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|Alfred von Tirpitz|
Alfred von Tirpitz in 1903
19 March 1849|
Küstrin, Province of Brandenburg, Kingdom of Prussia in the German Confederation
(today Kostrzyn, Poland)
6 March 1930 (aged 80)|
Ebenhausen, Free State of Bavaria in the Weimar Republic
Kingdom of Prussia|
Imperial German Navy
|Years of service||1869–1916|
World War I
Pour le Mérite|
Knight of the Order of the Black Eagle
Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order
Alfred Peter Friedrich von Tirpitz (19 March 1849 – 6 March 1930) was a German Grand Admiral, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, the powerful administrative branch of the German Imperial Navy from 1897 until 1916. Prussia never had a major navy, nor did the other German states before the German Empire was formed in 1871. Tirpitz took the modest Imperial Navy and, starting in the 1890s, turned it into a world-class force that could threaten the Royal Navy. His navy, however, was not strong enough to confront the British successfully in the First World War; the one great engagement at sea, the Battle of Jutland, ended in a draw with both sides claiming victory. Tirpitz turned to submarine warfare, which antagonised the United States. He was dismissed in 1916 and never regained power.
Tirpitz was born in Küstrin (today Kostrzyn in Poland) in the Prussian province of Brandenburg, the son of lawyer and later judge Rudolf Tirpitz (1811–1905). His mother was the daughter of a doctor. Tirpitz grew up in Frankfurt (Oder). He recorded in his memoirs that he was a mediocre pupil as a child.
On 18 November 1884 he married Maria Augusta Lipke (born 11 October 1860 in Schwetz, West Prussia, died after 1941). On 12 June 1900 he was elevated to the Prussian nobility, becoming von Tirpitz. His son, Oberleutnant zur See Wolfgang von Tirpitz, was taken prisoner of war following the sinking of SMS Mainz in the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914.
Tirpitz joined the Prussian Navy more by accident than design when a friend announced that he was doing so. Tirpitz decided he liked the idea and with the consent of his parents became a naval cadet at the age of 16, on 24 April 1865. He attended Kiel Naval School. Within a year Prussia was at war with Austria. Tirpitz became a midshipman (Seekadett) on 24 June 1866 and was posted to a sailing ship patrolling the English Channel. In 1866 Prussia became part of the North German Confederation, the navy officially became that of the confederation and Tirpitz joined the new institution on 24 June 1869.
On 22 September 1869 he had obtained the rank of Unterleutnant zur See (sub-lieutenant) and served on board SMS König Wilhelm. During the Franco-Prussian War the Prussian Navy was greatly outnumbered and so the ship spent the duration of the war at anchor, much to the embarrassment of the navy. During the early years of Tirpitz's career, Prussia and Great Britain were on good terms and the Prussian Navy spent much time in British ports. Tirpitz reported that Plymouth was more hospitable to German sailors than was Kiel, while it was also easier to obtain equipment and supplies there, which were of better quality than available at home. At this time the British Royal Navy was pleased to assist that of Prussia in its development and a considerable respect grew up in Prussian officers of their British counterparts.
Unification of Germany in 1871 again meant a change of name, to the German Imperial Navy. On 25 May 1872 Tirpitz was promoted to Leutnant zur See (lieutenant at sea) and on 18 November 1875 to Kapitänleutnant (captain-lieutenant). In 1877 he was chosen to visit the Whitehead Torpedo development works at Fiume and afterwards was placed in charge of the German torpedo section, later renamed the torpedo inspectorate. By 1879 a working device had been produced, but even under demonstration conditions Tirpitz reckoned it was as likely to miss a target as to hit it. On 17 September 1881 he became Korvettenkapitän (corvette captain). From developing torpedoes, Tirpitz moved on to developing torpedo boats to deliver them. The State Secretary for the Navy, Leo von Caprivi, was a distant relation, and Tirpitz now worked with him on the development of tactics. Caprivi envisioned that the boats would be used defensively against their most likely enemy, France, but Tirpitz set about developing plans to attack the French home port of Cherbourg. Tirpitz later described his time with torpedo boats as 'the eleven best years of my life'.
