Basic options: 

By the late 1890s vast overseas trade and growing dependence upon food and raw material imports made Germany increasingly vulnerable. The weak German battle fleet was unable to protect the influx of essential imports in case of war with the Franco-Russian alliance or Britain. What should the leaders in Berlin do? One option was to keep the German fleet small but to ally with the power that owned by far the largest navy: Britain. But such an alliance would put Germany at the mercy of its most powerful economic rival, hardly an enviable situation. Since the British had no immediate interests on the European Continent, the diplomats in Berlin had little to offer in return. They therefore feared to become the junior partner of the British Empire and to be drawn into its colonial conflicts with other European powers.

A second option was to build a stronger fleet while trying to remain on good terms with Britain. If an alliance between London and Berlin materialized then, Germany would be more of an equal partner. But it remained doubtful whether the British would want to ally with a country embarking on an ambitious shipbuilding program that would create a powerful battle fleet within a days’ trip of the English east coast – especially since this country was already the strongest trade rival of the British Empire and had the strongest army.

Another problem was that naval buildup was not easily made plausible to the German people. To ensure Reichstag majorities for high naval budgets would be difficult. The Social Democrats refused to grant military expenses on principle, and so did most left liberals. To make concessions to the Left in exchange for naval support, however, would have threatened the regime itself. So it needed to search support from the centrist and right-wing parties.

The Catholic Center Party was undecided, while the agrarian conservatives foresaw that large-scale fleet building would further increase industrial power at the expense of the already diminishing agrarian sector, their own economic base. Without pointing to a powerful naval threat — Britain — it seemed difficult to rally the right-wing and centrist parties behind naval rearmament. Anti-British feeling was notorious among the anti-liberal conservatives and the more radical German nationalists. To make fleet building plausible to this audience would not have been easy while Germany was in alliance with Britain. All of these factors made the second option — building a German battle fleet while being allied with Britain — problematic, but not impossible. It would have required extraordinarily farsighted and sensible politicians, whereas Wilhelm II appointed many mediocrities and only a few good though hardly extraordinary politicians, with Tirpitz as a possible exception.

The third option, fleet building without any commitment to Britain, involved a high risk. Historians have argued that fleet building against Britain made the encirclement of Germany and Austria by the other great powers a logical development. Probably it was not only fleet building itself, but the anti-British propaganda used by the German admirals, that made German naval buildup poisonous for the relations between London and Berlin. For a long time it seemed possible that the Royal Navy would destroy the German fleet within the five to ten years it needed to become strong enough to defend itself. Such British action would have represented an act of international piracy, but that did not prevent it from being discussed by high officials of the Royal Navy. Something like a precedent for such an action existed: in a surprise coup in 1807 the British had captured the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in order to prevent the French from taking it over. Denmark at the time was a neutral country but was about to be forced into the French orbit. Fears of a new “Copenhagen” were widespread among German leaders from 1904 to 1910. Some of them therefore repeatedly hoped to bargain naval limitations for a political rapprochement with London, thus to switch over to the second option. But alienation between Germany and Britain and British agreements with Germany’s antagonists soon prevented this alternative.

Tirpitz’s commitment to battleships:
As mentioned before, fleet building was a delicate issue in German domestic politics, too. Until 1897, when Tirpitz was appointed naval minister, Wilhelm II and his advisors had tried to have the Reichstag approve money for as many ships as possible (the Reichstag still had yearly budgetary power over the navy; the army budget was determined only every fifth year). These efforts to enlargen the fleet all lacked success since the German navy had no convincing strategic concept for a role beyond coastal defense and because the army was considered the mainstay of German defense.

Tirpitz, however, had a long-term concept. First, he wanted to invest heavily in one form of vessel: the heavy battleship. Coal still being the essential ship fuel, shipbuilders had two options: they could build cruisers with large coal bunkers but fewer guns and thin armament. These cruisers could travel far without having to recoal. They were fast and mobile but vulnerable in a big sea battle. The other option was to concentrate on heavy battleships. With small coal bunkers but heavy armament and the most powerful guns, these vessels could destroy cruisers, but due to their limited range they had to remain near the home waters or coaling stations overseas. Tirpitz claimed that Germany, having few naval bases overseas, was best advised to concentrate battleships in the North Sea and the Baltic.

This decision was crucial because it created a concentration of sea power that, according to historian Paul Kennedy, would put a sharp knife right at Britain’s throat. Although Tirpitz was reluctant to admit it in public, he made it clear in private that the German battle fleet should be a lever for colonial concessions by the British Empire and a deterrent for a British attack. To those critics who argued that Tirpitz’s battle fleet could neither defend Germany’s overseas commerce nor its colonies Tirpitz replied that the mere existence of a strong battle fleet indirectly shielded German colonies and trade all over the world despite the battleships’ narrow range of operation.

Battleship building relied on two strategic assumptions widely shared at the time: first, that a modern sea war would lead to an all-out battle in an early phase of war. This would allow the victorious power to sweep the enemy from the seas and thus gain a decisive advantage in any war. Second, the Germans and most others expected that the British, in case of war, would establish a blockade near the German coast. A powerful battle fleet would thus give the Germans enough opportunity to attack the enemy piecemeal and slowly reduce his superiority. The expected all-out battle, moreover, would take place near the German bases, which would give the Germans strategic advantages.

