Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tirpitz's Influence Began to Wane in 1912

Since he came to office in 1897, Tirpitz had consistently striven toward several goals. One was to build a fleet to deter a British attack on German trade and seaports. A strong fleet, he hoped, would induce the British to come to terms with Germany on world economic matters. Indispensable to such a strategy was the ironclad support of Emperor William II. Tirpitz's ability to get a longtime financial commitment from the Reichstag for a series of navy laws assured his monarch's favor. Before 1897, Reichstag recalcitrance had made that impossible.

Grand Admiral von Tirpitz at the Time of His 1916 Resignation

The German tax system permitted no nationwide direct taxes. The upper classes refused to submit themselves to democratic finance, unlike the more flexible British. Also, beginning in 1911, the sleeping giant, the German Army, slowly awakened. Since the 1890s the army, which saw deterrence of domestic disorder as one of its main functions, had deliberately limited its growth. Burgeoning population growth and urbanization meant more workers than loyal peasants in the ranks, and more bourgeois officers, since the traditional supply of aristocratic officers was shrinking in proportion. Militaristic pressure groups, more fearful of Germany's powerful neighbors than of insurrection, began to clamor for army expansion. By 1911 the navy was taking one third of the defense budget. Tirpitz saw the handwriting on the wall that the army would now be a formidable competitor for relatively scarcer tax revenue.

Although some historians believe that Tirpitz intended to undermine the Reichstag, more recent research suggests that he manufactured Reichstag consent more by courting the parliamentarians than by threatening them. Crucial was his consistent and successful wooing of the Catholic Center Party, which held the balance of power in the Reichstag for most of Tirpitz's 19 years in office. Complicating his relationship with the politicians were the hair-raising cost increases for shipbuilding, especially after he decided to follow the British dreadnought initiative. Passage of the 1912 amendment marked the last time Tirpitz was able to finesse the cost question past the Reichstag.

Inept German diplomacy, most recently during the Agadir Crisis in 1911, drove Britain and France closer together when the German intention had been to drive them apart. While Tirpitz had sometimes used past crises when it suited his purpose to advance the navy law, he had usually opposed high profile diplomatic initiatives because he wanted to “build and keep quiet". The principal exception was when he felt the navy law threatened such as the abortive Haldane Mission of early 1912. Pressure from Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to ease Anglo-German tensions forced Tirpitz to limit the 1912 Navy Law amendment to a two-tempo from 1912 to 1917 with only an additional two ships more during that period. He despaired that the permanent three-tempo, due to resume in 1918, was dead forever.

Tirpitz's domination of other branches of the navy, though still strong, was for the first time under serious attack. Seagoing officers forced him to deviate from his previous single-minded concentration on capital ship construction to take more account of submarines and to give a substantially increased priority to preparedness.

Another long-term nightmare for Tirpitz was the looming menace of the new class of British dreadnoughts, the five Queen Elizabeths, the first two of which—HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Warspite—were laid down late in 1912. They were fast, oil-fired, and had eight 15-inch guns. For Germany to follow suit quickly with similar ships would be so expensive as to exceed even Tirpitz's legerdemain with the politicians. It is therefore not surprising that from 1912 on Tirpitz's expectations for the future became ever more pessimistic.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Admiral von Tirpitz, and General von Moltke
Aboard the Battleship Friedrich der Grosse, 1912

By 1912 the naval arms race was abating. Tirpitz publicly stated that 1912 was his “last” amendment to the navy law. Naval arms talks between Britain and Germany ended. Since no one was planning any further great initiatives, tensions eased. British patriotism, its purse, and its tax system had beaten back the German challenge. In Germany attention turned to army expansion, accomplished by the great army bill of 1913. France and Russia soon responded, and the optimistic military war plans that led to the crisis of 1914 continued to evolve.

The events of 1912 particularly demonstrated how dysfunctional was the German system of government. There was no coordination in war planning between the navy (which wanted the army to invade Denmark and ignore Belgium) and the army (which wanted to invade Belgium and ignore Denmark). Needed was a wise emperor who might have been able to see the mortal danger of the Schlieffen Plan and the value of preserving the peace.

When war broke out, aware of Germany's inferior number of capital ships, Tirpitz became a vocal spokesman for unrestricted U-boat warfare. He felt the strategy could break the British stranglehold on Germany's sea lines of communication.  When the restrictions on the submarine war were not lifted due to diplomatic pressure from the United States, he fell out with the Kaiser and felt compelled to resign on 15 March 1916.

From:  "1912: Naval Issues" by Patrick J. Kelly


  1. Fine post.
    Why was Tirpitz cool on submarines?

    PS: awesome look Tirpitz gives Moltke in that photo.

  2. I look at them and think boys with their toys and they would kill millions for what..