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England and the German Fleet: Alfred von Tirpitz looks back on the Naval Race (1920)

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It was the first serious diplomatic defeat since Bismarck had taken over political leadership, a defeat that hit us all the harder because the fragile edifice of our international standing was not yet based on power but primarily on prestige. This had proved effective during Delcassé’s removal (1905), but now we were shown how much it had been eroded. If we had simply accepted this slap in the face, it would have exacerbated France’s proclivity for war, its “new spirit,” and we would have exposed ourselves at the next turn to an even worse humiliation. So it was a mistake to try to hide the rebuff we had suffered, which was what the imperial leadership wanted to do, rather than openly acknowledging it and drawing conclusions from the mistake. If a state knows that its citizens’ well-being rests not on whitewashing the facts, but on power and prestige, there is but one means to restore its reputation in such situations if it wants to avert war. It must show that it is not afraid—and simultaneously safeguard itself more effectively against defeat in the face of increased likelihood of war. We needed to do what Bismarck had done in similar cases, namely, to introduce a military bill, and we needed to act calmly and without resorting to provocation.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I traveled to Berlin in autumn. I told the chancellor that we had suffered a diplomatic defeat and that we had to remedy it with a naval amendment. The chancellor denied the “defeat”—a term that greatly offended him, as he later told the chief of the Naval Cabinet—and he feared that an amendment would lead to war with England.

The amendment that I had in mind was not predicated on an actual increase in the size of our fleet, but on the improvement of its readiness for deployment. One of the weaknesses of our naval strength rested in the short service period and the change of recruits each fall, which crippled the fleet’s ability to strike during a particular period of the year. We were ultimately able to improve our military readiness without a major increase in vessel numbers by activating a reserve squadron, which meant that three squadrons would be constantly in service instead of only two.

Since this enabled us to keep nearly all members of a crew on the same ship during their service, we were also able to simplify our severely strained basic sea training and to free up the officer corps for deep sea navigation and other previously neglected higher duties. It proved necessary to go easier on the personnel, who were quickly worn down by monotonous duty, so that the men moving up the ranks would retain the necessary strength. These organizational reforms necessitated the construction of just three additional ships in the span of twenty years, and they allowed us to improve the quality of the navy for a very small amount of money.

No expert on British politics would have thought that the addition of three vessels in the span of twenty years would provoke England to go to war if had not already decided to do so of its own accord. Naturally, our ambassador, Count Metternich, did not anticipate the danger of war as a result of these actions either. Nonetheless, due to the desire of the imperial leaders to accommodate England, the request in the amendment for three ships was reduced to two after long negotiations with the constantly vacillating chancellor – negotiations that were influenced by a visit to Berlin by Haldane, the English minister of war.

This was the first, the last, and an entirely insubstantial enlargement of our fleet compared with the naval plan of 1900. As I have already noted, in 1906 we merely renewed the 1900 bill, and in 1908 we did not increase the number of ships at all.

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