GHDI logo

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

In his memoirs, Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930) looks back on the arms race that led up to World War I. He faults both German diplomacy and British animosity for the escalation of tensions between the two industrial powers. For Tirpitz, the Moroccan crisis of 1911 was the single most unfortunate event in Anglo-German relations.

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 5


In the first few years of its encirclement policy, England did not take Germany’s fleet construction program seriously. It was convinced that Germany would not be able to build a first-class fleet with its limited budget. The English believed that our technology was under-developed and that we lacked sufficient organizational experience. They were accustomed to seeing us fail, since a large number of Prussian and German naval plans had never made it past the planning stages. It was only in 1904 that they looked at our naval program anew. Contrary to my wishes, we presented all our ships to Edward VII at the Kiel Regatta Week, and the Kaiser toasted “the renewed maritime power of the newly created German Empire.” King Edward responded coolly and, when inspecting our ships, exchanged meaningful glances and words with Selborne, the first lord of the Admiralty. These exchanges were disagreeable to me. It was an unpleasant shock to the English that we had accomplished so much with limited funds and that we had developed an organic process that was more methodical than their own. In this area, too, they felt threatened by the Germans’ manner of work, patiently laying stone upon stone [„Stein-auf-Stein-Tragen“].

Lord Fisher subsequently ordered a concentration of British naval power against us, and in February 1905, this action was underscored in a speech by Arthur Lee, the civil lord of the Admiralty. For no good reason, Lee stated that the British Navy, if necessary, would carry out an initial strike before anyone on the other side of the North Sea would have time to read in the papers that war had been declared. England’s behavior in 1904-05 demonstrated that, at the time, she was strongly disposed toward delivering a single military blow that would destroy the entire foundation of Germany’s international standing. Her disposition toward war is perfectly understandable if one considers that war posed no risk for England at the time. In 1905, the admiralty hoped to counter our nascent naval undertaking by building the dreadnought class, operating under the assumption that the German navy would not be able to bring similarly large ships through the North Sea Canal.

This chain of political and maritime threats, accompanied by a campaign to rally public opinion against us, justifiably alienated a broad cross-section of German society. On the one hand, England’s maritime measures were an acknowledgement that she was taking our fleet construction program seriously. On the other, her nearly decade-long desire for our political submission was well known, and our fleet was too small to justify a program involving the concentration of British squadrons in the North Sea. This move was clearly intended to intimidate us and, if possible, to put an end to our drive for independence in world politics.

As a consequence, I was pressured by various sides in 1905-06 to effect a substantial increase in the strength of the German fleet with the goal of both arming ourselves against the threat of war with Britain and teaching the British a political lesson. The Kaiser, who was heavily influenced by a Navy League campaign to this end, also wanted me to demand of the Reichstag that the service life of our large ships be shortened. As the result of a parliamentary misunderstanding, service life had been fixed at 25 years in the Naval Law, which was longer than in foreign navies and resulted in an aging fleet.

first page < previous   |   next > last page