Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy

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Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930) was the principal force behind the rise of the German Imperial Navy prior to World War I, challenging Great Britain's command of the seas. As State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office from 1897 to 1916, Tirpitz wielded great power and influence over the national agenda during that crucial period. By the time he had risen to high office, Tirpitz was well equipped to use his position as a platform from which to dominate German defense policy. Though he was cool to the potential of the U-boat, he enthusiastically supported a torpedo boat branch of the navy and began an ambitious building program for battleships and battle cruisers. Based on exhaustive archival research, including new material from family papers, Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy is the first extended study in English of this germinal figure in the growth of the modern navy.

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1 Introduction

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On 3 August 1914 gray-clad German troopers crossed the Belgian and Luxemburg frontiers to begin, in that theater, the greatest conflagration Europe had ever seen. Nestled in the fenlands of the North Sea coast, the small, drab German city of Wilhelmshaven overnight became a household word. In its harbor and in the nearby Jade, a lagoon-like body of water, sheltered from the stormy North Sea by a great sand bar, there gathered the most powerful fleet ever assembled in continental Europe, the mighty German High Seas Fleet. Fifteen of the most modern (Dreadnought-type) battleships, soon joined by two more in trials, and four speedy battlecruisers lay poised for an expected Armageddon with the even mightier British Grand Fleet, which then had twenty-two Dreadnoughts and ten powerful battlecruisers.

A few dozen leagues to the north, on the small island of Helgoland, lookouts scanned the horizon in wary anticipation of the British Armada. Smaller warships, based in Helgoland, formed a picket line to the north and west, ready to wireless the alarm.

 

2 Tirpitz’s Early Life

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Alfred Peter Friedrich Tirpitz was born on 19 March 1849 in Küstrin an der Oder in the Mark Brandenburg, Prussia.1 Oral tradition in his father’s family claimed that the family name had been Czern von Terpitz, originally from Silesia and Bohemia. The Thirty Years’ War brought impoverishment and forced the family to surrender the ennobling “von.”

The earliest Tirpitz who can be documented was Christian Ferdinand (1707–1790), a trumpeter and musician. His son, Jacob Friedrich (1750–1830), Tirpitz’s great-grandfather, was an army trumpeter for a Prussian dragoon regiment from the Küstrin area. He became a salt factor and overseer of the salt monopoly in Sonnenburg.

Jacob’s middle son, Friedrich Wilhelm (1782–1862), Alfred’s grandfather, was a lawyer and notary, first in Sonnenburg and later in Frankfurt an der Oder. His wife, Ulrike Rohleder (1788–1862), was the daughter of a government official in Sonnenburg and a descendant of noble Hugenot refugees. The eldest child of Friedrich and Ulrike was Rudolf Friedrich Tirpitz (1811–1905), Alfred’s father. He went to classical gymnasium in Berlin at the Gray Cloister, with a schoolmate named Otto von Bismarck. He studied law at Heidelberg, joined the mostly aristocratic Saxoborussia Corps, and was known as a boxer and duelist. Most unusual is that he drank milk instead of beer. The twenty-one-year-old Rudolf met and fell intensely in love with seventeen-year-old Malwine Hartmann (1815–1880). Once he secured an appropriate position, they were married in 1843. Rudolf had a long and successful career as a jurist. He began as a local magistrate in Küstrin and Frankfurt an der Oder, and capped his career as an appellate judge, sitting in Berlin, for the whole Mark Brandenburg.2 Rudolf’s education and career are clear indications of his status in the upper bourgeoisie.

 

3 The Aspirant, 1865–1870

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On 24 April 1865 seventeen-year-old Alfred Tirpitz arrived at the newly established Prussian Baltic base of Kiel and swore the oath that marked the beginning of his career. On 15 May he boarded a large ship for the first time in his life, the corvette Arcona, then serving as a watch ship for Kiel harbor. Senior officers did not pay much attention to cadets, who were left in the care of the petty officers. Tirpitz, like many others, suffered from homesickness. He missed his mother and his indulgent home life in Frankfurt. He also witnessed, with distaste, his first flogging.1

On 14 June Tirpitz and his comrades of the crew of 1865 boarded the British-built sailing frigate Niobe, their seagoing home for the next year.2 Its captain was one of the navy’s most distinguished officers, Commander Carl Batsch. Among his cadet shipmates were six who later became admirals: Wilhelm Büchsel, Oscar Klausa, and Iwan Oldekop, who were personally close to Tirpitz; Otto von Diedrichs, a few years older than the others because of prior service in the merchant marine; plus Richard Geissler and Oscar Boeters.3

