The Influence of the Naval Race on German-Anglo Relations

Yvonne DePalma

In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, Captain Mahan argues that nations had dominated or had been dominated throughout history in direct relation to the strength of their navies and merchant marines:

The profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected. To secure to one's own people a disproportionate share of such benefits, every effort was made to exclude others, either by peaceful legislative methods... or, when these failed, by direct violence. The clash of interests...led to wars....wars arising from other causes have been greatly modified...by the control of the sea. Therefore the history of sea power, while embracing in its broad sweep all that tends to make a people great upon the sea or by the sea, is largely a military history.1

Mahan's sea power theory, with its capitalist, colonialist, and militarist overtones, complemented the imperialist urges and ambitions of the world's major industrial nations in the years preceding World War I. Although Mahan's main goal in writing the book was to educate his fellow Americans on the importance of sea power, his sea power theory was embraced by, among others, England and Germany. In order to obtain sea power, Germany passed Naval Laws to build up a fleet worth recognition. This in turn prompted England to build more ships in an effort to maintain its position of sea power. Each step taken by either country to cultivate sea power additionally stimulated hostile feelings toward the peoples of the other country. Consequently, the race for naval supremacy was a destructive force in the relations of England and Germany. In 1890 England was "the greatest maritime nation in the world."2 The maintenance of a strong navy was vital to England. England had a vast colonial empire and trade network. Many raw materials needed to support its industries were shipped in from other areas. Coupled with the protection of trade, the British Navy was also necessary to protect England from invasion. One of England's permanent interests, according to Lord Palmerston, was the maintenance of a navy stronger than that possessed by any combination of powers.3 If any one country, or combination of countries, possessed a navy which was of comparable size to the British Navy, it was seen as a grave threat to England. Accordingly, the passing of the German Navy Laws in 1898 and 1900 created an uneasiness in the British psyche.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, grandson of Queen Victoria, had admired the British Navy as a child. His desire to build a navy in Germany as majestic as that of England was heightened by Mahan's sea power theory and Germany's quest for "Weltmacht" (world power). Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was the guiding hand of Germany's grand naval design. To Tirpitz, a strong navy was as much a necessity to Germany as it was to England. In a letter written to the Kaiser in 1896 Tirpitz advised:

Up to the present our policy has failed completely to grasp the political importance of sea-power. If we intend to go out into the world and strengthen ourselves commercially by means of the sea, then, if we do not provide ourselves simultaneously with a certain measure of sea-power, we shall be erecting a perfectly hollow structure.4

Tirpitz set about to design the first Navy Law. This law, which was passed by the Reichstag in 1898, called for the construction of nineteen battleships, eight armored cruisers, twelve large and thirty light cruisers by April 1904. The Navy Law of 1898 did not pose a serious threat to the supremacy of the British Navy. England's original indifference to Germany's development of sea power was expressed by Edward Prince of Wales who said, "Oh, let him [Wilhelm II] play with his fleet."5 However, the passing of the Navy Law of 1900 which would double the production called for in the previous Navy Law was a different matter. By British naval officers' estimation, Germany would be the second naval power in the world by 1906.6

Rapid development of the German Navy was undoubtedly the root of the mutual Anglo-German mistrust. The presses of both England and Germany picked up on the hostility generated by the naval build up and augmented it. The increased animosity served to build the momentum of the naval race, a point noted in the Westminster Gazette:

The Teutophobia in England plays all the time into the hands of the Pan-German in Germany. His threats and complaints are translated into German and become so many reasons for increasing the German Fleet and checking British Diplomacy. The Pan-German does a corresponding work in this country. His extremely irresponsible literature is quoted as evidence of far-reaching German designs, and used as an argument for increasing expenditure to meet supposed dangers. There are certain English writers who are worth a battleship a year to Germany, and certain Pan-German Professors who are the equivalent of the whole Navy League in this country....these campaigns tend to produce the very dangers which they allege, and unless sober people step in to stop them, it will get rooted in language and thought that the two peoples are necessarily hostile.7