In 1887 the torpedo boats escorted Prince Wilhelm to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of his grandmother, Queen Victoria. This was the first time Tirpitz met Wilhelm. In July 1888 Caprivi was succeeded by Alexander von Monts. Torpedo boats were no longer considered important, and Tirpitz requested transfer, commanding the cruisers SMS Preussen and then SMS Württemberg. He was promoted to Captain (Kapitän zur See) 24 November 1888 and in 1890 became chief of staff of the Baltic Squadron. On one occasion the Kaiser was attending dinner with the senior naval officers at Kiel and asked their opinion on how the navy should develop. Finally the question came to Tirpitz and he advised building battleships. This was an answer which appealed to the Kaiser, and nine months later he was transferred to Berlin to work on a new strategy for creating a high seas fleet. Tirpitz appointed a staff of officers he had known from his time with the torpedo boats and collected together all sorts of vessels as stand-in battleships to conduct exercises to test out tactics. On 1 December 1892 he made a presentation of his findings to the Kaiser. This brought him into conflict with the Navy State Secretary, Admiral Friedrich von Hollmann. Hollmann was responsible for procurement of ships, and had a policy of collecting ships as funding permitted. Tirpitz had concluded that the best fighting arrangement was a squadron of eight identical battleships, rather than any other combination of ships with mixed abilities. Further ships should then be added in groups of eight. Hollmann favoured a mixed fleet including cruisers for long distance operations overseas. Tirpitz believed that in a war no number of cruisers would be safe unless backed up by sufficient battleships.
In autumn 1895, frustrated by the non-adoption of his recommendations, Tirpitz asked to be replaced. The Kaiser, not wishing to lose him, asked instead that he prepare a set of recommendations for ship construction. This was delivered on 3 January 1896, but the timing was bad as it coincided with raids into the Transvaal in Southern Africa by pro-British forces against the pro-German Boers. The Kaiser immediately set his mind to demanding cruisers which could operate at a distance and influence the war. Hollman was tasked with obtaining money from the Reichstag for a building programme, but failed to gain funding for enough ships to satisfy anyone. Imperial Chancellor Hohenlohe saw no sense in naval enlargement and reported back that the Reichstag opposed it. Admiral Gustav von Senden-Bibran, Chief of the Naval Cabinet, advised that the only possibility lay in replacing Hollmann: Wilhelm impulsively decided to appoint Tirpitz.
Meanwhile, however, Hollmann had obtained funding for one battleship and three large cruisers. It was felt that replacing him before the bill had completed approval through the Reichstag would be a mistake. Instead, Tirpitz was placed in charge of the German East Asia Squadron in the Far East but with a promise of appointment as Secretary at a suitable moment. The cruiser squadron operated from British facilities in Hong Kong which were far from satisfactory as the German ships always took second place for available docks. Tirpitz was instructed to find a suitable site for a new port, selecting four possible sites. Although he initially favoured the bay at Kiautschou/Tsingtao, others in the naval establishment advocated a different location and even Tirpitz wavered on his commitment in his final report. A 'lease' on the land was acquired in 1898 after it was fortuitously occupied by German forces. On 12 March 1896 the Reichstag cut back Hollmann's appropriation of 70 million marks to 58 million, and Hollman offered his resignation. Tirpitz was summoned home and offered the post of Secretary of the Imperial Navy office (Reichsmarineamt). He went home the long way, touring the United States on the way and arriving in Berlin 6 June 1897. He was pessimistic of his chances of succeeding with the Reichstag.
On 15 June Tirpitz presented a memorandum on the makeup and purpose of the German fleet to the Kaiser. This defined the principal enemy as Great Britain, and the principal area of conflict to be that between Heligoland and the Thames. Cruiser warfare around the globe was deemed impractical because Germany had few bases to resupply ships, while the chief need was for as many battleships as possible to take on the British fleet. A target was outlined for two squadrons of eight battleships, plus a fleet flagship and two reserves. This was to be completed by 1905 and cost 408 million marks, or 58 million per year, the same as the existing budget. The proposal was innovative in several ways. It made a clear statement of naval needs, whereas before the navy had grown piecemeal. It set out the programme for seven years ahead, which neither the Reichstag nor the navy should change. It defined a change in German foreign policy so as to justify the existence of the fleet: Great Britain up to this point had been friendly, now it was officially an enemy. The Kaiser agreed the plan and Tirpitz retired to St Blasien in the Black Forest with a team of naval specialists to draft a naval bill for presentation to the Reichstag. Information about the plan leaked out to Admiral Knorr, head of the Naval High Command. Tirpitz agreed to a joint committee to discuss changes in the navy, but then arranged that it never receive any information. Similarly, he arranged a joint committee with the Treasury State Secretary to discuss finance, which never discussed anything. Meanwhile, he continued his best efforts to convince the Kaiser and Chancellor, so that in due course he could announce the issues had already been decided at a higher level and thereby avoid debate.