 

4 The Young Officer, 1870–1877: A Taste of War

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Consolidation of the North German Confederation, which by 1867 included all the German states north of the River Main, had important maritime consequences. With the addition of Hamburg and other Hanseatic cities, the Confederation possessed the world’s third-largest merchant marine. Greater only were those of Britain and the United States.1 In Berlin the team of Roon as Naval (and Army) Minister, Prinz Adalbert as Commanding Admiral, and Jachmann as Operational Commander in October 1867 got the new Reichstag to approve a ten-year program for sixteen armored ships, twenty unarmored corvettes, and eight avisos (dispatch boats), all steam-powered. The navy’s proposed goals were encouragement and protection of worldwide trade, defense of the North Sea and Baltic coasts, and, most ambitious, the development of a modest capacity to threaten enemy trade, fleets, and harbors.2 The navy’s expansion meant a shift from long-term volunteer sailors to three-year conscripts. Their sheer numbers would greatly increase the navy’s training burden.3

 

5 The Creation of the German Torpedo Arm, 1877–1889

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When Tirpitz joined the Torpedo Commission, the first halting steps had already been taken in the evolving technology that would culminate in the sleek, deadly underwater missiles of the twentieth century. One idea was to put a mine at the end of a spar and use it as an exploding ram. Another was the Harvey tow torpedo, a floating charge on a tether attached to a boat, with the intention of turning the boat away at the moment of attack and allowing the charge to strike the target. Both these methods required almost suicidal bravery on the part of crews of improvised 10-knot torpedo boats. Nevertheless, by the early 1870s, most naval powers were trying out variations of these weapons. The possibility, even if remote, of sinking expensive battleships with cheap torpedoes was too tempting to resist, especially for smaller navies.

A more dynamic approach was the self-propelled “fish” torpedo. An English engineer, Robert Whitehead, director of the Firma Stabilimento Tecnico in Fiume, pursued this concept, the outcome of which would be the modern torpedo. In 1867 the Austrian government bought Whitehead’s patent. As early as 1869 a delegation from the North German Navy visited Fiume. By 1873, with Stosch in charge, the Imperial German Navy purchased torpedoes under license from the Austrian government and Whitehead.1

 

6 Interim, 1889–1891

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Late in 1883 or early in 1884, while Tirpitz struggled with the complexities of torpedoes and torpedo boats, the thirty-four-year-old officer fell in love. The young lady, Marie Lipke, was a fetching twenty-three year old from a wealthy bourgeois family. By early 1884 they were engaged. Their correspondence at the time shows Tirpitz as the eager suitor. “How much I love you and desire you . . . do you feel this desire at least a little bit?” Marie fretted that Alfred might find her boring.1 They married on 18 November 1884 at the Garrison Church in Berlin.2 After a happy and protracted honeymoon they lived in Kiel in a house subsidized by Gustav Lipke, Marie’s father.3

Marriage for a naval officer was a complicated business. The groom needed imperial marriage consent (Allerhöchsten Konsens), for reasons both financial and social. Officers needed enough money to support a family, lest they be overwhelmed with debt. Brides, too, had to have financial means, and a wife with low social status was considered unsuitable. The practical effect of such rules was to prevent officers ranked below lieutenant from marrying. Young officers searched for wealthy, socially acceptable young women so actively that, in 1894, the Marine Kabinett censured officers for advertising in the newspapers for a suitable match. Although there were no written rules, young officers were discouraged from seeking Jewish wives, even if the latter were financially and socially suitable.4

 

7 Oberkommando der Marine, 1892–1895

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When Tirpitz became Chief of Staff to Admiral Max von der Goltz, Commanding Admiral in the Oberkommando der Marine (OK), it was a time of critical uncertainty within all the world’s navies. A generation had passed since the last great naval battle, and a “fog of peace” had descended, analogous to Clausewitz’s famous expression, the “fog of war.”1

By the end of the 1880s confusion reigned in most of the world’s navies about virtually all major strategic, tactical, and technological questions. The last great naval battle had been the Austrian victory over the Italians at Lissa in 1866. It was fought by a potpourri of wooden ships and ironclads, under both sail and steam, using not just artillery but also ramming, a tactic that dated from classical times. Austrian Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff had used a triple line abreast V formation to slam perpendicularly into a larger and more modern Italian fleet that was in line ahead. Execrable Italian leadership complicated any rational analysis of the battle, and it provided only a muddled guide for future development.2

 