The navy laws:
Unlike his predecessors, Tirpitz decided to organize naval buildup by law. He thought that only a law establishing the size of the German fleet by class of vessels and the number of ships to be built within the next years would ensure continuous and consistent fleet building and avoid the need to barter the money for each ship against other requests by the parties in the Reichstag. A long-term plan, moreover, could convince the Reichstag deputies that Wilhelm II did not simply want more ships because he was fond of them (“luxury fleet”). Rather, Tirpitz suggested a systematic plan.

The first naval law, presented to the Reichstag in late 1897, succeeded and showed that Tirpitz was a highly effective politician. He assembled around him a “brain trust” for all strategic questions, and he staffed a bureau for public relations with clever experts who started a propaganda campaign for the navy law. Unlike most other German politicians of his time, Tirpitz took the Reichstag and the public seriously. In long discussions with Reichstag members he won the support of a majority of the deputies, who were impressed with his competent, rational argumentation and his charisma. The first navy law passed the Reichstag against the votes of the Social Democrats and the left liberals in March 1898. The decisive factor in this success was the backing of the Catholic Center Party.

The combination of massive propaganda and intensive negotiations with Reichstag members remained successful. In 1900 Tirpitz made use of widespread anti-English feeling in Germany provoked by the Boer War to demand further naval increases. Under public pressure, the Reichstag passed a second navy law which prescribed a doubling of the German fleet by 1907. It was the Second Navy Law which started to worry Britain. In 1905 the British introduced a new, heavier battleship, the “Dreadnought,” and embarked on ambitious fleet building programs themselves. Tirpitz reacted by convincing the Reichstag to vote for further increases of the German navy in 1906, 1908, and 1912. He limited the service of his ships to 20 years, so he could replace the older ships by the new Dreadnought types.

Tirpitz’ goal was a fleet of sixty-one capital ships (battleships and large cruisers) to be built by 1920. Given the replacement age of twenty years, three capital ships would be built every year. The navy would thus keep up its strength and become independent of the Reichstag’s budgetary rights. By building a navy through law Tirpitz hoped to take direct control over shipbuilding away from the Reichstag. Historian Volker Berghahn argues that this was an assault on parliamentary rights in general and that Tirpitz wanted to stabilize the semi-authoritarian political system against the challenge of socialists and democrats, whereas critics of Berghahn have argued that Tirpitz merely wanted to achieve for the navy what the army had always taken for granted since Bismarck’s days: relative independence from parliamentary constellations.

Tirpitz’s strategic program:
Three terms are crucial for the strategic part of the Tirpitz plan: ‘risk theory’, ‘alliance value’, and ‘danger zone.’

  • ‘Risk theory:’ Tirpitz oriented his naval strategy toward the major sea power of his period, Britain. He expected that Germany would not need to outbuild the Royal Navy in order to pose a threat to Britain, since British sea power was committed worldwide. If the Royal Navy accepted a battle with a numerically inferior but modern German fleet, it would probably win, but it would suffer such heavy losses that another sea power — presumably an ally of Germany or a rival of Britain — would then be able to destroy the victorious British fleet. Thus Britain would run a risk if it went to war with Germany, and its diplomacy would have to take a more supportive attitude toward German colonial aims. A comparatively small but efficient German battle fleet concentrated in the North Sea would represent a diplomatic lever and deterrent. Tirpitz assumed that the German ships would be superior to the British vessels and that their crews would be better trained.
  • The ‘alliance value’ of the fleet posited that a strong German fleet would make Germany an attractive ally for other rivals of Britain. Even if Germany’s fleet-building program did not win new allies, Britain itself, for safety’s sake, would maybe ask for an agreement with Germany. Tirpitz was sure that Britain would not be able to keep pace with Germany in a naval arms race. He believed that the strong influence of Parliament in London and, as he saw it, the selfish ‘shop-keeper mentality’ of the British people would refuse the great national sacrifice necessary to preserve naval hegemony. Thus fleet building would either win new allies for Germany or bring Britain around.
  • The ‘danger zone’ meant the period during which the German fleet would not yet be strong enough to make an attack by the British fleet a significant risk (Copenhagen). Tirpitz advocated cautious diplomacy toward Britain, but he was in a quandary because his naval building program drew much popular support and a plausible justification from anti-English sentiment.
  • No doubt, the fleet-building program was pointedly anti-English. Tirpitz was convinced that Germany could achieve world power only through rivalry with the British Empire. Since Germany had not many colonies and hardly any coaling stations cruiser warfare did not make sense. Germans could achieve world power only by concentrating a great battle fleet at a short distance from the strongest sea power.

