History / Warfare

First Great German Failure

The preceding posting, which traced the ugly history of Germany from imposing a massive indemnity against France in 1871, endeavored to show when Bismarck’s realpolitik was supplanted by Miquel’s weltpolitik in 1897 the First World War became inevitable.  This isn’t a new theory:

The new German Empire, which emerged from three local wars against Denmark, Austria and France (1864, 1866, 1870-1) played an increasingly important part in the chain of events that led from one great war to an even greater one.  A survey of German Foreign policy between those two wars will necessarily have to bring out the dynamics of the German Empire.  Between its foundation in 1871 through war and its downfall in 1918 at the end of war, its turn from a predominantly continental policy to the new concept of imperialist ‘Weltpolitik’ in 1897-8 occupies a central position, because the decision for ‘Weltpolitik’ made world war almost inevitable.  Modern research, initiated by Fritz Fischer in Germany, no longer denies the leading part of the German Empire in causing the First World War. (1)

The fact that current historians (Christopher Clark in 2012’s The Sleepwalkers) still argue whether it was Germany’s behavior prior to the outbreak of hostilities that sealed Europe’s fate is perplexing; Tuchman’s assertions in 1962’s The Guns of August were confirmed by Fritz Fischer’s research in Imanuel Geiss’s 1976 tome.  Not that Germany’s exclusive culpability is that hard to discern–from the DH (Deutsches Heer…translates as German Army) invasions of Belgium and Luxembourg commencing eight and ten days prior to the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia on 12 August 1914 and the Russians not counterattacking until 17 August 1914 it should be quite obvious that the Sarajevo assassinations was merely a pretext the Germans used to unleash Aufmarsch I on France and two neighboring neutral nations.  But the prevalence of faulty scholarship extends even to Imanuel Geiss:

Even before the war, the battle fleet had disastrous results for the German Empire in other respects.  The sums invested for building and modernizing it were so high that the expansion of the army, which should have formed the basis for a purely defensive policy, practically stagnated up to 1912.  Then it was too late to increase it sufficiently to wage a victorious offensive war. (21)  The permanently unprepared state of the fleet created another dilemma for German leaders whenever they had to decide the question of war or peace.  At the insistence of the navy, Germany was forced to adopt a policy of restraint, even when an opportunity for a lightning war on land presented itself, i.e. in 1904-5 during the Russo-Japanese War and the first revolution in Tsarist Russia. (22)

Alternate history theories become annoying and grating when it becomes abundantly clear that the historian/writer hasn’t thought everything through.  Geiss doesn’t ask, but should have, who might have retaliated massively if Germany had taken advantage of the 1905 Russian chaos?

Stick, No Carrot–the German Approach to Diplomacy

All of Europe, that’s who.  The German Empire set upon an inevitable collision course with the rest of Europe at the start of the final decade of the nineteenth century.  German machinations over the decade and a half preceding the 1905 Russian revolution had created a set of military circumstances, highly unfavorable to Germany, that would precipitate continent-wide war:

Germany gained the Heligoland-Zanzibar Agreement with Great Britain in July 1890.  In this treaty Germany acquired the strategic island of Heligoland in the North Sea for considerable concessions in German East Africa (Tanganyika), the strategic island of Zanzibar, and other islands of the coast of East Africa.  Britain had held Heligoland since the Napoleonic Wars. (71)  Then, in July 1891, William II visited England, hoping for Britain to join the Triple Alliance. (72)  As a result of Germany’s actions, Alexander III and Russia were diplomatically isolated.  The Tsar soon ended this isolation with a rapprochement with Republican France.  St. Petersburg and Paris agreed to a Military Convention in 1892, and established the Franco-Russian Dual Alliance in 1894. (73)  The Iron Chancellor’s web of diplomatic alliances that was meant to safeguard Germany were beginning to unravel.

In the two years since Bismarck had resigned on 18 March 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II had managed to unite two large aggrieved nations with massive armies that shared a border with Germany and swapped much of the German East Africa for…an island in the North Sea.  It is debatable who was most responsible for this turn of events:

Since Herbert von Bismarck declined the offer to stay on as Foreign Secretary, William II lacked a leading diplomatic adviser of high quality to assist him in directing German foreign policy.  The Iron Chancellor had maintained complete control over foreign relations and had failed to train anyone, other than Herbert, to follow in his footsteps and appreciate Germany’s complex system of alliances. (40)  With both Bismarcks gone, Germany lacked a Chancellor or State Secretary capable of providing the Kaiser with sound diplomatic advice.

Perhaps owing to the Kaiser possessing a toxic mix of arrogance, ego and ineptitude…

From the beginning of his reign, the Kaiser believed he could be his own Foreign Minister.  He thought he could manage diplomatic affairs through his own personal relations with other monarchs. (41)  To lessen the chance of any ministerial challenge to his authority, William II appointed men who lacked experience in diplomacy.  In most respects he made the Foreign Office the direct servant of the Kaiser.

