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The Role of Alfred von Tirpitz in the Anglo- German Naval Race Essay

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What role did Alfred von Tirpitz play in the Anglo-German naval race of World War I, 1890-1914?

For almost a century historians have been arguing over the causes of the First World War. One of the factors regularly discussed is the Anglo-German naval race, which involved the competing construction of the British and German navies between 1897 and 1914. Much of the blame for the consequential building of navies has fallen on the shoulders of the German state secretary of the navy office, Alfred von Tirpitz. The purpose of this internal assessment is to find out what roll Tirpitz played in the Anglo-German naval race. I will research my investigation with some of the many books published about the origins of World War I, including some of Tirpitz’s speeches, letters, and propaganda as well as other key figures of the naval race. The investigation will cover how Tirpitz financed the naval construction, his building strategy, and finally Tirpitz’s naval laws.

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B Summary of evidence

How Tirpitz financed the naval construction

Tirpitz’s entire building strategy relied heavily on his belief that he could build his great fleet without raising taxes or putting any burden on the budget.2 He planned to achieve this with an intensive propaganda campaign, supported by industry and many middle class people. Tirpitz, being an “adroit politician and manipulator of men”, successfully promoted the navy and created effective pressure groups, like the Flottenverein, whose views had to be taken seriously by the government.3 After a lengthy depression, German industry was looking for large investments that were continuous and predictable. To accomplish this, Tirpitz tried to establish constant yearly shipbuilding rates in order to keep factories operating at capacity. He could then argue “in the Reichstag that German industry would suffer a crisis unless it got new ship orders”.4 However, it was the Kaiser’s support that gave Tirpitz the freedom to spend a large portion of the budget on the navy.5

Tirpitz’s naval building strategy

Tirpitz insisted that he be able to implement a plan of steady expansion, where ships were to be built and maintained regardless of cost.6 His plan had three major components: “risk theory”, “alliance value”, and “danger zone”. “Risk theory” was the idea that the German navy would be strong enough that if Britain risked battle, Tirpitz believed, “the defeat of a strong German fleet would so substantially weaken the enemy that, in spite of a victory he might have obtained, his own position in the world would no longer be secured by an adequate fleet”.7 Thus, Britain would be willing to make diplomatic concessions rather than take the risk of a naval conflict.

Therefore, Germany only had to build a navy in proportion to England, of about 2:3, or 5:8.8 “Danger zone” was the period of time when the German fleet was not yet strong enough to deter the British fleet, and might be destroyed in a preventative blow. This led Tirpitz to advise cautious diplomacy towards Britain until the fleet was ready.9 Finally, “Alliance value” was the notion that a strong fleet would make Germany an attractive ally for other rivals of Britain, and maybe even for the British themselves.10 Therefore, Tirpitz believed that the constant building of the navy was an important asset if Germany wanted to become a threat to Britain, and consequentially gain allies.

Tirpitz’s naval laws

Tirpitz believed that only by building the navy by law would ensure continuous and consistent fleet building.11 In 1898 the first naval law was created, calling for the construction of nineteen battleships, eight armored cruisers, and twelve large and 30 small cruisers, all to be built within six years. Tirpitz took advantage of international situations, such as the impact of the Spanish-American War, sentiment against Britain for an incident during the Boer War, and the Boxer Rebellion in China, and introduced the second naval law in 1900. The law doubled the size of the projected navy to a total of, 38 battleships, 20 armored cruisers, and 38 light cruisers, all to be built within 20 years.

This was a direct challenge to the British home fleet that had approximately 32 battleships.12 It also threatened Britain because since 1889 the British navy had been governed by a “two-power standard”, by which their navy had to be stronger than the combined fleets of the next two naval powers.13 The second naval law also threatened Britain because it did not set a cost limit, therefore Germany needed no new legislation to build dreadnoughts.14 Tirpitz again used international crises, like the Moroccan crisis and Britain’s stern response to Germany at Agadir, to pass supplementary German naval laws in 1906, 1908, and 1912.15

C Evaluation of sources

Two of the sources used were:

Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

The English historian, Niall Ferguson, wrote this book in 1999, acquiring most of his knowledge from primary sources and other historian’s books. The purpose of the book is to inform readers of Ferguson’s argument, that the Great War was solely England’s fault, but at the same time, the book is meant to be controversial, and to sell copies. This is one of the main limitations of the book, that the author may have misconstrued some of the details in order to make England look guiltier, and thus sell more copies. In general the book is valuable because it is a secondary source written long after the actual events, so he was able to form an opinion after looking at all different types of information and viewpoints. On the other hand, it is limiting because it is not a primary source; he did not write the book during the event, therefore some of the information could be misconstrued.

Terraine, John, ed. The Great War, 1914-1918. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965.

This book, written by John Terraine in 1965, gives an overview of the events leading up to and during World War One. The author argues, in the introduction, that it was the German militarism that made the war inevitable. The book is very valuable because instead of the author writing his opinion on the events, he informs readers using primary sources throughout the entire book to tell the story. This is valuable because it displays the events when they happened. On the other hand it is limited because it does not have the benefit of using historiography, and the documents could be misrepresentative. There are many photographs used that are also valuable because they capture moments in history in vivid detail, simulating a first-hand experience. However, they could be limiting because certain details could be excluded, which would affect the view of the event.

