|German Sailors and Officers on Station in the Orient, 1912|
When writing his memoirs after the military and political collapse of the German Empire in November 1918, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who can rightly be called the builder of the Imperial German Navy, still remembered an encounter with an unknown English woman in Gibraltar some fifty years earlier. Boarding one of the very few German warships, which lay in the harbor of this outpost of the British Empire, and seeing a number of ratings, this woman exclaimed in astonishment, "Don't they look just like sailors?" When Tirpitz, a young sub-lieutenant then, asked her what else they should look like, she replied bluntly, "But you are not a seagoing nation."
|Battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg Surrendering with High Seas Fleet, 21 November 1918|
Tirpitz, a representative of the most powerful nation on the continent, obviously regarded this answer as a humiliation, for his memoirs somehow still reflect his embitterment about this event. However, there can be no doubt that this woman, though perhaps in a slightly arrogant manner, had only stated a simple fact—while the German army was the strongest in Europe, marching from one victory to another, the navy had contributed nothing to the wars of unification, and unlike the army, it was a negligible quantity internationally.2 It is the aim of this paper to analyze the reasons for this insignificant role of the navy in mid-nineteenth century Germany, to describe the course of naval history in the years between the unification in 1870–71 and the final defeat of the Empire in 1918, as well as the changing importance of sea power for government policy, for naval strategy, and for the public, and, finally, to discuss the contribution of the attempt to become a sea power both to German greatness and fall.
Michael Epkenhans, "Imperial Germany and the Importance of Sea Power,"
Naval Power in the Twentieth Century, 1996