…while the German monarch harbored a deep-seated hatred of diplomats and the subtleties of international discourse that lasted throughout his entire reign…

Holstein once heard him exclaim: “After the French, the people I hate most are diplomats and deputies.” (77)  Holstein wrote in his memoirs “the Kaiser’s dislike of the Foreign Ministry is almost pathological and is recognized as such by the people concerned.” (78)  Commenting on the Kaiser’s opinion of the Foreign Office, Lamar Cecil stated:

William’s language respecting the Foreign Office was often abusive.  Its officials were “swine”; it lacked both keenness and confidence; it was the department of the government for which he had the least respect; it did nothing but raise objections.  “I will tell you something,” he declared in 1912 to Wilhem von Stumm, the Director of the Political Division, “You diplomats are full of shit and the whole Wilhelmstrasse stinks.”

…to no one’s surprise but the German government all attempts to “persuade” Britain to enter into an alliance with Germany were rebuffed:

Berlin was able to offer colonial concessions in the Heigoland-Zanzibar Agreement of 1890, and the Germans exploited British difficulties in the Far East and Africa to put pressure on London to join the Triple Alliance. (90)  AS Norman Rich has stated, “the Germans were lulled into a false sense of strength and security in their own position, confident that the British would someday be compelled to enter into an alliance with Germany on Germany’s terms.” (91)  The Kaiser felt confident of improved Anglo-German relations during the temporary Anglo-French crisis over Siam in 1893.  But British Prime Minister Gladstone (1892-94) was not interested in an Anglo-German alliance. (92)  As a consequence, William II refused to back Britain in the Anglo-French quarrel over the Anglo-Congolese Treaty of May 1894. (93)  He even offered to cooperate with the French in resisting the treaty.  A.J.P. Taylor believed that the Kaiser was trying to force Archibald Primrose, the Earl of Rosebery, the new British Prime Minister (1894-95), to join the Triple Alliance. (94) 

What was the Kaiser’s position on diplomats again?  Oh, yes: “After the French, the people I hate most are diplomats and deputies.”  Wilhelm’s approach is to…side with his mortal enemies in an attempt to force the world’s most powerful nation in 1894 to enter into an alliance on his (the German emperor’s) terms.  Right.

But the result was that London had to abandon the Anglo-Congolese Treaty.  The British were humiliated, and London warned Berlin that Britain might reconsider its international position if Germany kept supporting France in colonial issues. (95)

The argument that alliances were one of the causes of the First World War has always been annoying, chiefly due to the fact that the alliance systems tended to work in the opposite direction of what history tends to advertise while also distracting from the true cause.  The nineteenth-century alliance system, an anti-Napoleon design re-purposed by Bismarck to isolate 1870s France, did morph into a monster that eventually burned the House of Hohenzollern to the ground, but the reason that occurred was the stunning incompetence on the part of the Imperial German government.  In the space of four years, Kaiser Wilhelm II had dispensed with Bismarck’s realpolitik in exchange for uniting two of Germany’s sworn enemies and setting the stage for the Anglophone world to enter into alliance with France and Russia against the Germanic powers.  Which raises the question…

Why Was There Surprise when Britain Sided Against Germany in 1914?

A valid question, one the Germans seemed genuinely perplexed by when Britain officially went to war over Belgian neutrality.  Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg himself confirmed the confusion during a wartime interview:

England drew the sword only because she believed her own interests demanded it.  Just for Belgian neutrality she would never have entered the war.  That is what I meant when I told Sir E. Goschen, in that last interview when we sat down to talk the matter over privately man to man, that among the reasons which had impelled England into war the Belgian neutrality treaty had for her only the value of a scrap of paper.

I may have been a bit excited and aroused.  Who would not have been at seeing the hopes and work of the whole period of my Chancellorship going for naught?

Both this posting and the previous one accuse the German leadership of being boneheaded, and the accusation only grows.  In the twenty years since Britain first warned Germany to behave, the Germans have progressed to accusing Britain of having ulterior motives when London reacted to Berlin trashing two treaties named after the British capital and invading neutral Luxembourg and Belgium with a declaration of war on 4 August 1914.  That’s…actually a fairly cogent argument.

A quotation from a certain German-born National Security Adviser and Secretary of State for Nixon and Ford comes to mind, but Kissinger was channeling the two-time nineteenth century British PM Lord Palmerston:

I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.

What interests was Lord Palmerston referring to?  National security, right?  What are a nation’s security policies designed to prevent?

It is quite clear that if by sudden attack by an Enemy landed in strength our Dock-yards were to be destroyed our Maritime Power would for more than half a century be paralysed, and our Colonies, our commerce, and the Subsistence of a large Part of our Population would be at the Mercy of our Enemy, who would be sure to shew us no Mercy—we should be reduced to the Rank of a third Rate Power if no worse happened to us.

