of the Weimar Republic. The first head was Major Friedrich Gempp, a former deputy to Col. Walther 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, Capt. 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 organisations. Canaris, a master of backroom dealings which were so much a part of life, thought he knew how to deal with them. But even while 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. 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.
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.
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 Adolf Hitler, directly. In practise however, each Ast was given considerable latitude in mission planning & 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 lead 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.
But it 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 and used the agency to help a small number of Jews to escape from Germany into Switzerland. But perhaps the biggest reason was that Canaris himself sought to undermine the Nazi cause.
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. A particularly intriguing case centered around a female Abwehr agent who infiltrated a US Naval shipyard in the Midwest (Evansville, Indiana) but escaped and was never apprehended. Despite a very public debacle codenamed Operation Pastorius that resulted in the executions of six Abwehr agents sent to the United States to sabotage the American aluminum industry, the Abwehr scored some notable successes in America. Its greatest victories where in the area of industrial espionage, as agents managed to steal the blueprint for every major American airplane produced for the war effort.
Despite the Abwehr's many intelligence coups, its effectiveness was more than negated by agents who — with Canaris's blessing — aided the Allies in whatever covert means were necessary. He 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). He even provided intelligence to the Allies on German intentions as well.
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 resulting in Hitler seizing Canaris by the lapels, and demanding to know whether the intelligence chief was insinuating that Germany would lose the war.
Frau Johanna (or Hanna) Solf, the widow of Dr. Wilhelm Solf. Dr. Solf was 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. The new member was an attractive 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 and turned over 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.
It was 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 Protective Sqadron (Schutzstaffel, or SS) 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 into bits". Canaris quietly agreed that it was "not surprising", as Germany was already 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 Security Head 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 Vice Admiral, was cashiered and given the empty position 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 the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD). The SD was a sub-office of the RSHA which itself was part of the Protective Sqadron (Schutzstaffel, or SS).