German admiral, Secretary of State for the Navy, philosopher, organiser and devoted enemy of Britain, Alfred was born in 1849 and lived to the age of eighty. All his adult life he was a supporter of Weltpolitik, which depended on the acquisition of colonies, and the construction of a navy big enough and strong enough to protect them. Disliking the size of the British Navy, he proposed huge fleets precisely to prevent Britain from blocking Germany’s entry into world markets.
In 1897 he wrote, ‘For Germany the most dangerous opponent at the present time is England,’ and went on to explain why Germany needed to challenge Britain in home waters: ‘between Heligoland and the Thames’. Britain at that time had thirty-eight battleships and thirty-four cruisers, a heavy burden on the Exchequer but satisfying to the public in town and country. Germany had seven battleships and two cruisers. Tirpitz commented: ‘the construction of a fleet is the work of a generation.’
He developed his own ‘Risk Theory’, which proposed ‘the building of a fleet strong enough to threaten British superiority in the North Sea, so that by attacking such a fleet Britain would take the risk of losing so many ships that it would become inferior to other rivals, such as France and Russia. This (Tirpitz concluded) would make Britain realise the necessity of coming to an agreement with Germany and would enable Germany to acquire an empire by peaceful means’.
Von Tirpitz believed that the Navy Laws of 1898 which allowed for the building of 19 battleships would gain the support of German working classes. The second Navy Law of 1900 doubled this quantity. Combined, the Laws would provide much needed employment, and inspire patriotism. Politically, Tirpitz thought that such a magnificent enterprise would count against the rising Social Democratic Party and make it easier for the Junker class (mostly army officers and bureaucrats) to maintain their position of superiority in the State.
Tirpitz’ assumptions were false, or his intelligence networks had overstated the case. He thought that Britain would never be able to concentrate enough of her fleet in the North Sea to meet any Germany challenge, because the Navy was so involved elsewhere. He also believed that Britain would never ally with any other world power except Germany.
In Britain, however, the Navy Laws were seen as a serious threat, indeed the first serious threat since the Napoleonic Wars. The British saw Britain’s powerful navy as an absolute necessity, and an expensive and intense naval building programme turned into a costly race with Germany. Great Britain produced the first ‘Dreadnought’ in 1906, rapidly copied by Germany. The Dreadnought (‘fear nothing’) was driven by oil-fired turbines (not coal) could move at over twenty knots and mounted ten twelve-inch guns instead of the usual four. A fleet of Dreadnoughts could defeat a fleet three times its own size.
Everybody had miscalculated because Germany’s Navy Laws did not bring Germany and Britain closer together; precisely the opposite. Britain signed Ententes with both Russia and France. Ironically, when the inevitable war began in 1914 Tirpitz would not risk his precious fleet on the high seas and ordered an extensive submarine campaign instead! He was an advocate of unrestricted submarine warfare, preying on all ships, armed or not – such as liners.
Von Tirpitz became more and more right-wing as he aged, becoming a leader of the nationalist conservative group the Fatherland Party during the First War, and was elected to the Reichstag as a deputy for the ultra-conservative German National People’s Party. He survived the War and died in 1930. One of Germany greatest battleships was named after him in the Second World War.