Tirpitz, Alfred von


Tirpitz, Alfred von
(1849–1930)
   A key figure in German domestic and foreign policymaking as the naval minister of Kaiser Wilhelm II from the late 1890s until his dismissal in 1916. Tirpitz was born in Kuestrin on the River Oder on March 19, 1849 into an upper middle class family. His father was a judge. Tirpitz himself had an undistinguished school career and left at age 16 to join the Prussian navy. In those years, this navy was in poor shape and offered opportunities for a young officer who had now found his vocation. Tirpitz proved to be a skilled organizer who was keen to modernize the navy, even more so after the unification of Germany in 1871 as an officer of the new Imperial navy. When from 1877 onward the torpedo boat became a weapon of the future, Tirpitz helped to develop it in a systematic fashion that was also the hallmark of his later organizational efforts.
   By the early 1890s, Tirpitz had risen to a staff position at the Naval High Command, which, after a recent larger reorganization of the entire naval administrative structure, had been charged with training and war planning. It is in these years that Tirpitz pushed for a shift in strategic thinking away from cruiser warfare and the preparation for conflicts with other colonial powers in distant waters toward a fleet prepared to do battle in the home waters, and here not just against France or Russia, but also against Britain, then the dominant naval power in the world. This new strategy required the building of battleships rather than cruisers.
   In 1897, Wilhelm II put Tirpitz in charge of the Reich Navy Office where he had to deal with the naval budget and with obtaining the financial resources for a planned expansion of the navy from a reluctant national assembly, the Reichstag. With the help of a well-oiled naval propaganda department and pressure groups such as the recently founded Navy League, Tirpitz convinced the deputies to ratify the First Navy Law in 1898, followed by another one in 1900, thereby securing the next stage of his grand plan, thereafter named the Tirpitz Plan, to build a navy of no fewer than 60 battleships by 1918.
   For several years until 1911–1912, Tirpitz was a towering figure in the Reich government, supported by a monarch who had signed on to his naval secretary’s design - a building program that, once completed, would enable Wilhelm II, as supreme commander and man in charge of German foreign policymaking, to conduct “a great overseas policy,” as Tirpitz once told him. By 1907–1908, however, this policy had run into serious trouble. It promoted the diplomatic isolation of the country when, in 1904, Britain and France formed the Entente Cordiale followed in 1907 by the addition of Russia to create the Triple Entente. This left Germany in the middle with its only reliable ally, the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian Empire. Moreover, by then the Royal Navy had engaged Tirpitz in a quantitative and qualitative arms race in big ships, with the launch of the Dreadnought , which he lost a few years later.
   By 1914, with his position in the government and public opinion badly battered, Tirpitz realized that the Imperial navy was too weak to confront Britain at sea. Accordingly, his battleships remained bottled up at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven throughout the war, except for a brief sortie that resulted in a strategic defeat by the British in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. In the meantime, the Imperial navy had begun a frantic buildup of a submarine fleet, which, physically and symbolically, was the opposite of Tirpitz’s dream of a proud and very presentable fleet of 16 battleships. The kaiser dismissed him rather ignominiously in 1916.
   Tirpitz, however, had always been too political an officer to begin a quiet retirement at age 57. He was among the founders of the extreme right-wing Fatherland Party, a movement that agitated for a continuation of the war until a final German victory and large territorial annexations were achieved. As this victory became ever more elusive, the Fatherland Party stepped up its chauvinistic, antisocialist, and anti-Semitic propaganda. After Germany’s defeat in 1918, Tirpitz fell silent for a number of years until the conservative-nationalist Deutschnationale Volkspartei that had absorbed some of the elements of the Fatherland Party in 1918 persuaded him to stand as a candidate for the 1924 Reichstag elections. He gained a seat and used the aura of his name in right-wing circles to advance a radical revisionism in German foreign policy aiming at the destruction of the hated Versailles peace treaty. In 1929, he tried to persuade Paul von Hindenburg, then president of the Weimar Republic, to withhold his signature from the Young Plan, the renegotiated reparations settlement that replaced the Dawes Plan of 1924.
   Tirpitz died on March 6, 1930. Apart from the conservative-nationalist Stahlhelm veterans association, Adolf Hitler’s Stormtroopers also attended his funeral. The “Tirpitz Myth” of a powerful German navy was carried forward by his admirers in the naval officer corps under Hitler who, via the so-called Z-Plan, were happy to begin the building of world-class fleet of super battleships and aircraft carriers to be completed by the mid-1940s.
   See also <>; <>, Lord Fisher; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Hubatsch, W. Die Ära Tirpitz. Göttingen: Musterschmidt, 1955;
    Scheck, Raffael. Alfred von Tirpitz and German Right-Wing Politics. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1998;
    Steinberg, Jonathan. Yesterday ’ s Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet. London: Macdonald, 1968;
    Weir, Gary E. Building the Kaiser ’ s Navy: The Imperial Naval Office and German Industry in the von Tirpitz Era. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
   VOLKER R. BERGHAHN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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