World War I Centennial: Germany Throws Down the Naval Gauntlet


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the tenth installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 22, 1912: Germany Throws Down the Naval Gauntlet

In the years leading up to 1912, Britain and Germany became locked in a naval arms race based on the two imperial powers’ fundamentally different perceptions and aims. Britain wanted (and expected) to maintain its longstanding domination of the seas, as a fundamental guarantee of its security as an island nation. Germany believed it had to be equal with Britain to gain the respect it deserved as a new, rising world power – and more specifically, to gain a free hand on the European continent.

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, tried to head off the conflict with measures designed to convince Germany that a naval arms race was unwinnable. Chief among these was a threat to outpace German construction of super-powerful dreadnoughts by a margin of at least 60%, and possibly more, if Germany chose to escalate. Meanwhile Britain offered to slow or even halt the construction of new dreadnoughts if Germany would agree to a bilateral naval arms limitation treaty.

However, political pressures in Germany – stemming from its humiliation in the Second Moroccan Crisis, the recent victory of the Social Democrats, the agitation of the hyper-nationalist Flottenverein (Naval League), and above all the belligerence of the German elites under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm II – meant that Germany couldn’t back down.

On March 22, 1912, the German government chose to escalate the situation yet again.

Naval Novelle: An Amendment to Escalate

Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, one of the chief instigators of the Anglo-German naval rivalry, wanted to boost naval construction from two to three new dreadnoughts per year from 1912-1917 – a huge increase that would probably have precipitated an international crisis. Tirpitz had the Kaiser’s ear, but other voices in the German government – including Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the German ambassador to London, Count Metternich – warned that this proposal would push Germany towards war with Britain.

Still, the compromise solution wasn’t much better. At the Kaiser’s order, Tirpitz drew up an amendment (novelle) to the existing naval construction program, which Bethmann Hollweg — who still supported some naval construction as a means of applying diplomatic pressure to Britain — presented to the Reichstag on March 22, 1912. It called for three additional dreadnoughts to be built over the next five years, adding one ship per year in 1912, 1914, and 1916. Tirpitz also wanted to redistribute personnel so more ships would be ready for active service.

Thus the amendment envisioned a German navy composed of three active battle squadrons, including 25 dreadnoughts and eight battlecruisers, versus 40 “capital ships” in the Royal Navy. True, this wasn’t quite as bad as adding six ships, and might even be construed as a “concession” to British opinion – but this just goes to show how unrealistic the German leadership was being. Considering that the existing naval program was already unacceptable to the British, there was no way the addition of even more ships could be viewed as anything other than added provocation. Britain had already made it clear it would not give in to German intimidation, and it was equally clear to Tirpitz, at least, where the arms race was headed: in April 1912 he would write a secret memorandum to the Kaiser titled “Bringing about the outbreak of war,” asking whether Germany “should… speed up or attempt to delay it?”

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