Naval Rivalry (Anglo-German)

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the tirpitz plan
the great naval race

In 1889, the year before his retirement, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck called the British navy "the greatest factor for peace in Europe" (Beresford, vol. 2, p. 363). Just eight years later, upon his appointment as secretary of state in the Imperial Navy Office, Rear Admiral Alfred Tirpitz characterized Britain as Germany's "most dangerous enemy … against which we most urgently require a certain measure of naval force as a political power factor" (Steinberg, p. 126).

the tirpitz plan

With general Anglo-German tensions rising, Tirpitz's Anglophobia appealed to Emperor William II (r. 1888–1918), who endorsed his fleet program of nineteen high-seas battleships, eight coastal battleships, twelve large cruisers, and thirty small cruisers, to be built at a cost of 58 million marks per year over seven years (1898–1905). The funding came in March 1898 when the Reichstag passed the First Navy Law by a vote of 212 to 139, with 46 abstentions; most of the Catholic Center Party joined the Conservative and National Liberal parties in the majority. Twelve of Tirpitz's nineteen battleships were existing vessels, one as small as 5,200 tons. His eight coastal battleships, 3,500 tons apiece, likewise were already in service. The twelve large cruisers included ten built or being built, some displacing just 5,700 tons. The debate over Tirpitz's first navy bill focused on the new warships it required (a 30 percent increase in the existing fleet), overlooking a provision for the automatic replacement of the warships in the plan: battleships after twenty-five years, large cruisers after twenty, and smaller cruisers after fifteen.

Further tensions stemming from the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) and the Boxer Rebellion (1900) helped Tirpitz secure passage of the Second Navy Law of June 1900, which increased the fleet plan to thirty-eight battleships (including the eight existing coastal battleships, counted as full-sized battleships for replacement purposes) and fourteen large and thirty-eight small cruisers. This further triumph solidified Tirpitz's reputation as Imperial Germany's most successful political figure aside from Bismarck. William II showered him with honors, including elevation to the nobility and promotion to full admiral, ignoring the negative impact of the program on Germany's international position. At the time of the First Navy Law Britain had been isolated, but in less than a decade the German naval threat had helped drive the British into the Triple Entente with France and Russia.

Tirpitz had thirty-seven of his thirty-eight battleships and all fourteen large cruisers built or under construction by 1906, when the Reichstag passed a supplementary law increasing the number of large cruisers to twenty. By this time it had become clear that the automatic replacement clauses of the navy laws would assure that a future, more left-wing Reichstag could not undo Tirpitz's grand design, a crucial factor given the longstanding trend of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) making gains in every German national election. The SPD faced a dilemma in opposing naval expansion, which provided tens of thousands of industrial jobs for its constituents, but consistently voted against every navy bill. By guaranteeing the size of the fleet, the Reichstag gave the navy the right to replace smaller old ships with larger new ships, because designs naturally had to reflect the international norm at the time the ships came due for replacement. Fortunately for Tirpitz, the oldest battleships counted in his 1898 plan reached the end of their prescribed service lives shortly after the British navy, under the direction of Admiral John Fisher (first sea lord, 1904–1910), revolutionized the construction of larger warships by building the 18,110-ton battleship HMS Dreadnought and a trio of hybrid battleship-cruisers, or "battle cruisers," of similar size. The German navy subsequently replaced four old 7,600-ton battleships with the four 18,900-ton dreadnoughts of the Nassau class, and their eight 3,500-ton coast defense battleships with dreadnoughts of the 22,800-ton Helgoland class and 24,700-ton Kaiser class. Eventually a cruiser of 5,700 tons was replaced by the 27,000-ton battle cruiser Hindenburg.

the great naval race

The commissioning of the Dreadnought in December 1906 rendered all smaller and older armored warships obsolete. Fisher's dreadnought and battle cruiser designs raised the technological bar for Tirpitz's challenge but at the same time presented the Germans with an opportunity, as the British had negated their own considerable advantage in pre-dreadnought types. By the time Germany's Nassau entered service in October 1909, Britain already had commissioned its first five dreadnoughts and three battle cruisers. Thereafter, a supplementary navy law passed by the Reichstag in 1908 enabled Germany to close the gap under an accelerated timetable of construction of dreadnoughts and battle cruisers (or "capital ships," as the two types together became known). Meanwhile, the Liberal majority in Parliament approved just two capital ships in the naval estimates for 1908–1909, giving Britain twelve built or being built to Germany's ten. At that pace Tirpitz could achieve much better than the 3:2 ratio of inferiority that he felt would give the German fleet a chance of defeating the British in the North Sea.