Invasion and subjugation, according to the PM.  The next line in Lord Palmerston’s 1859 letter to Gladstone are a challenge to the Royal Navy:

That such a Landing is in the present State of Things possible must be manifest. No Naval Force of ours can effectually prevent it.

Fighting words…what are you going to do about this, Admiral?  Fair to say the Great Britain’s (all nations, really) #1 interest is identifying and eliminating threats to its national security.  Great Britain certainly saw the Kaiserliche Marine (the Imperial German Navy, abbreviated KM) as an immense threat once Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz threw down the gauntlet:

“For Germany the most dangerous naval enemy at the present time is England.  It is also the enemy against which we most urgently require a certain measure of naval force as a political power factor.” (15)  When confronting such an enemy, “commerce raiding and transatlantic war are hopeless, because of the shortage of bases on our side and the superfluity on England’s side.”  Therefore, Germany had to build “battleships in as great a number as possible.” (16)

Okay, but how influential was this single German admiral…

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.

Pretty damn influential.  Tirpitz’s memorandum to the Kaiser was dated three days prior to the admiral taking the position Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, though his Risk Theory didn’t pan out:

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 1904-06, 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 the détente and entente 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.

Quoting at length from a Wikipedia article normally would be a questionable decision on a blog’s part, but the author in this case writes with authority.  The KM ‘Risk Theory’ is almost universally criticized; Stephen R. Rock going almost as far as calling Tirpitz unreasonable:

The powerful bargaining position that Tirpitz had envisioned for Germany never materialized, and it is doubtful that it would have done so even had the First World War not intervened.

Historians have pointed out that Tirpitz’s risk theory was riddled with inconsistencies and grounded in unreasonable assumptions. (1)

The German Grand Admiral had trouble projecting what his adversaries response to German policy would be, in contrast to the Iron Chancellor’s purported prowess.  In other words, Tirpitz was no Bismarck, which raises another question: why Tirpitz so influential in the first place?

Nautical Necessity

The Prussian military tradition did not extend to the sea; a product of poor sea access (Denmark, Norway and Sweden form a bottleneck into the Baltic at the Skagerrak and Danish Straits) and the need to prioritize maintaining a powerful army due to a lack natural barriers and defenses against adversaries that surrounded Prussia.  Also the Prussians, traditionally allied with the seafaring nations of Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, saw no need for a significant navy until the the First Schleswig Holstein War. 

The Royal Danish Navy’s seven ships of the line, nine frigates, four corvettes, five brigs and barks, three schooners, six steam ships and 87 gun barges proved crucial to defeating the combined might of Prussia and the German Confederation:


(Map provided for reference to Als Island, Funen Is., Jutland Peninsula and Zealand Is. locations)

The main task of the Royal Danish Navy was transport and the blockade of German harbours.  At the beginning of the war the steamers showed their value as they could tow several sailing ships and in that way transport the Danish army from Zealand and Funen to Jutland in record time.  Later, in connection with army operations from the Island of Als in 1848 and Fredericia in 1849 the navy played an essential role for the concentration of the army.  The German states had no navy hence the Danes totally dominated the sea from the beginning of the war and so the Danish army did not have to protect Zealand and Funen and all the other small islands but could be concentrated on the tasks in Jutland and Schleswig.  This was in contrast to the German army which had to use troops fore protection of the coasts.  The German troops were therefore often scattered, which in certain situations was crucial for the Danish operations.

Their naval forces were crucial to Danish defensive operations, but also were also a potent offensive force against the states in the German Confederation…

The Danish blockade of the German North Sea and Baltic harbours damaged the German trading and the financial consequences of this made the war unpopular in parts of Germany.

…for which the unprepared German forces had no defense against:

The navy was divided into three squadrons: the Baltic, the North Sea, and the squadron assisting the army with transport.  The Baltic squadron assured the blockade of the Schleswig harbours and in 1849 was extended to Prussian harbours in the eastern Baltic, although it was always in reserve for transportation of troops.  The North Sea squadron was used for blockading the rivers Elbe, Weser and Jade from 1849, resulting in a full blockade of Germany. 

The Germans were becoming undone by the Danish Navy, which probably explains why the German Confederation put together their national navy (the Reichsflotte) between 1848 and 1852 with three steamship frigates, four steamship corvettes and a sailing frigate while the rebellious Schleswig-Holsteiners assembled three armed steamships, one schooner and 12 gun barges by 1850.  However, these hastily thrown together forces clearly were no match for the Danes…

A small group of minor boats had their base at Fanø Island on the west coast of Jutland, which was not occupied  by German troops.  These boats made several operations against the Schleswig-Holsteiners’ islands off the west coast of Schleswig.

…seeing that the rebels were beset by a group of Danish rowboats.  Next, the Royal Danish Navy proceeded to throw the mighty Prussian army out of the war:

In 1850 when Prussia signed a peace treaty with Denmark pulling out of the war, the naval operations ceased in the North Sea, apart from operations in the shallow waters around the islands of the west coast of Schleswig, and were concentrated on blockading the Schleswig Holstein Baltic coast.