Once the bill was nearly complete Tirpitz started a round of visits to obtain support. First he visited the former Chancellor and elder statesman, Prince Bismarck. Armed with the announcement that the Kaiser intended to name the next ship launched Furst Bismarck, he persuaded the former chancellor, who had been dismissed from office for disagreement with Wilhelm II, to modestly support the proposals. Tirpitz now visited the King of Saxony, the Prince Regent of Bavaria, the Grand Duke of Baden and Oldenburg and the councils of the Hanseatic towns. On 19 October the draft bill was sent to the printers for presentation to the Reichstag. Tirpitz's approach was to be as accommodating with the deputies as he could. He was patient and good humoured, proceeding on the assumption that if everything was explained carefully, then the deputies would naturally be convinced. Groups were invited to private meetings to discuss the bill. Tours of ships and shipyards were arranged. The Kaiser and Chancellor stressed that the fleet was only intended for protection of Germany, but so that even a first class power might think twice before attacking. Highlights from a letter Prince Bismarck wrote were read out in the Reichstag, though not mentioning passages where he expressed reservations. Papers were circulated showing the relative size of foreign fleets, and how much Germany had fallen behind, particularly when considering the great power of her army compared to others.
A press bureau was created in the Navy Ministry to ensure journalists were thoroughly briefed, and to politely answer any and all objections. Pre-written articles were provided for the convenience of journalists. University professors were invited to speak on the importance of protecting German trade. The Navy League was formed to popularise the idea of world naval power and its importance to the Empire. It was argued that colonies overseas were essential, and Germany deserved her 'place in the sun'. League membership grew from 78,000 in 1898, to 600,000 in 1901 and 1.1 million by 1914. Especial attention was given to members of the budget committee who would consider the bill in detail. Their interests and connections were analysed to find ways to influence them. Steel magnate Fritz Krupp and shipowner Albert Ballin of the Hamburg-America Line were invited to speak on the benefits of the bill to trade and industry.
Objections were raised that the bill surrendered one of the most important powers of the Reichstag, that of annually scrutinising expenditure. Conservatives felt that expenditure on the navy was wasted, and that if money was available it should go to the army, which would be the deciding factor in any likely war. Eugen Richter of the Liberal Radical Union opposing the bill observed that if it was intended for Germany now seriously to take up the Trident to match its other forces then such a small force would not suffice and there would be no end to ship building. August Bebel of the Social Democrats argued that there existed a number of deputies who were Anglophobes and wished to pick a fight with Britain, but that to imagine such a fleet could take on the Royal Navy was insanity and anyone saying it belonged in the madhouse.
Yet by the end of the debates the country was convinced that the bill would and should be passed. On 26 March 1898 it did so, by a majority of 212 to 139. All those around the Kaiser were ecstatic at their success. Tirpitz as navy minister was elevated to a seat on the Prussian Ministry of State. His influence and importance as the man who had accomplished this miracle was assured and he was to remain at the center of government for the next nineteen years.
One year after the passage of the bill Tirpitz appeared before the Reichstag and declared his satisfaction with it. The specified fleet would still be smaller than the French or British, but would be able to deter the Russians in the Baltic. Within another year all had changed. In October 1899 the Boer War broke out between the British and Boers in South Africa. In January 1900 a British cruiser intercepted three German mail steamers and searched them for war supplies intended for the Boers. Germany was outraged and the opportunity presented itself for a second Naval Bill. The second bill increased the number of battleships from nineteen to thirty-eight. This would form four squadrons of eight ships, plus two flagships and four reserves. The bill now spanned seventeen years from 1901 to 1917 with the final ships being completed by 1920. This would constitute the second-largest fleet in the world and although no mention was made in the bill of specific enemies, it made several general mentions of a greater power which it was intended to oppose. There was only one navy which could be meant. On 5 December 1899 Tirpitz was promoted to Vizeadmiral (vice admiral). The bill passed on 20 June 1900.