8 On the Verge of Power, 1895–1897

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When William II became Emperor in 1888, Germany was in the midst of explosive population and economic growth.1 Between 1871 and 1910 the population of the Empire grew from 41 million to 65 million. Urban dwellers more than doubled and the annual population growth was 1 percent, after emigration slowed down in the early 1880s. Coal production grew sevenfold, and iron and steel production even faster, so that by 1900 German industrial power had caught up to that of Great Britain. Globally Germany was second only to the even faster-growing United States. Foreign trade grew alongside industry. Exports of industrial goods and imports, principally foodstuffs and raw materials, became increasingly important to the economy. Burgeoning growth continued in the German merchant marine, although the vast bulk of foreign trade was with other European countries.2

There was a concomitant growth of an industrial working class. The discriminatory three-class voting system within Prussia muted the number of seats of Social Democrats, but in the Imperial Reichstag the Socialist vote rose from 1.4 million in 1890 to 2.1 million in 1898, 27 percent of the total. The geographic distribution of seats, unchanged since 1871, limited Socialist seats to 56 (of 397) in 1898; but the trend of growing legislative representation seemed clear to contemporaries, as frightening to parties of the right as it was heartening to those of the left. The largest single party, the Center, represented Catholic interests and consistently won about 100 seats. Conservatives worried about how these two parties, anathematized by Bismarck as “enemies of the Reich,” would function in the post-Bismarck era.

 

9 Tirpitz Ascendant, 1897–1898

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There is no available written record of Tirpitz’s thoughts as he sailed home from New York. The voyage did little to help his severe bronchitis, but his fevered brain must never have rested. When he debarked at Bremerhaven early in June 1897, he entered the most complex, difficult, and delicate situation he had ever encountered. The array of problems he faced, aspects of which he had to deal with almost simultaneously, was truly staggering.

Only thirteenth in seniority, he had to seize the initiative from his old boss, Eduard von Knorr at the OK, and from other senior admirals in powerful places, many of whom still favored a cruiser strategy. As Hopmann later wrote, “even in the RMA there was opposition to the Navy Law, and it was prophesized that the introduction of such a law would lead, within a few months, to Tirpitz losing his job.”1 His crew comrade Büchsel was Acting State Secretary of the RMA, from Hollmann’s dismissal at the end of March to Tirpitz’s official installation on 18 June. Knorr and Büchsel, at Senden’s strong urging and at the Emperor’s orders, did not wait for Tirpitz’s return but devised a unified OK-RMA scheme. Nevertheless, Tirpitz had his own ideas and Knorr, especially, would need persuading.

 

10 The Second Navy Law, 1899–1900

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The ink was scarcely dry on the Emperor’s signature to the Navy Law when a new pressure group rose to promote the German Navy.1 On 30 April 1898 Viktor Schweinburg, editor of Krupp’s paper, the Berliner Neueste Nachrichten, founded the Deutscher Flottenverein (German Fleet Association) in Berlin. Its professed purpose was

the arousing, cherishing, and strengthening in the German people of understanding for and interest in the meaning and purpose of a navy. . . . The Navy League considers a strong German navy a necessity, especially for securing the coasts of Germany against the danger of war, for maintaining Germany’s position among the world powers, for protecting the general interests and commercial relations of Germany, as well as the honor and security of her citizens engaged in business abroad.2

The Flottenverein was an attempt by the big industrialists like Krupp to start a massive lobbying effort for the navy. Trade was much less represented in the founding group than industry was. In 1897 the industrialists were more reticent than later in openly touting the Navy Law for fear of an adverse effect on agrarians in the Reichstag.3 In March 1898 Krupp’s hand was forced by the attempt of a Berlin cod liver oil factory owner, J. E. Stroschein, to found a Deutscher Reichsmarine Verein (German Navy Association). He formed a committee and began an educational effort to promote knowledge of the navy in the name of simple patriotism.4

 

· Illustrations

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Father, Rudolf Tirpitz, 1811–1905. Courtesy of Agostino von Hassell.

Newlyweds Alfred and Marie, 1884.
Courtesy of Agostino von Hassell.

Tirpitz and Marie in Sardinia, ca. 1888. Courtesy of Agostino von Hassell.

Tirpitz and Ilse, early 1890s.
Courtesy of Agostino von Hassell.

Left to right: Ahlefeld, Prinz Heinrich, Tirpitz, early 1890s.
Courtesy of Agostino von Hassell.

Tirpitz ca. 1905, at the height of his power. Courtesy of Agostino von Hassell.