Once defeating the most powerful member of the German Confederation, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the German states sued for peace and the Schleswig Holstein revolt was put down.  After the defeat, Prussia scrambled to build a navy; sending their best admiral and naval strategist Prince Adalbert to negotiate the Jade Treaty with Oldenburg in 1853 which led to the construction of the port of  Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea (past the Skagerrak and Danish Straits), the Kaiserliche Marine‘s equivalent to Norfolk and Scapa Flow.

Prince Adalbert died in 1873, thus depriving the KM of the finest senior naval officer the Germans ever had (not saying much when the competition is Tirpitz, Scheer, Raeder, Lutjens and the war criminal Karl Donitz).  The next great booster of the KM was none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose greatest accomplishments were the Heligoland-Zanzibar Agreement of 1890 and appointing Tirpitz in 1897.  Oh, about that…

After nearly a year in the Far East, Tirpitz was recalled, following a political crisis in Berlin. He was appointed in June 1897 to be state secretary of the Imperial Naval Office by Kaiser Wilhelm. This appointment was part of the complete replacement of the top personnel within the German Reich. In the months leading to June 1897, the German secretaries for Foreign Ministry, State, Interior, Treasury, and Post Office, and the vice president of the Prussian State Ministry, had all resigned, and were replaced by the Kaiser.

Naval Nation

How reassuring.  Certainly there are times to clean house entirely and start over with a new cabinet, but we are talking about Wilhelm II in this case.  The Kaiser chose Tirpitz knowing he intended to do this:

On receiving his appointment as secretary for the navy, Tirpitz presented the Kaiser with a report entitled “General Considerations on the Constitution of our Fleet according to Ship Classes and Designs.” “Behind the apparently technical character of this memorandum, a fully developed strategy for Germany’s navy was concealed, which can be said without exaggeration to have changed the course of modern history,” historian Jonathan Steinberg said in Yesterday’s Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet. The report presented objectives for Germany to match the naval power of Great Britain, with the building of two squadrons of warships by 1905. Under his plan, Germany would spend 408 million marks, about 58 million marks a year between 1897 and 1905. By 1905, the German Fleet would have 19 battleships, 8 armored coastal ships, 12 large cruisers, 30 small cruisers, and 12 divisions of torpedo boats.

Tirpitz’s ambitious plan took the High Naval Command, the Reichstag, and the German public by surprise. The High Command was considering a plan to build a similar fleet by 1910, but Tirpitz boldly undercut their schedule. Articles derived from his memorandum were drafted as a law, known as the First Fleet Act, and prepared for the Reichstag.

In proceedings before deliberating on the First Fleet Act, members of the Reichstag bristled at the huge spending targets. The public initially supported the opposition, but Tirpitz personally lobbied with German princes who wielded great political power and with business organizations for support of his plan. He also had significant support from the Kaiser, from proponents of German unity, and from the sponsors of German imperialism.

Oh wait, there’s more:


‘Weltpolitik’ therefore came into existence as a red herring of the ruling classes to distract the middle and working classes from social and political problems at home, at the risk of war and of losing war, monarchy and all.  But short-term economic and political advantages were more attractive than warnings of possible defeat.  ‘Weltpolitik’, basically an enterprise of national demagogy, also became a vested economic interest: the building of a large battle fleet brought quick and long-term profits for the steel industry in general and the Krupps in particular.  The building programme of the fleet gave work to the steel industry, the capacity of which had been inflated far beyond the needs of the German market. (16)  Krupp, therefore, was mainly responsible for founding and financing the ‘Flottenverein’ (Naval League) in 1898, which, hand in glove with Tirpitz at the Naval Office, organized powerful agitation for the building of a modern battle fleet. (17)  German university professors were amongst the most persuasive agitators.  At the same time, the German middle classes were favoured by economic measures, while political and administrative pressure on the Poles was again taken up, in contrast to Caprivi’s policy and in conformity with Miquel’s programme. (18) 

The battle fleet was an instrument of the German middle class ‘par excellence’.  It was both a symbol and vehicle of collective and individual power and prestige, for the Empire and for individual members of the German middle class as naval officers.  Thus, the fleet was not just a whim of an eccentric Kaiser, but represented the massive economic interests and social aspirations of the most prosperous and dynamic elements of German society.  Politically, the building of the battle fleet now resulted in the same conflict that Bismarck had had with parliament over the modernization and expansion of the Prussian army in the early 1860s.  Then, the army had been Bismarck’s most spectacular instrument for the creation of the German Empire.  Now, Tirpitz wanted to repeat Bismarck’s coup by forging his Kaiser an instrument for the Empire’s ‘Weltpolitik’.