Specifically written into the preamble was an explanation of Tirpitz's Risk Theory. Although the German fleet would be smaller, it was likely that an enemy with a world spanning empire would not be able to concentrate all its forces in local waters. Even if it could, the German fleet would still be sufficiently powerful to inflict significant damage in any battle, sufficient damage that the enemy would be unable to maintain its other naval commitments and must suffer irreparable harm. Thus no such enemy would risk an engagement. Privately Tirpitz acknowledged that a second risk existed: that Britain, seeing its growing enemy might choose to strike first, might destroy the German fleet before it grew to a dangerous size. A similar course had been taken before, when Lord Nelson sank Danish ships to prevent them falling into French hands, and would be again in the Second World War when French ships were sunk at Mers-el-Kébir to prevent them falling into German hands. A term, to Copenhagenise, even existed in English for this. Tirpitz calculated this danger period would end in 1904 or 1905. In the event, Britain responded to the increased German building programme by building more ships herself and the theoretical danger period extended itself to beyond the start of the Great War. As a reward for the successful bill Tirpitz was ennobled with the hereditary particle of von before his name in 1900.
Tirpitz noted the difficulties in his relationship with the Kaiser. Wilhelm respected him as the only man who had succeeded in persuading the Reichstag to start and then increase a world class navy, but he remained unpredictable. He was fanatical about the navy, but would come up with wild ideas for improvements, which Tirpitz had to deflect to maintain his objectives. Each summer Tirpitz would go to St Blasien with his aides to work on naval plans, then in September he would travel to the Kaiser's retreat at Rominten, where Tirpitz found he would be more relaxed and willing to listen to a well argued explanation.
Three supplementary naval bills ('Novelles') were passed, in June 1906, April 1908 and June 1912. The first followed German diplomatic defeats over Morocco, and added six large cruisers to the fleet. The second followed fears of British encroachment, and reduced the replacement time which a ship would remain in service from 25 to 20 years. The third was caused by the Agadir Crisis where again Germany had to draw back. This time three more battleships were added.
The first naval law caused little alarm in Great Britain. There was already in force a dual power standard defining the size of the British fleet as at least that of the next two largest fleets combined. There was now a new player, but her fleet was similar in size to the other two possible threats, Russia and France, and a number of battleships were already under construction. The second naval law, however, caused serious alarm: eight King Edward VII-class battleships were ordered in response. It was the regularity and efficiency with which Germany was now building ships, which were seen to be as good as any in the world, which raised concern. Information about the design of the new battleships suggested they were only intended to operate within a short range of a home base and not to stay at sea for extended periods. They seemed designed only for operations in the North Sea. The result was that Britain abandoned its policy of isolation which had held force since the time of Nelson and began to look for allies against the growing threat from Germany. Ships were withdrawn from around the world and brought back to British waters, while construction of new ships increased.
Tirpitz's design to achieve world power status through naval power, while at the same time addressing domestic issues, is referred to as the Tirpitz Plan. Politically, the Tirpitz Plan was marked by the Fleet Acts of 1898, 1900, 1908 and 1912. By 1914, they had given Germany the second-largest naval force in the world (roughly 40% smaller than the Royal Navy). It included seventeen modern dreadnoughts, five battlecruisers, twenty-five cruisers and twenty pre-dreadnought battleships as well as over forty submarines. Although including fairly unrealistic targets, the expansion programme was sufficient to alarm the British, starting a costly naval arms race and pushing the British into closer ties with the French.
Tirpitz developed a "Risk Theory" whereby, if the German Imperial Navy reached a certain level of strength relative to the British Royal Navy, the British would try to avoid confrontation with Germany (that is, maintain a fleet in being). If the two navies fought, the German Navy would inflict enough damage on the British that the latter ran a risk of losing their naval dominance. Because the British relied on their navy to maintain control over the British Empire, Tirpitz felt they would opt to maintain naval supremacy in order to safeguard their empire, and let Germany become a world power, rather than lose the empire as the cost of keeping Germany less powerful. This theory sparked a naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain in the first decade of the 20th century.
This theory was based on the assumption that Great Britain would have to send its fleet into the North Sea to blockade the German ports (blockading Germany was the only way the Royal Navy could seriously harm Germany), where the German Navy could force a battle. However, due to Germany's geographic location, Great Britain could blockade Germany by closing the entrance to the North Sea in the English Channel and the area between Bergen and the Shetland Islands. Faced with this option a German Admiral commented, "If the British do that, the role of our navy will be a sad one," correctly predicting the role the surface fleet would have during the First World War.
Politically and strategically, Tirpitz's Risk Theory ensured its own failure. By its very nature it forced Britain into measures that would have been previously unacceptable to the British establishment. The necessity to concentrate the fleet against the German threat involved Britain making arrangements with other powers that enabled her to return the bulk of her naval forces to Home Waters. The first evidence of this is seen in the Anglo-Japanese treaty of 1902 that enabled the battleships of the China squadron to be re-allocated back to Europe. The Japanese fleet, largely constructed in British shipyards, then proceeded to utterly destroy the Russian navy in the war of 1904–05, removing Russia as a credible maritime opponent. The necessity to reduce the Mediterranean Fleet in order to reinforce the navy in home waters was also a powerful influence in its détente and Entente Cordiale with the French. By forcing the British to come to terms with its most traditional opponent, Tirpitz scuttled his own policy. Britain was no longer at 'risk' from France, and the Japanese destruction of the Russian fleet removed that nation as a naval threat. In the space of a few years, Germany was faced with virtually the whole strength of the Royal Navy deployed against its own fleet, and Britain committed to her list of potential enemies. The Tirpitz 'risk theory' made it more probable that, in any future conflict between the European powers, Britain would be on the side of Germany's foes, and that the full force of the most powerful navy in the world would be concentrated against her fleet.
Tirpitz had been made a Großadmiral (grand admiral) in 1911, without patent (the document that accompanied formal promotions personally signed at this level by the Kaiser himself). At that time, the German Imperial Navy had only four ranks for admirals: rear admiral, (Konteradmiral, equal to a Generalmajor in the army, with no pips on the shoulders); vice admiral (Vizeadmiral, equal to a Generalleutnant, with one pip); admiral (equal to a General der Infanterie, with two pips), and grand admiral (equal to a field marshal). Tirpitz's shoulder boards had four pips, and he never received a grand admiral's baton or the associated insignia. Despite the building programme he oversaw, he believed that the war had come too soon for a successful surface challenge to the Royal Navy, as the Fleet Act of 1900 had included a seventeen-year timetable. Unable to influence naval operations from his purely administrative position, Tirpitz became a vocal spokesman for unrestricted U-boat warfare, which he felt could break the British stranglehold on Germany's sea lines of communication. His construction policy never bore out his political stance on submarines, and by 1917 there was a severe shortage of newly built submarines. When the restrictions on the submarine war were not lifted, he fell out with the Kaiser and felt compelled to resign on 15 March 1916. He was replaced as Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office by Eduard von Capelle.
In 1917, Grand Admiral Tirpitz was co-founder of the Pan-Germanic and nationalist Fatherland Party (Deutsche Vaterlandspartei). The party was organised jointly by Heinrich Claß, Konrad Freiherr von Wangenheim, Tirpitz as chairman and Wolfgang Kapp as his deputy. The party attracted the opponents of a negotiated peace and organised opposition to the parliamentary majority which was seeking peace negotiations. It sought to bring together outside parliament all parties on the political right, which had not previously been done. At its peak, in the summer of 1918, it had around 1,250,000 members. It proposed both Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff as 'people's emperors' of a military state whose legitimacy was based upon war and war aims instead of on the parliamentary government of the Reich. Internally, there were calls for a coup d'etat against the German government, to be led by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, even against the Emperor if necessary. Tirpitz's experience with the Navy League and mass political agitation convinced him that the means for a coup was at hand.
Tirpitz considered that one of the main aims of the war must be annexation of new territory in the west, to allow Germany to develop into a world power. This meant holding the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, with an eye to the main enemy, the United Kingdom. He proposed a separate peace treaty with Russia, giving them access to the ocean. Germany would be a great continental state but could maintain its world position only by expanding world trade and continuing the fight against the UK. He complained of indecision and ambiguity in German policy, humanitarian ideas of self-preservation, a policy of appeasement of neutrals at the expense of vital German interests, and begging for peace. He called for vigorous warfare without regard for diplomatic and commercial consequences and supported the most extreme use of weapons, especially unrestricted submarine warfare.
From 1908 to 1918, Tirpitz was a member of the Prussian House of Lords. After Germany's defeat, he supported the right-wing German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei, or DNVP) and sat for it in the Reichstag from 1924 until 1928.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Alfred von Tirpitz.|
Friedrich von Hollmann
| State Secretary of the Imperial German Navy
Eduard von Capelle
|Awards and achievements|
Sir James Craig
| Cover of Time Magazine
2 June 1924