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The Fleet and Anglo-German Relations: Rear Admiral Tirpitz to Admiral von Stosch (February 13, 1896)

Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930) was Admiral of the German navy and chief architect of the massive increase in naval armaments in the years before the First World War. He argued that sea power was the key to becoming a great power. A large navy to match Germany’s new found industrial strength would challenge British dominance. This naval build-up provoked British animosity.

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I have received Your Excellency’s kind letter dated the 12th of this month and will hasten to reply. Having just returned to Kiel, I only now have the chance to express to Your Excellency my cordial thanks for the highly instructive and interesting letter of December 25, 1895. My time in Berlin was completely consumed by very urgent and unexpected affairs. I would like to inform Your Excellency in complete confidence and for Your Excellency’s ears alone that I had the opportunity to present Your Excellency’s opinions at the highest level, including Your Excellency’s view on the necessary naval developments. I am hopeful that the matter will be pursued where it was abandoned in 1883. Perhaps I will be able to provide Your Excellency with more details at a later date. As Your Excellency already knows, my appointment as squadron commander to Asia is now uncertain. I am saddened by this, since it was my great desire to go. It would have done my nerves a great deal of good to be relieved of this taxing intellectual activity for a while and to distance myself from Madrid. I must wait and see what fate has in store. As for the Transvaal matter, in contrast to the general public and our political leadership, I believe that we have blundered. England is doing nothing about America’s affront not only because of what it fears might follow but also because America is an unpleasant opponent; and Germany is paying the price since it currently lacks any substantial naval power. At the moment, our policies only build on the army as a genuine foundation, but the army only has a direct impact on our national borders. Beyond these borders it only has an indirect impact through the pressure exerted from here. Our politicians do not understand that in many cases the value of an alliance with Germany, even for the states of Europe, does not rest on our army but on our navy. For instance, if Russia and France oppose England on a matter, the support of our fleet is of little significance. But if England has a Pittite understanding of policy, she will prefer Germany as an enemy over a strictly neutral Germany. As an enemy, we will always be a highly prized object; in the event of our neutrality, we will profit extraordinarily as England’s rival. The English are well aware of this. Up to now, our policies have completely overlooked the political significance of naval power. Yet if we want to go out into the world and increase our economic strength at sea, we will only construct a hollow edifice if we do not obtain a degree of naval strength. If we go out into the world, we will find either existing interests or interests that will be claimed in the future. These make conflicts of interest inevitable. Now that the prestige of 1870 has faded, how can even the cleverest policies accomplish anything without real power that reflects the diversity of interests? Naval power is the only politically versatile type of power there is. This is why we will always end up getting shortchanged politically, even if there is no war. We must bear in mind that England probably no longer believes we will send our army into battle against Russia for her benefit. On the other hand, if Germany is the one paying the price, England can make Russia considerable concessions—in East Asia, for instance. This is the danger that we will face if we get entangled in a conflict involving Russia, France and England. Even if we were to say that we would not wage war over transatlantic interests, the other three states would not come to the same agreement, and we would continue to operate at a political disadvantage. Much more can be said on these matters; I at least wanted to allude to the fact that I did not form my opinion on the current Transvaal question without long rumination. I naturally had the same view after I had read the telegram to President Kruger in the newspaper. To make matters worse, the telegram was not well edited: since England has the right to approve any treaties this state enters into with foreign countries—which we do not contest—we were not able to offer the Transvaal our help.

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