Tirpitz had drastically changed practically every aspect of German governmental policy–he was Wilhelm II’s Bismarck (which is ironic considering the largest battleships in the Second World War Kriegsmarine were the hard-charging Bismarck and the do-nothing-once-I’m launched Tirpitz).  The one thing Tirpitz didn’t change was finances

The German tax system permitted no nationwide direct taxes and the upper classes refused to submit to democratic finance, unlike the more flexible British. Also, beginning in 1911, the sleeping giant, the German Army, slowly awakened. Since the 1890s, the army, which saw deterrence of domestic disorder as one of its main functions, had deliberately limited its growth. Burgeoning population growth, especially in cities, meant there were both more workers than loyal peasants in its ranks and more members of the bourgeoisie in its officer corps, since the traditional supply of aristocratic officers was shrinking in proportion. Militaristic pressure groups, more fearful of Germany’s powerful neighbors than of insurrection, began to clamor for army expansion. By 1911, the navy was taking one-third of the defense budget. Tirpitz realized the army would now be a formidable competitor for scarce tax revenues.

…the domain of weltpolitik financier Johannes Miquel…

Economic and political factors were corroding Bismarck’s coalition, formed in 1878-9 to protect agrarian and industrial interests, (12) less than twenty years later.  An atmosphere of protracted crisis prevailed in the mid-1890s, jealousy and mistrust between the agrarian and industrial sectors of Germany’s ruling class on the one hand, fear of social revolt from below and ‘coups d’etat’ from above, aggravated by the Kaiser’s ambition for ‘personal rule’.  It was in this tense situation that the Prussian Minister of Finance, Johannes von Miquel, the ‘strong man’ in Germany at the time, returned to Bismarck’s principle of class solidarity at home and spectacular policy abroad.  In the summer of 1897 Miquel was made Vice-President of the Prussian Ministry and Tirpitz was appointed Secretary of State for the Navy. 

In the autumn Bernhard von Bulow formally became Secretary of State in the Auswdrtiges Amt, after being acting Foreign Secretary some months earlier. With Bulow’s arrival at the Wilhelmstrasse the Kaiser had completed his ministerial crew to launch the new ‘Weltpolitik’. Miquel was to prepare the domestic basis, Tirpitz to plan the modernization and expansion of the German navy as an important instrument of ‘Weltpolitik’, while Bulow was to carry out ‘Weltpolitik’ first as Secretary of State, then, between 1900 and 1909, as Chancellor. He was in basic agreement with his Kaiser, but sometimes he had to make the best of the Kaiser’s more irrational brain waves.

Miquel, who had been a friend and follower of Karl Marx in 1848-9, had become the leading spokesman of the Conservative faction in the National Liberal Party, representing mainly industrial interests.  But he pleaded for the protection also of agrarians, because he saw in them the strongest pillar of the monarchy and conservative structure.  Industry was, however, indispensable for modern power politics.  This is why, in view of the coming General Elections of 1898, he wished to renew the former alliance of agriculture and industry of 1878-9 and Bismarck’s ‘Kartell’ of 1887, thus forming a common front of all Conservative forces against Social Democracy and left-wing Liberalism.  Miquel found an arousing battle-cry in ‘rallying all productive classes’ (‘Sammlung der produktiven Stande’) around the imperial throne and in ‘Weltpolitik’.  To unite the possessing classes in their common economic and political interest, it was necessary, however, to act in strict conformity with the Constitution.  The Liberal elements of the middle classes might react strongly when confronted with a return to playing with open repression, ‘coups d’etat’, etc.

As compensation for forgoing political adventures at home, Miquel stressed possibilities abroad.  He was not only for strengthening ‘national sentiments by treating the Poles harshly, and this even against the Centre party’, but also for bringing questions of foreign policy before the Reichstag to a greater extent than before.

He [Miquel] had entertained the hope that colonial policy would turn our attention outwards, but this had happened only to a limited extent.  We would therefore have to introduce questions of foreign policy into the Reichstag, for in foreign affairs the sentiments of the nation would usually be united.  Our undeniable successes in foreign policy would make a good impression in the Reichstag debates, and political divisions would thus be moderated. (13)

A breathtaking foreign policy was intended to unite the nation and, through ‘mobilization of the masses’ would increase her power.  Miquel’s reasoning agreed on this point with an observation made by Holstein in late 1894.  While criticizing the Kaiser’s tendency to personal rule in a letter to Wilhelm’s close friend Eulenburg, he agreed with Eulenburg that ‘a successful war would have a very salutary effect’.  But Holstein added: ‘there is little prospect now of a defensive war, because no one wants to do anything to us.’ (14)  Holstein saw dismal consequences arising from a German war of aggression.  Bulow, the future Secretary of State and Chancellor, who had been drawn into the discussion by Eulenburg, put the issue even more sharply:

The way to win popular support for the monarchy was to revive the ‘national idea’.  A victorious war would of course solve many problems, just as the wars of 1866 and 1870 had rescued the dynasty from the steady decline which had begun in 1848.  On the other hand, an unsuccessful war would mean the end of the dynasty because, after Bismarck’s attacks, ‘our Kaiser cannot afford to have any major setbacks’. (15)

…the finance minster whose influence was so immense the Imperial tax system remained unchanged for over a decade after Miquel’s death in 1901.