Tirpitz in March 1896, on the eve of departing for Asia.
Courtesy of Agostino von Hassell.

Admiral Eduard von Capelle, Tirpitz’s Chief Aide for the Navy Laws.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Admiral August von Heeringen, Tirpitz’s agitator for the first two Navy Laws, later Chief of the Admiralstab. Hildebrand, 6:68.

The Emperor in all his glory, ca. 1910. Hildebrand, 1:62.

Left to right: von Diedrichs, Fischel, Fritze, Zeye, Meuss, von Prittwitz, Büchsel, Koester, Funke, Oldekop, Kirchhoff, von Holtzendorff, Vüllers. Mantey.

 

11 The “Quiet” Years, 1900–1906

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When raised to the hereditary nobility in June 1900 Tirpitz, at age fifty-one, was in his mature prime. His public image, in newspaper photos and editorial cartoons, was dominated by his famous forked beard. His once trim body, hardened by years of strenuous outdoor work in the Torpedo Arm, was gradually softening. Eight years of desk work had taken its toll. Unchanged were his piercing eyes, which still glittered with intelligence and ambition. He was at the peak of his powers.

He could be ruthless, as in 1899, when he persuaded his imperial master to dismantle his chief rival within the navy, the Oberkommando. He became the biggest fish in the naval pond, though, as a junior Vice Admiral, he was not on top of the navy’s seniority list. He succeeded in manipulating the erratic Emperor, not by flattery or subservience, but by a shrewd combination of defiance and resignation threats, mingled with tact and occasional tactical accommodation. His indispensability for the Emperor’s lifetime dream of a formidable fleet allowed Tirpitz to get away with such behavior. Until 1914, when the navy’s mission suddenly changed from construction to combat, Tirpitz preserved his ascendancy.

 

12 Sow the Wind, 1906–1908

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The RMA’s diverse workload and Tirpitz’s success as a bureaucratic warrior employed sixty mostly senior sea officers, by far the largest levy in the navy except for the fleet itself.1 Many of them were long-term RMA officers, whereas the Admiralstab had thirty-six officers, most of them quite junior, who rotated frequently in and out of the fleet. The RMA employed fifty-seven senior civil servants (none in the Admiralstab), plus clerks, scribes, and so on. The Admiralstab had only one admiral (Büchsel), whereas the RMA had six rear admirals or officers of even higher rank.

The RMA still had a leavening of Tirpitz’s Torpedo Gang, who, by 1906, were of high rank. These included Tirpitz’s close personal friends: Vice Admiral Hunold von Ahlefeld, Rear Admiral August von Heeringen, and Captain Raimond Winkler. Other torpedo men included Captain Reinhard Scheer and Captain Harald Dähnhardt. The latter two reported to Rear Admiral Eduard Capelle, Director of the Administrative Department (V).

 

13 The Whirlwind Rises, 1908–1911

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The 1908 Novelle, and the less celebrated but equally important ratcheting up of the ship cost table, was a great victory. Shipbuilding increased at an energetic pace. Money poured in to expand imperial and private shipyards, as well as Krupp’s great armor and artillery forges.

In June 1908 Tirpitz arranged a junket for Reichstag and Bundesrat members. From Danzig to Kiel to Wilhelmshaven, the parliamentarians inspected fortifications and fleet exercises. Tirpitz explained the need for quiet, steady work over the next few years, and radiated confidence that the navy was spending the public’s money efficiently and wisely.1

The 1908 Novelle was a potentially provocative act. Tirpitz tried to soft-pedal it, but he feared that British Conservatives would raise a hue and cry and demand a corresponding expansion of the Royal Navy or, even worse, replay the “Copenhagen” cries heard in 1904–1905.2 Just as threatening for Tirpitz were British diplomatic attempts to limit the arms race.

 

14 Denouement, 1911–1914

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The explosive events of the summer and early fall of 1911 were triggered by an innocent and routine ship redeployment. The gunboat Panther, Southwest African station ship, was due to return to Wilhelmshaven for major repairs. Chief of the Admiralstab, Fischel, on 8 March 1911, asked the Foreign Office if there were any objections if Panther stopped in a Moroccan port on its way home in July. The French, in violation of the Algeciras Act of 1906, occupied the Moroccan capital of Fez on 21 May. Foreign Secretary Kiderlen-Wächter agreed to allow Panther to visit the port of Mogador.1