The domestic goals of the Tirpitz Plan:
Berghahn sees the Tirpitz Plan as a deliberate strategy to divert demands for democratic reform and to counteract the rise of Social Democracy. The boom of heavy industry should enable employers to satisfy trade union demands without too much disadvantage, and fleet building might create a wave of national pride that would woo at least some workers away from socialism. I am not sure how much Tirpitz himself believed in this goal. He mentioned it often enough, but it is possible that he just expressed it to win the support of the Conservatives, who initially disliked fleet building because it strengthened industry and drew resources away from the army.

More important than the anti-Socialist bias of the navy laws was their effect on the alliance of iron and rye, which had been badly shaken in the Caprivi years. In the course of the debates about the two navy laws Tirpitz helped to restore the alignment of the Prussian agrarian nobility with the parties of the upper bourgeoisie and the industrialists as well as the Center Party. The government, with the help of Tirpitz and Bülow, won the Conservatives over by reintroducing protective agricultural tariffs. The first and second navy laws indeed helped the creation of a long-lasting governmental bloc in the Reichstag and thus enhanced political stability in Germany.

The failure of the Tirpitz Plan:
In the long run, the Tirpitz Plan reached almost none of its declared goals. If the risk theory had made sense in 1897, it became questionable as Britain concluded agreements with one rival sea power after the other (1902: treaty with Japan; 1904: Entente Cordiale with France; 1907: agreement with Russia). It was hard to imagine which fleet would now have an interest in destroying the remainders of the Royal Navy after its battle with the Germans. German fleet-building was an important factor in bringing about Germany’s diplomatic isolation. British governments took up negotiations with Germany in 1908 and 1912, but they just wanted to stop the naval arms race and were not willing to conclude an alliance.

The idea to use the German fleet as a lever to receive colonial concessions from Britain also failed, since the British succeeded to preserve and even increase their naval superiority between 1904 and 1914. The German fleet never even became strong enough to leave behind the ‘danger zone.’ The British alliances, moreover, allowed the Royal Navy to concentrate most of its ships in home waters, and it became likely by 1911 that Britain would establish a far blockade instead of a narrow one. The German admiralty could not even take for granted that the British fleet would attack and seek the decisive battle in the first days or weeks of war. Thus not even a battle on conditions favorable to the German fleet seemed likely any more.

In its domestic aims the Tirpitz Plan was hardly more successful. The Social Democrats increased their vote in the elections of 1898 and 1903. In 1907 they were beaten after an electoral campaign which had centered on extreme nationalism and imperial expansion, but their loss was due more to their revived radicalism in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1905 than to nationalist propaganda. In 1912, however, the SPD reached its best result (with about a third of the vote) and became the largest party in the Reichstag. The Socialist trade unions grew even more in the period of fleet-building.

But the most serious threat to domestic stability arose from the cost explosion in ship building. Tirpitz broke all his estimates, and fleet-building could not be financed any more from tax revenues after 1902. The government resorted to loans and tolerated a disturbing increase of the state deficit, particularly after Germany began to build Dreadnoughts in 1906. By 1911 the naval program threatened the pro-governmental alliance it had helped to bring about. It was clear that new taxes had to be introduced, but the tax question opened rifts among the parties which had supported fleet-building. Industrialists did not want to augment the tax load of the workers because that measure would have given additional fuel to Social Democratic propaganda. Moreover, the Conservatives and large groups within the other center to right parties felt that too many resources were diverted to the fleet at the expense of the army. To get a majority for the supplementary naval bill of 1912, Tirpitz for the first time had to make substantial concessions.

All in all, the Tirpitz Plan did not reach its declared aims and partly produced the opposite effects. When in December 1912 the German leadership began considering to wage a war at the next international crisis, Tirpitz had to admit that the fleet would not be ready for a war with Britain in the near future. Although he knew that British superiority would increase in the following years, he did not push for a start of war as soon as possible. It became clear to Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the General Staff, that German war plans for the immediate future had to disregard the fleet, and Tirpitz lost much of his prestige within the German leadership. When war broke out in August 1914 little more than half of the commissioned German ships were ready for combat. Although Tirpitz felt that the war was coming too early, he did not do anything to prevent it, which he could have tried, given the good information he had about the diplomatic negotiations.

As German intelligence reports had foretold, the Royal Navy remained in home waters and established a distant blockade in the Channel and the North Sea between Norway and Scotland. It was too dangerous for the German fleet to provoke a battle far from its bases, and the British, on their side, saw no advantage in risking battle by sending all their ships near the German coast.

Tirpitz almost had a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of the war. While it looked as if the army was on its way to a decisive victory, the fleet lay inactive in its ports. The irrelevance of the German fleet in this short war, he thought, would make it impossible for him to get funding for ships after the war.

German governments operated in a precarious situation between an erratic, idiosyncratic Kaiser, a hostile, partly revolutionary, Left, and a Right that demanded success in foreign policy and advocated a kind of demonstrative nationalism that made it hard for German diplomats to find friends abroad. Failure to push forward a demanding foreign policy would have alienated the Right and threatened the political system, as would concessions to the Left. The Kaiser had to be tolerated in order to conserve the political and social order and political stability, but his influence and often pretentious, arrogant behavior made him more of a liability than an asset for German politics.

Go on to B.4.