Alfred von Tirpitz

views updated May 29 2018

Alfred von Tirpitz

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.

Rapid Rise Through the Ranks

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.

Strong Proponent of Naval Power

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.

Layed Out a Fleet Strategy

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.

The First Fleet Act

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.

War and Resignation

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."

German Defeat

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.

Further Reading

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.,, (November 18, 1999. □

Tirpitz, Alfred von

views updated May 11 2018


TIRPITZ, ALFRED VON (1849–1930), Prussian admiral.

Alfred Peter Friedrich Tirpitz (who was ennobled in 1900) was born on 19 March 1849 in the small town of Küstrin in the eastern part of Prussia. The son of a judge, he joined the Prussian Navy in 1865 and soon made a brilliant career. In the 1880s he was responsible for the development of the new torpedo weapon. In 1891 he became chief of staff of the Baltic naval station. He also quickly attracted the attention of the new kaiser, William II, himself a naval enthusiast, for unlike many of his elder comrades Tirpitz had a clear concept of both naval policy and naval strategy.

Although the extent of the influence of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan on Tirpitz is difficult to measure, their concepts were similar. Mahan believed that the Roman Empire was shaped by its control of the sea; Tirpitz was deeply convinced that history had proven sea power to be a prerequisite to the German Empire's power, prestige, welfare, and social stability in the twentieth century. Accordingly, he developed a plan to achieve these aims by building a battle fleet that he believed would be able to gain command of the sea.

Appointed commanding admiral of the German East Asian Squadron in 1896, he was called back in June 1897 to become secretary of the Imperial Navy Office. Supported by the new secretary for foreign affairs, Bernhard von Bülow, and using modern methods of propaganda to influence both parties in the Reichstag as well as the public, he began to realize what historians later were to call the Tirpitz Plan, which aimed at securing "a place in the sun" for Germany. For the advocates of this policy, it seemed inevitable that Germany would challenge Britain's supremacy in the world and on the seas. In June 1898 the Reichstag passed the First Navy Law, which established a battle fleet consisting of two battle squadrons and, most importantly, ensured continuous fleet building. Only two years later, this fleet was doubled. Although Tirpitz finally gave up the idea of demanding two more battle squadrons in 1905, he added six armoured cruisers for service on foreign stations to the existing fleet in 1906. More important, he decided to follow Britain's example and start building battleships of the Dreadnought type, armed with large guns. Thus he openly challenged the Royal Navy, which as a result quickly lost its margin of superiority in modern vessels. By reducing the age of replacement of older ships in 1908, he further accelerated the tempo of German battleship building. Contrary to his own expectations, this step was the beginning both of an arms race and the decline of his plan. After the failure in 1908 of British attempts to induce the German government to reduce its building program, the Royal Navy started to out-build its German rival in 1909. At the same time, Tirpitz began to lose support within the government as well as with the public. Steadily increasing costs and Germany's isolation among the great powers seemed to require a change in German foreign and naval policy. Supported by the Kaiser, Tirpitz was, however, still strong enough to thwart the attempts of Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, appointed chancellor in July 1909, to negotiate a naval agreement. Moreover, Bethmann Hollweg's fiasco in the Moroccan crisis in 1911 offered Tirpitz an opportunity to once again increase the navy. Tirpitz eventually pushed through a new naval bill in 1912, stabilizing a building rate of 3 capital ships a year. The Imperial Navy now consisted of 61 capital ships, 40 light cruisers, 144 torpedo boats, and 72 submarines.

In spite of this success, his influence on German politics was diminishing. The Moroccan crisis, the Balkan Wars in 1912 to 1913, and the threat of a world war on the Continent strengthened the position of the army, which was enlarged twice in 1912 and 1913. Moreover, in early 1914 even Tirpitz realized that his policy was on the verge of bankruptcy due to financial constraints and rising costs on the one hand and Britain's determination to preserve its naval supremacy on the other. His policy's obvious lack of success did not harm his popularity, however. Members of the German Right were convinced that he was the ideal candidate to replace Bethmann Hollweg, who seemed too weak to break the iron ring around Germany.

Tirpitz was not involved in the decisions that led to the outbreak of war in August 1914. However, afraid of a humiliating diplomatic defeat, he did not plead for moderation. The war soon proved disastrous for Tirpitz's navy. Bottled in the German Bight, it was unable to successfully challenge the Grand Fleet. Raids on the British east coast were costly and dangerous, and the battle of Jutland in May 1916 was no strategic breakthrough. Only unrestricted submarine warfare, advocated by Tirpitz since 1915, seemed to offer a way out of a strategic deadlock but at a high price: it brought the United States into the war in 1917. Having lost the confidence of the kaiser, Tirpitz was forced to resign in March 1916 after one of several disputes with the chancellor about submarine warfare. However, he did not refrain from interfering in politics. In September 1917 he became chairman of the German Fatherland Party, a right-wing organization demanding far-reaching annexations and rejecting all domestic reforms.

After the war he quickly became the eminence gris (gray eminence) of the German Right, and he was involved in a number of attempts to overthrow the republican government. In 1925 he was one of the main architects of Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg's candidacy for president. At the same time, he exerted great influence on the navy, whose members still regarded him as their master. Still actively involved in antirepublican intrigues, the father of the German battle fleet died on 6 March 1930.

See alsoBalkan Wars; Germany; Moroccan Crises; Naval Rivalry (Anglo-German).


Primary Sources

Tirpitz, Alfred von. My Memoirs. 2 vols. New York, 1919.

Secondary Sources

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

Halpern, Paul G. A Naval History of World War I. Annapolis, Md., 1994.

Herwig, Holger H. "Luxury Fleet": The Imperial German Navy, 1888–1918. London, 1980.

Hobson, Rolf. Imperialism at Sea: Naval Strategic Thought, the Ideology of Sea Power, and the Tirpitz Plan, 1875–1914. Boston, 2002.

Lambi, Ivo N. The Navy and German Power Politics, 1862–1914. Boston, 1984.

Scheck, Raphael. Alfred von Tirpitz and German Right-Wing Politics, 1914–1930. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1998.

Steinberg, Jonathan. Yesterday's Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet. London, 1968.

Michael Epkenhans

Tirpitz, Alfred von

views updated Jun 08 2018

Tirpitz, Alfred von (1849–1930) German admiral. Tirpitz was chiefly responsible for the build-up of the German navy before World War I. Frustrated by government cut-backs and restrictions on submarine warfare, he resigned in 1916. He later sat in the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic.