Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930) was secretary of the navy during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Ruthless and determined, he argued repeatedly for the build-up of the navy. By the outbreak of World War I, his efforts had transformed the German navy from a defensive force designed to protect the coast line into a powerful rival to the British fleet, far surpassing other naval powers of the world.
Opinions regarding Tirpitz are divided. Many historians consider him to have been an ultimate failure. They claim that he was unable to gain operational control over the German navy at the beginning of World War I. His policies, especially his marshalling of the First Fleet Act of 1898 through the German Reichstag (parliament), are considered seminal in launching the arms race between Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and France in the early part of the 20th century. Others cite Tirpitz's drive as an outstanding characteristic of a naval leader who responded to the needs of his nation. Both historic factions agree that he was masterful in manipulating public opinion and was an incomparable manager of men, an exceptional administrator, and a matchless negotiator.
Alfred Tirpitz was born on May 10, 1849, in the Prussian town of Kustrin in the province of Brandenburg (now known as Kostrzyn, Poland). His father, Friedrich Ludwig Rudolph Tirpitz, was a Prussian lawyer and state court judge. His mother, Malwine Hartmann, was the daughter of a physician. Tirpitz enlisted in the Prussian navy as a midshipman at the age of 16. After attending the Kiel Naval School, he received a commission in 1869.
Tirpitz was assigned to the flotilla of torpedo boats that provided coastal defense for Prussia and the weak German federation. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming inspector general of the fleet at the time when the Reichstag established a navy for the German empire in the early 1870s. Propelled by his technical skills and talent for managing men, Tirpitz continued his steady climb through the ranks of the German navy. At the beginning of 1892, he was promoted from captain to chief of staff to the High Command, with responsibility for developing tactics for the German high seas fleet.
Through the 1890s, rising international tensions increased as the countries of Europe vied for imperial colonies in Africa and Asia. At several times, Germany seemed to be on the brink of war with England or France. With those concerns, Kaiser Wilhelm pressed the Reichstag for increasing naval power.
Tirpitz, a strong proponent of the idea that naval power was indispensable to attaining international political objectives, rose to higher positions of authority within the Naval High Command as he readily supported the Kaiser's demands and presented arguments in the Reichstag to gain funding for the building of new warships. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1895, and increasingly became a public figure. In 1896, Tirpitz was chosen to command a fleet of cruisers and sent to the Far East to establish a naval base while representing Germany's military and colonial interests in China, Japan, and the Philippines. He established the naval base at the Chinese port of Tsingtao.
After nearly a year in the Far East, Tirpitz was recalled, following a political crisis in Berlin. He was appointed in June 1897 to be state secretary of the Imperial Naval Office by Kaiser Wilhelm. This appointment was part of the complete replacement of the top personnel within the German Reich. In the months leading to June 1897, the German secretaries for Foreign Ministry, State, Interior, Treasury, and Post Office, and the vice president of the Prussian State Ministry, had all resigned, and were replaced by the Kaiser.
On receiving his appointment as secretary for the navy, Tirpitz presented the Kaiser with a report entitled "General Considerations on the Constitution of our Fleet according to Ship Classes and Designs." "Behind the apparently technical character of this memorandum, a fully developed strategy for Germany's navy was concealed, which can be said without exaggeration to have changed the course of modern history," historian Jonathan Steinberg said in Yesterday's Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet. The report presented objectives for Germany to match the naval power of Great Britain, with the building of two squadrons of warships by 1905. Under his plan, Germany would spend 408 million marks, about 58 million marks a year between 1897 and 1905. By 1905, the German Fleet would have 19 battleships, 8 armored coastal ships, 12 large cruisers, 30 small cruisers, and 12 divisions of torpedo boats.
Tirpitz's ambitious plan took the High Naval Command, the Reichstag, and the German public by surprise. The High Command was considering a plan to build a similar fleet by 1910, but Tirpitz boldly undercut their schedule. Articles derived from his memorandum were drafted as a law, known as the First Fleet Act, and prepared for the Reichstag.