The growing Anglophobia in Germany was in part caused by the opposition to British actions in the South African War. The German press condemned the British exploits in South Africa, labeled the British Army "mercenaries", and, through the use of political cartoons, slandered the Queen. Kaiser Wilhelm, in an attempt to show his animosity toward British actions, sent a telegram to Boer President Kruger. This telegram congratulated the Boer president for successfully holding off British troops. Once the British press learned of the telegram, it lambasted the Kaiser and Germany. The British became very suspicious of Germany's intentions, especially in light of her recent move towards a naval build up. Of the Kruger telegram Tirpitz wrote "the outbreak of hatred let loose in England upon Germany contributed more than anything else to open the eyes...of the German people...to...the necessity for a fleet."8

Just as the rising anti-English sentiment in Germany was used to justify the Navy Law of 1900, the state of Anglo-German relations would be used to reinforce Britain's need for a powerful and efficient fleet. In 1900 and 1901 articles by German military men discussed the possibility of invading England. Admiral Livonius stated in one such article that the British navy was but a pale reflection of its former self and could be defeated by Germany at sea.9 "Invasion scares" ran rampant throughout England. Magazine articles, newspaper articles, and books invented scenarios of German invasion and reported the presence of German spies. The British public believed the German fleet to be a threat to the security of England. The author of one article in Vanity Fair went as far as to claim that the peace of Europe could be ensured by the destruction of the German Fleet.10 England feared a German attack and this fear was instrumental in the passing of British naval reforms.

Admiral Sir John Fisher was the man who would see to it that the British Navy was ready to stand up to any foe. Fisher's position was that the British Navy in its current state (1900) was not prepared for nor could be used for war due to its many deficiencies.11 The addition of cruisers and destroyers was needed. Fleet exercises were required to sharpen skills and heighten preparedness. Foremost, Fisher asserted, it must be understood that "our frontiers are the coasts of the enemy and we ought to be there five minutes after war is declared."12 In order to renovate the British Navy, Admiral Fisher proposed five reforms. These reforms were to: (1) educate young officers; (2) introduce a nucleus-crew system; (3) scrap obsolete warships; (4) redistribute fleets in accordance with current needs; and (5) introduce an all-big-gun type of battleship.

While Fisher was busily renovating the British Navy and Tirpitz was working on building up the German Fleet, diplomats from both countries were trying to repair Anglo-German relations. The race for naval supremacy continued to cause increasing tension between the two countries. The British position on Germany's naval build up was best summed up by Lord Hardinge:

There is no doubt that during these [pre-war] years that the naval question loomed like a heavy cloud over the relations between England and Germany. We had absolutely no question at issue with Germany...and had it not been for the strenuous naval competition initiated by Germany, there was no apparent cause for disturbance in Europe for the next ten years, and no need for the large naval programme that England was forced by Germany to adopt in order to maintain the security of our shores.13

The German Fleet was highly suspect of having aggressive intentions against England. Among the reasons for England's suspicions were the seemingly rapid build up of the German Navy and the high number of German ships in home waters. When Kaiser Wilhelm was being briefed on the progress of the diplomatic talks the British reasoning was brought up to which he retorted in disgust that Germany built ships because they needed them, and that, unlike the British who had Gibraltar and Malta, Germany had no other place to put her ships!14 In spite of assurances given by both sides that improvement of relations was of the utmost importance, neither country felt secure in the other's naval aims. Both England and Germany were convinced that their navies were of vital interest to them and each would not consider allowing the other to dictate its policy. Consequently, each continued to build up its navy.

The fifth of Fisher's naval reforms was the one which had the greatest impact on the naval balance of power. It was through this reform that the H.M.S. Dreadnought was built. When launched in 1906, the Dreadnought was the largest, fastest, and most powerful battleship in the world. It was equal in strength by most estimates to two or three other ships. An article in the Fortnightly Review (London) declared that the Dreadnought made the British Channel Fleet alone to be more than equal to the whole German fleet:

The German people, as they look upon the powerful Channel Fleet cruising at their very doors, will be reminded that it is merely the advanced guard of Great Britain. In home ports are a dozen more battleships held on the leash...ready to sail...and fight. The German government...has been checkmated.15

The German people were convinced that "Fisher was coming."16 Admiral Tirpitz went to work on new Naval Laws to help Germany make up for lost ground.

