Alfred Peter Friedrich von Tirpitz

From The Dreadnought Project
Jump to: navigation, search

Alfred Peter Friedrich von Tirpitz (19 March, 1849 – 6 March, 1930) was a German admiral, Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office, the powerful government department which oversaw the Kaiserliche Marine from 1897 until 1916.

Early Career

Born in Küstrin in Brandenburg, the son of a senior civil servant, he grew up in Frankfurt (Oder). He joined the Prussian Navy in 1865 and attended Kiel Naval School, gaining his commission in 1869. Upon the creation of the German fleet in 1871 he was part of a torpedo squadron. In 1877 he rose to become the head of the torpedo-arm which he re-organised into the torpedo inspectorate.

In 1892 Tirpitz became Chief of Staff to the Oberkommando der Marine (Stabschef der Marine). He was made a Rear-Admiral in 1895. In 1896–97 he commanded the Asian cruiser squadron and oversaw the gain of Kiaochow as a German naval base. In 1897 he was made State Secretary of the Reichsmarineamt (Imperial Navy Office). An energetic campaigner for a greatly enlarged fleet, he attracted the attention and support of the Wilhelm II of Germany. Tirpitz was ennobled to von Tirpitz in 1900. Tirpitz' design to achieve world power status through naval power, while at the same time addressing domestic issues are commonly referred to as the Tirpitz Plan. Politically, the Tirpitz Plan was marked by the Fleet Acts of 1898, 1900, 1908 and 1912. By 1914, they had given Germany the second largest naval force in the world (roughly 40% smaller than the Royal Navy). It included seven modern dreadnoughts, five battlecruisers, twenty-five cruisers and twenty pre-dreadnought Battleships as well as over forty submarines. Although including fairly unrealistic targets, the expansion program was sufficient to alarm the British, starting a costly naval arms race, and pushing the British into closer ties with the French.


Tirpitz developed a "risk theory" (an analysis which today would be considered part of game theory) whereby, if the German Navy reached a certain level of strength relative to the British 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 rather maintain naval supremacy in order to safeguard their empire, and let Germany become a world power, 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.

However, 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. But 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 World War I.

Great War

Tirpitz had been made a Grand Admiral in 1911. Despite the building program he felt the war had come too soon for a successful surface challenge to the Royal Navy as the fleet act of 1900 had included a seventeen year timetable. Unable to influence naval operations from his purely administrative position, Tirpitz became a vocal spokesman for a unrestricted U-boat warfare, which he felt could break the British stranglehold on Germany's sea lines of communication. Interestingly, his construction policy never bore out his political stance on submarines, and by 1917 there was a severe shortage of newly built submarines. When restrictions on the submarine war were not lifted he fell out with emperor and was compelled to resign on 15 March, 1916. He was replaced as Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office by Eduard von Capelle.


An effort by supporters led by Wolfgang Kapp to have von Tirpitz installed as Chancellor failed. On 1 September, 1917 he became Chairman of the German Fatherland Party, pushing for an all-out effort to win the war. By the Summer of 1918, he disengaged himself from the activities of the party and retired to his home in the Black Forest. Following the collapse of the German monarchy he had to go into hiding, such was the hatred displayed against officers in Berlin. He withdrew to a friend's house in the German countryside to write his memoirs, which were published in 1919.


  • Epkenhans, Michael (2008). Tirpitz: Architect of the German High Seas Fleet. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc. ISBN 9781574887327.
  • Kelly, Patrick J. (October 2002). "Strategy, Tactics, and Turf Wars: Tirpitz and the Oberkommando der Marine, 1892-1895". Journal of Military History 66 (4): pp. 1033-1060.
  • Kelly, Patrick J. (2011). Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253355935 (on and
  • Tirpitz, Grand Admiral von (1919). My Memoirs. Volume I. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.
  • Tirpitz, Grand Admiral von (1919). My Memoirs. Volume II. London: Hurst & Blackett, Ltd.
  • Tirpitz, Alfred von (1920). Erinnerungen. Leipzig: K. F. Koehler.