Late in June Bethmann and Kiderlen decided to challenge the French occupation of Morocco. A handy excuse was to protect hypothetically endangered German nationals in Agadir. The Emperor reluctantly consented, though nervous that it might spoil his upcoming visit to London. Since all the principals were at Kiel Week, Kiderlen called in Heeringen, the new Chief of the Admiralstab, to prepare the necessary orders without clarifying the political context. Heeringen told Michaelis that the Emperor had ordered the immediate dispatch of Panther to Agadir. Michaelis asked why the initiative, to which Heeringen replied: “To hoist the flag.” Michaelis responded: “The little ship is too weak to make a difference, and, by raising their flag at Fez, the French have declared that Morocco is in their sphere.” Heeringen answered: “It is not supposed to conquer Morocco but only to show that we are there, too. As Kiderlen says, it should be a trumpet blast with which we will get compensation from the French elsewhere.”2 Neither Tirpitz nor the Fleet Chief was officially informed.

 

15 Tirpitz at War, August 1914–March 1916

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The central theater of the naval war was the North Sea. The north–south orientation of the island of Great Britain was a barrier that made the North Sea a virtual cul de sac. Germany only had access to the open ocean either to the south, through the narrow English Channel, or to the north. At its southern end, where the English Channel begins, less than 30 nautical miles separate Dover from Calais. The North Sea extends north about 700 miles, along the coast of England and Scotland, to the Shetland Islands. About 200 miles east of the Shetlands is the great Norwegian coastal archipelago, inside of which is the old Hanseatic port of Bergen. From Bergen, 400 miles south and slightly east, was the fortified island of Helgoland, 50 miles north of the Jade Bay, and Wilhelmshaven, the home of the High Seas Fleet. From there, initially skirting the Dutch coast, another 300 miles southwest, is Dover and the English Channel. At the northwest corner of the North Sea, in the Orkney Islands, is Scapa Flow, the principal base of the British Grand Fleet. From there, 600 miles away, almost exactly southeast of Scapa, is Wilhelmshaven. The route between the two forms a diagonal that neatly bisects the North Sea.

 

16 Uncommon Recessional, 1916–1930

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Tirpitz, upon leaving the RMA, moved from his grand official residence with his wife Marie and daughter Margot to a large flat in Berlin at von der Heydt Strasse 15. His salary as State Secretary had been 45,000 marks, plus 15,000 for office expenses. His pension would be half his salary (22,500 marks).1 His family’s financial situation appeared reasonably secure. The status of his holdings in Alghero, Sardinia, San Remo on the Italian Riviera, and a Paris apartment was uncertain. He also had invested a substantial amount in war bonds,2 and he retained the house at St. Blasien.

Tirpitz’s son, Wolfgang, was a prisoner of war in Britain and was later interned in Holland. Ulrich von Hassell, the husband of daughter Ilse, slowly recovered from the bullet in the heart he had received at the Marne in 1914. His convalescence took place at the Tirpitz home. Unable to resume his diplomatic career for health reasons, in January 1916 he took an administrative position for the government of Prussia at Stettin.3 From then on Hassell served Tirpitz as a political agent and surrogate in dealing with nationalist opposition figures, particularly Wolfgang Kapp.4

 

17 Conclusion

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Tirpitz entered the navy in 1865 as a gangly adolescent. From the outset he showed elements of the intelligence, diligence, and sheer determination that marked his entire career. His father, jokingly but prophetically, predicted he would be a Grand Admiral. As he matured into a junior officer and suffered the frustrating experience of serving through two wars without firing a shot, he demonstrated a talent, rare among his contemporaries, for working out on paper ideas that were logical, empirical, and creative. This talent attracted the attention of both peers and superiors and helped him obtain enviable career assignments, first (1877) as a junior officer in the mint-new Torpedo Arm, and later (1892) as Chief of Staff of the Oberkommando. Except for royalty, there was no early promotion within the navy’s iron-hard seniority system, and he was never promoted ahead of his own seniority (fifth within the “crew” of 1865).

Luck, too, played a role, even before he entered the navy. When the training ship Amazone sank with all hands in 1861, six senior officers and nineteen ensigns and sea cadets were among the crew, and each would have preceded him on the seniority list. Good fortune also spared him from the accidents and exposure to disease that cut short many careers. A lifelong hypochondriac, in 1876 he dreaded a posting to China. When he briefly went to China in 1896–97 he did become ill. Instead of service abroad, in 1877 he was assigned to the Torpedo Arm. He served there for twelve years with an unusual degree of autonomy and rose from Lt. Commander to Captain, with increasing levels of responsibility, taking a giant step toward the creation of a formidable reputation.

 

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