But like Stephen R. Rock, to us the British reaction to the KM buildup seems odd in light of the growing might of the navy that would finally eclipse the Royal Navy juggernaut:

Yet it is interesting to note that while the growth of German naval power did not lead to accommodation on the part of Great Britain, the contemporaneous expansion of the American navy did.  Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as the United States grew in strength, the government in London became increasingly reluctant to contemplate hostilities with America.  Beginning in 1896, the British statesmen made a series of concessions to the United States.  They submitted to arbitration their dispute with Venezuela over the boundary between that country and British Guiana, refused to back Canada in her claims to territory along her border with Alaska, agreed to the unilateral construction, by the United States, of a Central American canal, and removed the bulk of the Royal Navy from the waters of the Western Hemisphere.  In 1903, the British Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, openly proclaimed his government’s support for the Monroe Doctrine.  One scholar has labelled British policy of this era as nothing less than ‘appeasement’.

This is intriguing from a historical standpoint, with a caveat–the past did not unfold in a vacuum.  Too often this leads to “if Germany (or insert any other nation’s name here) had just done this, the outcome would have been this…” alternate history fantasies. 

Great Britain’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century détente with France and the United States was not in spite of German foreign policy; British rapprochement toward their former American enemies and centuries-long rival France was precisely because the the German Empire under the reign of weltpolitik and Wilhelm II was about as subtle as a thermonuclear explosion.

1890s: The Decade of Diplomatic Deficiency that Duped and Destroyed Deutschland

Along with Bismarck’s exit from governance and Germany’s descent into infantile diplomatic policies, 1890 marked a sea change (sorry for the pun) in naval policy.  That year Germany joined the centuries-old naval race between France and Russia to test the mettle of ruler of the seas Great Britain when the Kaiserliche Marine first began building pre-Dreadnought battleships with the four capital ships of the Brandenburg-class. 

The Royal Navy derisively termed the KM’s Brandenburgs ‘the whalers,’ but even before the five battleships of the following Kaiser Friedrich III-class could be fitted out Alfred von Tirpitz decided to threaten the Royal Navy when the relative strength of the KM’s battle fleet versus the RN’s was less than the German Confederation against the Royal Danish Navy in 1850

This might have been the most boneheaded act of Tirpitz’s career, one that probably deserved a court martial for its sheer carelessness.  Naturally, any boneheaded idea attracts the entire German government…

Tirpitz submitted a draft of the First Fleet Act, which outlined his plan for the construction of the German fleet and the reorganization of German sea power, to the Reichstag on October 4, 1898. The law was approved in complete secrecy by October 18, with little opposition. Its provisions included the building of a flagship, 16 battleships, 8 armored coastal ships, and 9 large and 26 small cruisers.

…and rather than question whether challenging the Royal Navy with just five operational capital ships was an act of madness, the Reichstag doubled down…

Historians see that law as the beginning of a new era. While it was augmented by the Second Fleet Act in 1900, which also was drafted by Tirpitz, the 1898 law marked the start of the arms race and international tensions that exploded in 1914.

The Second Fleet Act also was approved by the Reichstag, and set a more ambitious program to build a larger high-seas fleet. This law called for the building of a fleet that would include 2 flagships, 26 battleships, 11 large cruisers and 34 small cruisers by 1917. It was never fulfilled.

With the passage of the First and Second Fleet Acts, Germany began building warships at a rate of four per year. This caused Britain, France, and Russia to conclude that the growing navy would eventually be used for more than defensive purposes. Although Germany strove for parity, at the outbreak of war the British fleet had 49 battleships in service or under construction, while Germany had 29.

…permitting Alfred Tirpitz’s decision to stand which made the Kaiserliche Marine Britain’s Enemy #1.  The entire endeavor cost Germany dearly, especially when the arms race exploded in cost after the launch of Dreadnought battleships (named for the RN’s Dreadnought-class which made all pre-Dreadnoughts obsolete)…

…beginning in 1906 while the destruction of the Russian fleet at Tsushima the year prior freed up more RN squadrons to bottle up the KM.

So, why did the British let the U.S. Navy off the hook?

The evolution and gestation of American battleship designs occurred in noticeable stages. After a 25year absence in designing modern warships from the coastal monitors of the American Civil War, the navy didn’t trust American designers to design a battleship equal to those of other navies, so USS Maine (originally rated as an armored cruiser) and USS Texas were built to purchased British designs. Neither was equal to contemporary Royal Navy designs but after the long hiatus in warship construction, US shipbuilding yards and facilities had to be further developed to build totally modern designs. When it came to producing modern US designed battleships, another obstacle was Congress and the great distrust the legislative body had in large battleships. Congress considered a large navy and especially large battleships the tools of colonialism. Accordingly the first classes of US designed battleships were intentionally designed for coastal operations and coastal defense missions.