The accelerated pace of German naval construction understandably alarmed the British. The same Liberal Parliament that had approved just two capital ships for 1908–1909 authorized eight for 1909–1910, four of which were to be canceled should Germany agree to negotiate an end to the naval race. As of April 1909 Britain was willing to accept a 60 percent capital ship superiority over Germany. At that time, however, Tirpitz was willing to concede only a 4:3 ratio of British superiority. By May 1910 Britain had laid down all eight new capital ships, designs that ensured a qualitative as well as quantitative advantage. The dreadnoughts of the Orion class and two Lion class battle cruisers had 13.5-inch guns rather than the 12-inch guns of the most recent British and German dreadnoughts, and the Lions would be capable of a remarkable speed of 27 knots (compared to the original Dreadnought's 21 knots). In June 1910 work began on another two battle cruisers, the Australia and New Zealand, paid for by those dominions.

During the same months in 1909 and 1910 when the British laid down these ten new capital ships, the Germans started work on just three, and thus fell behind in the race by twenty-two to thirteen. Tirpitz had assumed all along that he could push the British to a point beyond which they would not or could not maintain their lead. Recognizing his grave miscalculation, in 1911 he offered to accept a 3:2 (15:10) British advantage in capital ships, close to Britain's goal of a 60 percent (16:10) advantage, as long as the British included in their total the Australia, the New Zealand, and any other ships funded by the British Empire. Meanwhile, following Tirpitz's earlier logic that a strong fleet would be a "political power factor" supporting German diplomacy, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg attempted to wreck the Anglo-French Entente by demanding British recognition of the territorial status quo in Europe (including a German Alsace-Lorraine) in exchange for German recognition of British naval superiority. The British found such terms unacceptable, and the race continued. In 1910–1911 and again in 1911–1912, the Germans laid down four capital ships and the British countered with five. Following an unsuccessful mission to Berlin in February 1912 by the British secretary for war, Richard Haldane, the recently appointed first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, proposed a mutual one-year "naval holiday." Churchill's dismissive characterization of the German navy as a "luxury" fleet reflected his true sentiments, however, and in March 1912 the Reichstag responded by giving Tirpitz a third supplementary navy law adding three dreadnoughts to the numbers previously approved, raising the authorized strength of the German fleet to sixty-one capital ships (forty-one dreadnoughts and twenty battle cruisers).


The supplementary navy law of 1912 was Tirpitz's last triumph, as the navy had grown to consume over a third of Germany's total defense budget. While funding a dramatic expansion of the German army in 1913, the Reichstag authorized just five new capital ships for the period from 1912 to 1914. In the same two years, Parliament funded nine new dreadnoughts, and a tenth, the Malaya, was funded by that British colony. Five of the ten were of the 27,500-ton Queen Elizabeth class, the first British capital ships with 15-inch guns, and the first battleships fitted to burn oil only.

The increasing size, speed, and firepower of warships naturally drove up their cost. The British had built the Dreadnought for just under £1.73 million, but the Queen Elizabeth, begun seven years later, cost just over £2.68 million. On the German side, the Nassau had been built for just under 37 million marks, whereas the Hindenburg, completed eight years later, cost 59 million, 1 million more than the total cost of the sixteen new warships built in the years 1898 to 1905 under the First Navy Law. At the end of July 1914, Britain had twenty-nine capital ships in service and thirteen under construction, while Germany had eighteen in service and eight under construction. The British advantage, slightly better than 3:2, would suffice to keep the German fleet in port for most of World War I. After his naval program helped lead Germany into a war it could not win, Tirpitz contributed to the ultimate disaster by advocating unrestricted submarine warfare once the fighting began.

See alsoDreadnought; Germany; Great Britain; Imperialism.


Beresford, Charles William de la Poer. The Memoirs of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford. 2 vols. Boston, 1914.

Berghahn, Volker R. Der Tirpitz-Plan: Genesis und Verfall einer innenpolitischen Krisenstrategie unter Wilhelm II. Düsseldorf, 1971.

Herwig, Holger H. "Luxury" Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888–1918. Rev. ed. London, 1987.

Lambert, Nicholas A. Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution. Columbia, S.C., 1999.

Marder, Arthur J. From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904–1919. 5 vols. London, 1961–1970.

Sondhaus, Lawrence. Preparing for Weltpolitik: German Sea Power before the Tirpitz Era. Annapolis, Md., 1997.

Steinberg, Jonathan. Yesterday's Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet. London, 1965.

Sumida, Jon Tetsuro. In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology, and British Naval Policy, 1889–1914. Boston, 1989.

Lawrence Sondhaus