German Naval Laws

The Naval Laws ( German: Flottengesetze, "Fleet Laws") were five separate laws passed by the German Empire, in 1898, 1900, 1906, 1908, and 1912. These acts, championed by Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Secretary of State for the Navy, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, committed Germany to building up a navy capable of competing with the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom.

German desires and the strategic debate

1896 photo of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his family, his sons wearing sailor uniforms

The Kaiser had long wanted a large naval force to assure Germany of what he called " a place in the sun". A large German navy could assist in German attempts to attain colonies, as well as further the country's economic and commercial interests elsewhere in the world. He was determined to make his country a colonial power in Africa and the Pacific. [1] He was also a very militaristic man, and wished to increase the strength of the German armed forces; in particular he wanted to develop a navy that could match the British Royal Navy. [2] As he wrote in his autobiography: [3]

I had a peculiar passion for the navy. It sprang to no small extent from my English blood. When I was a little boy...I admired the proud British ships. There awoke in me the will to build ships of my own like these some day, and when I was grown up to possess a fine navy as the English.

— Kaiser Wilhelm II, My Early Life

Though Wilhelm loved naval power, he was initially unsure what form the German Navy would take: a force made up primarily of smaller vessels such as cruisers, or larger vessels such as battleships. He initially leaned toward cruisers because they could go to all corners of the globe and display the German flag wherever they went, while battleships were large and cumbersome and thus needed to stay in the Baltic or North Sea. The Secretary of the German Imperial Naval Office, Admiral Friedrich von Hollmann, also favoured cruisers because they were cheaper and more suited to German maritime strategy, which then emphasized coastal defence. However, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the leading proponent of battleships for the German navy, argued that because Germany did not have many colonies or overseas coaling stations, cruiser warfare did not make sense. Rather, it was important to concentrate a large fleet of battleships in close proximity to the strongest sea power, as this was the only way that Germany could compete with Britain (the world's leading naval and colonial power) and thus achieve world power for itself. Tirpitz further claimed that the mere existence of a large battleship fleet would indirectly protect German colonies and commerce the world over, despite the battleships' limited range. The victory of the battleship camp in this strategic debate was cemented when Tirpitz replaced Hollmann as State Secretary for the Navy. [4]

On June 15, 1897, Tirpitz unveiled a memorandum that was to alter European history. In this document, he argued that in order to defeat the strongest naval power, a fleet of battleships was necessary. He then proceeded to reverse his argument: if battleships were necessary, Germany's enemy must be the strongest naval power – Britain. [5] Tirpitz's plans were predicated on " risk theory" – even if the German fleet was smaller than that of Britain, it had to be able to inflict damage on the Royal Navy that was severe enough to endanger British dominance of the seas. The losses would be so heavy that another power, perhaps a German ally or British foe, could then swoop in and destroy the remnants of the British fleet. To avoid such a costly naval confrontation with Germany, British diplomacy would become more accommodating towards German colonial and economic desires. [6] Tirpitz felt that such a massive shipbuilding program could only work if its particulars were enshrined in law; this would commit the navy to building a fixed number of ships in advance, ensure that the fleet was built up continuously, and avoid the need to haggle for the money to build each ship in the Reichstag. [7] The stage was thus set for a set of laws that would precipitate the transformation of Anglo-German relations.

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