This led to the second stage of American battleship construction, the low freeboard coastal battleships. The Indiana class was heavily armed and armored but the low freeboard limited their use in the open ocean, in spite of USS Oregon’s world cruise. The following single ship Iowa class raised the freeboard somewhat but not enough for true Blue Water operations. The two ship Keasarge class kept a low freeboard but introduced its own innovation. To save weight and still keep a four gun broadside for the secondary guns, the two gun 8-inch positions were sited on top of the two main gun turrets that had to be trained with the main guns, as they were incapable of independently training in a different direction from the main guns. The following Illinois class was still limited by the Congressional mandate “seagoing coastline battleships” the USN design committee contemplated that not design feature of this class would seriously impair good seagoing and sea-enduring qualities. 

The USN battleships remained a brown-water, coastal defense force until the Virginia-class entered service starting the same year as HMS Dreadnought, long after the Royal Navy’s focus had zeroed in on the Kaiserliche Marine.  The KM’s response to Dreadnought …

Kaiser Wilhelm could not help but respond, and the Germans began a program of ships to rival the British. As well as the construction of new ships he also ordered the widening of the Kiel Canal to accommodate these larger vessels. This canal could be used to move battleships, which were anchored in the Baltic, into the North Sea without having to pass around the Jutland Peninsula, saving time and exposure to enemy fire. This could only be considered a hostile act on Germany’s part.

The first German dreadnought-type vessels, which would eventually be known as the Nassau class was laid in 1907, the same year as widening commenced on the Kiel Canal.

…turned the mood of the British people a bit strange:

In Britain there was Dreadnought fever as the public clamoured for more shipbuilding and the Liberal government, caught trying to reduce naval spending, was forced on the defensive. One election meeting was disrupted by cries of “Dreadnought! Dreadnought! Dreadnought!”.

“We want eight and we won’t wait” was another popular cry as naval propagandists demanded that number of new ships. The result was hardly a surprise. As the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, wryly noted: “The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”

Dreadnought fever only worsened in the following years:

The Anglo-German naval race came into focus with the German Navy Bill of 1908 and the British “Navy Scare” of 1909, which resulted in a massive construction program under anti-German auspices. An atmosphere of mutual suspicion now ruled the day. German fear of an imminent British military strike was matched by British suspicion about a secret acceleration of the construction of German capital ships. With broad national support, the British political and military leadership forcefully responded to the German program and displayed a relentless determination to protect British naval mastery. After 1908, massive British naval construction ensured the perpetuation of a favorable force ratio. The Liberal government also showed its resolve to increase its armaments supply with the passing of the so-called People’s Budget, which raised new revenue through taxation and suggested that Britain was in a position to mobilize whatever financial resources were necessary to remain ahead in the naval race with Germany, even at the expense of a constitutional crisis.

In 1906 the Americans laid down their first two Dreadnoughts, the South Carolina-class, as the USN was transitioning to a blue-water (power projecting oceangoing) navy with the arrival of the USS Virginia.  Yes, the KM’s first Dreadnoughts, the Nassau-class, were laid down a year after the South Carolinas; but in 1907 the British were so hungry for allies (having already entered into the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904) they entered into the Anglo-Russian Convention.  In effect, the battleship arms race had created the Triple Entente.  

By 1910 both France and Russia were building their first Dreadnoughts, the Courbet– and Gangut-classes.  The Royal Navy clearly saw nothing wrong with their allies building Dreadnoughts, as it freed up RN battleships to face Wilhelmshaven.  Is there any doubt that the RN saw USN Dreadnoughts as allied battleships?

Germany Lost the First World War in 1897

Goes to show, if you don’t threaten the most powerful nation on Earth, she might make you her ally.  But Tirpitz never could take a hint:

The Anglo-German arms race saw repeated attempts to explore the possibility of an arms control agreement. These talks, which included a visit by the British Secretary of War Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928) to Berlin in February 1912, never stood a chance of succeeding, as both sides were unwilling to enter into an agreement to their disadvantage. In Germany, Tirpitz enjoyed a veto position that allowed him to torpedo any efforts at a mutually acceptable agreement with Britain, which were undertaken by successive chancellors and supported by most of the civilian foreign policy elite in an effort to improve Anglo-German relations. In Britain, interest in an arms agreement was driven by a desire to stabilize naval competition at as low a level as possible in order to limit the financial costs of maintaining a clear British superiority. The Anglo-German talks that took place while the German Navy Bill of 1912 was being considered shattered any hopes in that regard for good. Subsequent talk about “naval holidays” and mutual arms limitations served a strictly propagandistic purpose.

As soon as Tirpitz’s 15 June 1897 memorandum was accepted by the Kaiser, it was all over.  Britain was always guaranteed to win the naval race, and the damage to German finances brought to the forefront the idea of striking France again; the prospect the glory days of the 1871 victory returning and the windfall that came with it irresistible.