D Analysis

Importance of investigation in its historical context

The Anglo-German naval race was a significant event that ruined any possible relationship between the two nations before the start of World War I. Although many historians, for instance Ferguson or Fay, do not attribute the naval race to causing the Great War, it is a consensus among historians that by Germany building up their navy and destroying any relationship with Britain, they were simply pushing England into an alliance with France.16 The Entente Cordial simply meant that if Germany was trying to start a war in order to gain more colonies, they had dragged another enemy into the war to fight with. The naval race also caused extreme financial difficulties for both nations, but more specifically, if Germany had given most of its naval funds to its army, it would have had a much greater chance of achieving a land victory in France.17

Analysis of the Evidence

Tirpitz’s acquired his fleet by using intense propaganda, and played off of international crises to acquire more money in order to implement naval laws. He had soon built a fleet that was in direct competition with Britain; however it was never clear what his objectives with the fleet were. Different historians have interpreted the intention of this fleet differently. Ferguson and Fay both argue that the fleet was intended to compete with the British navy in order to have the power over Britain to demand colonies.18 However, Scheck more so argues that the fleet was being built in order to attract any of Britain’s enemies as allies or even Britain as an ally.

19 It is obvious that with both opinions the navy was directed at Britain. This proves that Tirpitz was the aggressor in the Anglo-German naval race, and that he was building the navy to discourage Britain from any direct conflict, and thus would have a stronger voice that could make demands. In addition, the naval construction would attract allies, and be able to support Germany in the coming war. However, Tirpitz’s plan “may have contributed to various British proposals for limiting the navy, it did not intimidate them or cause them no make concessions. On the contrary, it created the atmosphere of suspicion and antagonism” that would lead to a naval race.20

It is obvious that Germany was the aggressor in the naval race; however, many historians have debated over what event it was that triggered the Anglo-German naval race. Herrmann argues that it was Germany’s persistent defiance of Britain over a period of time that set-off the naval race, but it was not one particular event.21 However Tucker argues that it was specifically Tirpitz’s second naval law that initiated the naval race.22 The latter is a very valid point, since it was this law that put Tirpitz’s fleet in direct competition with Britain. Beforehand, the British new that the German’s were beginning to put a navy together, but it did not concern them. Immediately after the passage of the law, the British began to feel pressure from Tirpitz, and responded by building their navy as well. Without Tirpitz’s second naval bill, Britain would not have felt threatened, and therefore would have had no reason to enter a naval race.

Tirpitz undeniably was a key player in the naval race. He pushed the propaganda, founded the Navy League, designed the naval construction strategy, drafted the naval laws, and most important, would not slow down the building process. However, historians have disputed how large a role Tirpitz played. Scheck and Tucker have put complete blame on Tirpitz, saying that he was the man manipulating the Kaiser, Reichstag and the German people, in order to support and fund his naval plan.

23 Contrary to this, Kennedy and Fay believe that Tirpitz and the Kaiser are equally to blame for the naval race.24 They argue that Tirpitz and the Kaiser were the two men who most supported the navy, and that it was the Kaiser’s support of Tirpitz that allowed him to get the funding and support necessary to construct his fleet. The former is a more accurate opinion since it was Tirpitz, and Tirpitz alone who designed the building strategy, and manipulated the government in order to raise funds. It was his aggressive policy that built up the German navy to the point where it posed a threat to Britain, giving them no choice but to retaliate through their own naval construction.

E Conclusion

Tirpitz is solely to blame for the Anglo-German naval race. As Scheck and Tucker have agreed, he was the man manipulating the Kaiser, Reichstag and the German people by using international crises to push propaganda, and implement naval bills. Tirpitz’s naval strategy was directed at defeating Britain with his “risk navy”, in order to “make available the necessary colonial property for the central European states which needed to expand”.25 It was precisely Tirpitz’s Second Naval Bill that competed directly with Britain, thus threatening her imperial position, forcing Britain to increase the rate of her own naval construction. If it were not for Tirpitz’s aggressive naval policy, Germany and Britain would not have been thrown into a costly and dangerous naval race. It was made obvious that Tirpitz was solely to blame, when British War Minister Haldene attempted to negotiate a naval agreement, but Tirpitz made it clear he was opposed to any reductions, and negotiations failed.26

1 Peter Quennell, History Today, November 1968, 53.

2 James Joll, The Origins of the First World War (New York: Longman Group, 1984), 62.

3 Joll, 112.

4 Rafael Scheck, Alfred von Tirpitz and German Right-Wing Politics, 1914-1918 (Boston: Humanities

Press, 1998), 3.

5 David Herrmann, The Arming of Europe and the Making of The First World War (Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1996), 162.

6 The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, 1996 ed., s.v. “Alfred von Tirpitz,” by

Spencer Tucker.

7 John Terraine, ed., The Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965), 226.

8 Sidney Fay, The Origins of the World War (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930), 235.

9 Scheck, 6.

10 Scheck, 5.

11 Jonathan Steinberg, Yesterday’s Deterrent (London: Macdonald and Co., 1965), 126.

12 Tucker, 688.

13 Joll, 63.

14 Scheck, 5.

15 Tucker, 688.

16 Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 70; Fay, 39.

17 Tucker, 688.

18 Ferguson, 84; Fay, 235.

19 Scheck, 5.

20 Fay, 235.

21 Herrmann, 226.

22 Tucker, 688.

23 Scheck, 8; Tucker, 688.

24 Paul Kennedy, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism: 1860-1914 (New Jersey: Unwin Ltd., 1980),

224; Fay, 243.

25 Fay, 235.

26 Joll, 65

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