In proceedings before deliberating on the First Fleet Act, members of the Reichstag bristled at the huge spending targets. The public initially supported the opposition, but Tirpitz personally lobbied with German princes who wielded great political power and with business organizations for support of his plan. He also had significant support from the Kaiser, from proponents of German unity, and from the sponsors of German imperialism.
Tirpitz submitted a draft of the First Fleet Act, which outlined his plan for the construction of the German fleet and the reorganization of German sea power, to the Reichstag on October 4, 1898. The law was approved in complete secrecy by October 18, with little opposition. Its provisions included the building of a flagship, 16 battleships, 8 armored coastal ships, and 9 large and 26 small cruisers.
Historians see that law as the beginning of a new era. While it was augmented by the Second Fleet Act in 1900, which also was drafted by Tirpitz, the 1898 law marked the start of the arms race and international tensions that exploded in 1914.
The Second Fleet Act also was approved by the Reichstag, and set a more ambitious program to build a larger high-seas fleet. This law called for the building of a fleet that would include 2 flagships, 26 battleships, 11 large cruisers and 34 small cruisers by 1917. It was never fulfilled.
With the passage of the First and Second Fleet Acts, Germany began building warships at a rate of four per year. This caused Britain, France, and Russia to conclude that the growing navy would eventually be used for more than defensive purposes. Although Germany strove for parity, at the outbreak of war the British fleet had 49 battleships in service or under construction, while Germany had 29.
Tirpitz was accorded honors as a nobleman in 1900, adding the German prefix "von" to his name. Through the first decade of the 20th century and until the outbreak of war, he directed the efforts of the Imperial Naval Office. Tirpitz shepherded appropriations through the Reichstag, spoke on behalf of the naval build-up, and oversaw the rigorous construction schedule that was set out in the laws he drafted and promulgated.
At the start of the war, Tirpitz became a strong supporter of unlimited submarine warfare. He endeavored to unleash Germany's submarine fleet on shipping in the Atlantic, but his opinions were rejected. In 1916, Tirpitz resigned from the ministry seat he had held for 19 years and went into retirement for the duration of the war. As with other questions involving Tirpitz, historians disagree on the reasons for his departure. One camp holds that he resigned in a fit of pique because the kaiser and the general staff had rejected his views on the course of the war. The other camp holds that Tirpitz recognized that his policies and the buildup of the German navy was futile, because it would never match the British fleet.
In Building the Kaiser's Navy, Gary Edward Weir wrote that Tirpitz's "devotion to battleship strategy both played into the strength of his main adversary, Great Britain, and restricted his appreciation of new weapons like the U-boat. As the director of the Imperial Naval Office, Tirpitz's strategic dogma resulted in a fleet ill suited for an actual confrontation with Britain. Thus, he was, simultaneously, the political architect of the navy's success in the Reichstag, as well as a major reason for its failure in World War One."
Tirpitz saw the ultimate failure of his fleet at the Battle of Jutland. At that time, it represented the largest conflict to pit battleship against battleship. Sixteen German Dreadnought-class battleships and 24 British Dreadnought-class battleships, and their respective supporting fleets, fought to a draw between May 24 and May 31, 1916. While the German fleet sank more British ships and killed more British soldiers, the battle was considered by all to be inconclusive. Historians continue to argue which side gained the most from it. After Jutland, German battleships did not venture far beyond their coastal waters for the remaining months of the war.
As the defeat of Germany in World War I became imminent, Tirpitz returned to public life. As a cofounder of the Fatherland Party, he attempted to rekindle patriotic passions in his fellow Germans. However, the party did not garner any real support, and he retired once again from public life.
Tirpitz returned to the Reichstag as a deputy representative of the German National People's Party from 1924 through 1928. However, he was considered an outdated statesman who had lost the power to persuade. Tirpitz retired after his term of office expired. He retreated to a country home at Ebenhausen, in Upper Bavaria, where he died on March 6, 1930.
Bennett, Geoffrey, The Battle of Jutland, Dufor Editions, 1964.
Steinberg, Jonathan, Yesterday's Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet, The Macmillan Company, 1965.
Sabol, James P., http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jpsabol/jutland/essay.html, (November 18, 1999. □