Admiral Tirpitz knew that Germany needed to possess ships of the Dreadnought caliber. The size of this type of ship created a major problem. The Kiel Canal which linked travel between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea could not accommodate a ship of the Dreadnought's size. Alterations needed to make the Kiel Canal suitable for the big ships would take an abundance of money and time. The alternative to this expenditure would be to have an obsolete, weaker fleet. The fear of "Jacky Fisher's Navy" was enough to convince the German people to make the commitment to the changes.

Tirpitz's new Navy Law was designed to create a Dreadnought fleet in a short period of time. If Tirpitz were able to keep construction of the Dreadnoughts on schedule, Germany would possess thirteen by 1913. The current British programs provided for only twelve Dreadnought battleships. The threat to the British Navy's position of power was clear. Relations between Germany and England were more strained than ever. The headlines in British newspapers assailed the new naval law as yet another attempt by Germany to supersede Britain as the mightiest navy in the world. The Kaiser was growing tired of having to explain Germany's every move concerning naval production to England. His irritation led him to make the following statement:

I have no desire for a good relationship with England at the price of the development of Germany's Navy. If England will hold out her hand in friendship only on condition that we limit our Navy, it is a boundless impertinence and a gross insult to the German people and their Emperor....The Bill will be carried out to the last detail; whether the British like it or not does not matter! If they want war, they can begin it, we do not fear it!17

In August 1911 Wilhelm called for naval increases "so that we can be sure that nobody will dispute our rightful place in the sun."18 In an effort to bring about a possible reduction in the naval race British War Minister Richard Burdon Haldane went to Berlin. It was Admiral Tirpitz's view that Haldane's real mission was to bring about a total collapse of the Navy Bill.19 Tirpitz fought against any changes that Haldane tried to initiate. In his autobiography Haldane discussed his encounter with Tirpitz. Based on his discussion with Tirpitz, Haldane wrote that "Tirpitz was determined in insisting on his policy of building up the strength of the German Navy, and I had to be equally decided in my answer that this meant our having to increase ours."20 The mission was a failure and left each side feeling even further estranged than before.

By 1912 conditions between England and Germany had deteriorated so badly that each country was resigned to the feeling that war with the other was unavoidable. Admiral Fisher had always believed that Germany and England would eventually go to war. It was Fisher's conviction that the Germans would bide their time until they could catch the British Navy unprepared. The "selected moment" he believed would be on a weekend, "probably on a weekend with a bank holiday."21 On the German side, General von Moltke announced in December 1912, "I consider war to be inevitable, and: the sooner, the better."22 The German

Navy was not yet ready for war. The war, however, would not wait for the German Navy. The renovated Kiel Canal was opened in 1914, only four days before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. By this time the animosity between England and Germany, which had been nourished through the years by the race for naval supremacy, had divided Europe into two armed camps. Both England and Germany had been expecting a war against the other for years, and when the time came they met on the opposite sides of the battlefield. Two countries which had once been on the best of terms were now alienated and the relationship between England and Germany would never be the same as it was before the great naval race.


1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1918), 1.

2. Ibid., 47.

3. Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era 1904-1919 (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), vol. 1, The Road to War 1904-1914, 5.

4. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, My Memoirs (New York: Dodd, Mead Inc., 1919), vol.2, 84.

5. James Oron Hale, Germany and the Diplomatic Revolution: A Study in Diplomacy and the Press (New York: Octogan Books, 1971), 293.

6. Holgar H. Herwig, "Luxury Fleet": The Imperial German Navy (London: Allen & Unwin, 1980), 43.

7. Hale, 29.

8. Tirpitz, 86.

9. Herwig, 50.

10. Ibid., 51.

11. Peter Padfield, The Great Naval Race: The Anglo-German Naval Rivalry 1900-1914 (New York: David McKay Company, 1974), 95.

12. Ibid.

13. Marder, 105.

14. E.T.S. Dugdale, trans., German Diplomatic Documents 1871-1914 (selected translations of Die Grosse Politik), (London: Meuthen, 1928), vol. 3, The Growing Antagonism, 213.

15. Padfield, 138.

16. Herwig, 52.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., 75.

19. Tirpitz, 295.

20. Richard Burdon Haldane, An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1929), 244-5.

21. Marder, 26.

22. Herwig, 78.

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