But war is a fickle bitch.  The canon de 75 modèle 1897 was the Dreadnought of artillery pieces:

In 1898 the French army introduced another innovation to its arsenal: the Canon de 75 modèle 1897. French soldiers, referring to its 75mm bore, dubbed it the Soixante-Quinze. The Germans who encountered it at First Marne in September 1914 knew it as the “Black Butcher.”

Conceived in 1892 at the state-owned arsenal at Puteaux, the Mle 1897 combined a hydropneumatic recoil mechanism with a Nordenfeldt eccentric screw breech that enabled rapid reloading. Ironically, French engineer Lt. Col. Joseph-Albert Deport based the recoil mechanism on an existing system patented by German engineer Konrad Haussner but not adopted by his countrymen. The French entered World War I with more than 4,000 Mle 1897s, and wartime production ultimately exceeded 21,000 guns and 200 million shells.

The First Battle of the Marne, where the German advance ground to a halt and afterwards the war stagnated for the next four years, demonstrated that artillery ruled the modern battlefield. 

The old soldier saw goes “amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.”  Here, too, were the roots of Germany’s defeat:

Germany had started with an industrial advantage over both Britain and France – chiefly because it led the way in steel production, and in many branches of chemicals and engineering – and its output of shells in 1914 was 1.36 million shells.

But shortages of vital raw materials – particularly cotton, camphor, pyrites and saltpetre – meant it could not expand its production at the same rate, and only 8.9 million shells were made in 1915.

The following year saw a huge improvement, thanks to efforts of the KRA, the wartime raw materials department, which commandeered stockpiles, allocated distribution and, most importantly, oversaw the chemical industry’s production of synthetic substitutes.

In 1916, as a result, the production of German shells increased almost fourfold to 36 million. But in the long term, the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria – could not hope to compete with the Allies’ financial and industrial muscle.

The former’s total war expenditure of $61.5bn was less than half the latter’s $147bn.

In the summer of 1916, Germany instituted the poorly thought-out and ineptly administered Hindenburg Programme – named after the army commander Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg – in an attempt to boost its production of weapons.

Instead it drained the army of a million men, brought on a major transport crisis and intensified the shortage of coal.

In early 1917, Germany tried to protect its depleted and under-equipped forces on the Western Front by withdrawing to the fortified Hindenburg Line, and by launching unrestricted submarine warfare.

The latter caused the US to enter the war, thus tipping the munitions balance even further in the Allies’ favour. It was, ultimately, a war of attrition that the under-resourced Central Powers could not hope to win.


The German decision to go to war in 1914 was a boneheaded one, in line with almost every military decision Miquel, Tirpitz and Wilhelm II made after 1890.  But the ultimate irony is the High Seas Fleet literally took down Imperial Germany:

Naval Supreme Commander Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, in conjunction with a few close allies including Franz von Hipper and Adolf von Trotha, determined in October 1918 to plan and launch a major attack against the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet by the High Seas Fleet in an attempt to restore the lustre of the tarnished German Navy.  As much due to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s protectiveness as the activities of the Royal Navy, the German Navy had not enjoyed a successful war.

Scheer was however aware that plans for a large-scale naval attack at such a late stage of the war would almost certainly be vetoed by the government of Prince Max von Baden.  He therefore chose not to inform von Baden of his plans.  Nevertheless word of the impending attack quickly reached sailors at both Kiel and Wilmershaven, both key German naval ports.

Determined not to embark upon a mission which they believed would end only in disaster – and with a belief that the war was approaching its conclusion – many sailors took unauthorised leave or refused to accept orders to put to sea on 30 October 1918.  High Seas Fleet commander Hipper realised that the planned operation could not be executed in such circumstances.  The plan was consequently abandoned.

This did not however bring an end to naval unrest.  In spite of the despatch of Gustav Noske from Berlin as Kiel’s new Governor the mutiny began to spiral.  Kiel base commander Prince Heinrich of Prussia was obliged to flee under cover of disguise.  Workers’ and sailors’ councils were formed, actions which soon spread to industrial workers at Kiel.  Only U-boat crews were seen to remain loyal.

Demands were formulated requiring both immediate peace and reform.  The call was taken up and spread across Germany within the space of a week with revolts in Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck on 4-5 November and in Munich on 7-8 November.

Such was the air of widespread discontent that a group of parliamentary socialists led by Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the onset of revolution on 9 November, an action which finally sealed the fate of both the Kaiser and the war’s closure.

Final Verdict: the terminally boneheaded Hipper, Scheer and Trotha took Imperial Germany down with them. 


4 thoughts on “First Great German Failure

  1. Pingback: Notes on First World War Revisionism, Part 1 | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

  2. Pingback: The July Crisis: 28 July 1914 to 18 July 1918 | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

  3. Pingback: The July Crisis: Erich Ludendorff, 1918 | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

  4. Pingback: Military History Analyzed, Part 3 | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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