Imperial German Navy

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The Kaiserlich Deutschen Marine (English: Imperial German Navy), also known as the Kaiserliche Marine, was the Navy of the Germany Empire from 1871 to 1918. Commanded by Prussian army officers between 1872 and 1888, it was initially built up to serve as a strong coast-defence force. When Wilhelm II succeeded to the imperial throne in 1889, he embarked on a continuous expansion of the navy to serve as an instrument of German foreign policy. From 1897 he was aided by Alfred von Tirpitz, who served as Navy minister for nearly twenty years and succeeded in pushing Novellen (Navy Laws) through the Imperial parliament which guaranteed a large continuous shipbuilding programme for the Imperial navy.


Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the German Empire was proclaimed at Versailles on 18 January, 1871. It was formed of the Prussia-dominated North German Confederation and a host of other smaller states. The Empire's navy was formed from the North German Confederation's navy, which had itself only been formed in 1867 from the Prussian Navy. The imperial nature of the new Navy was enshrined in Article 53 of the Constitution of the German Empire:

The navy of the Empire is a unit under the command of the Emperor. The organisation and structure of the same is within the jurisdiction of the Emperor, who appoints the officers and officials of the Navy, and receives a direct oath of allegiance, an oath also to be sworn by the other ranks.

The Port of Kiel and the Jadehafen [Wilhelmshaven] are Reich naval ports.

Of establishing and maintaining the fleet and related institutions necessary expenses will be paid from the Reich treasury. The whole maritime population of the empire, including the engine crew and boat craftsman, is exempt from the service in the land army, however, for the service in the Imperial Navy committed.

The distribution of the replacement demand will take place in accordance with the existing maritime population, and thereafter provided by each state rate is presented for the land forces in accounting.


Von Bismarck centralised the command of the Navy in an imperial Ministry of Marine, which in 1872 became the Imperial Admiralty,[1] a change instituted by the first Chief of the Admiralty, Albrecht von Stosch. From 1872 to 1888 the Chiefs of the Admiralty were Army officers.[2] The centralised command structure survived until the ascension of Wilhelm II to the imperial throne in 1888.

On 28 March, 1889 the Emperor instituted the Marine-Kabinett (Navy Cabinet), paralleling the Military Cabinet for the Army. This office, headed by a Chef (Chief), was responsible for, among other things, the transmission of imperial orders concerning naval affairs within home waters to the responsible authorities, promotions and appointments, decorations for foreign naval visitors, duty assignments, and the Emperor's naval correspondence. There were only two Chiefs of the Navy Cabinet between 1889 and 1918.[3]

On 30 March of that year, operational command was given to the new office of Oberkommando der Marine (High Command of the Navy), which equated to a Commanding General in the Army. The Oberkommando was responsible for the deployment of ship, tactics and strategy. The Reichs-Marine-Amt, or R.M.A., (Imperial Navy Office) which was created at the same time, was responsible for the administration of the Navy. The State Secretary who headed it nominally served under the Imperial Chancellor. His office was responsible for all matters concerning the construction and maintenance of the Navy's ships.[4]

The State Secretary of the R.M.A. from 1897, Kontre-Admiral Alfred Tirpitz, lobbied the Emperor for the abolition of the Oberkommando der Marine, telling him, "Your Majesty can now be your own Admiral."[5] By Allerhöchste Ordre of 14 March, 1899, the powers of the Oberkommando were split between the Imperial Navy Office and the newly-created Admiralstab der Marine (Admiral Staff of the Navy).[6] This advisory body, under a Chef, was similar to the Prussian General Staff, but had little of the power. It was concerned with matters of tactics and strategy. In wartime it would be responsible for the conduct all naval operations, with the Emperor's approval.[7] The abolition of the Oberkommando and the strength of Tirpitz's position meant that he could change the Chiefs of the Admiral Staff "almost at will" in Herwig's words.[8]

History, 1889-1914

In a letter of 30 April, 1914 to von Müller, Chief of the Navy Cabinet, von Tirpitz warned that "at least 6-8 years would be needed to prepare the Fleet fully for war."[9]

Great War

During the course of the war up to the Armistice, the Germans built 6 light cruisers, 174 torpedo boats, 115 ocean-going U-boats submarines, 136 small coastal U.B. submarines, 95 minelaying U.C. submarines, and 196 minesweepers. It lost two battleships, one battle cruiser, six armoured cruisers, eighteen light cruisers, seventeen gunboats, 110 torpedo boats, and 229 submarines.[10]

On 11 August Scheer became Chef der Seekriegsleitung, (S.K.L.) Chief of the Naval High Command, a position analogous to the Army's Oberste Heeresleitung (O.H.L.). His operations officer, von Levetzow, became his chief of staff. His Chief of Staff in the High Sea Fleet, von Trotha, remained on as Chief of Staff to Hipper, who replaced Scheer. Von Holtzendorff of the Admiralstab was retired. Von Hipper succeeded Scheer in command of the High Sea Fleet. Von Trotha was earmarked to replace von Müller as Chief of the Marine Cabinet. In October von Capelle of the R.M.A. was replaced by Behncke, who in the same month was replaced by Ritter von Mann Edler von Tiechler, latterly head of the U-boat office.


On 28 November, the former Kaiser released all naval personnel from their oaths of allegiance to him.[11]


  1. Herwig. The German Naval Officer Corps. p. 24.
  2. Herwig. "Luxury" Fleet. p. 13.
  3. This section is taken largely verbatim from Herwig. "Luxury" Fleet. p. 21.
  4. Herwig. "Luxury" Fleet. pp. 21-22.
  5. Herwig. The German Naval Officer Corps. p. 27.
  6. Neudech; Schöder. p. 37.
  7. Herwig. "Luxury" Fleet. p. 22.
  8. Herwig. The German Naval Officer Corps. p. 27.
  9. Röhl. p. 667.
  10. Herwig. "Luxury" Fleet. p. 222.
  11. Herwig. "Luxury" Fleet. p. 253.


  • Herwig, Holger H. (1973). The German Naval Officer Corps: A Social and Political History, 1890-1918. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
  • Herwig, Holger H. (1980). "Luxury" Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888-1918. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Woodward, David (1973). The Collapse of Power: Mutiny in the High Seas Fleet. London: Arthur Barker Limited. ISBN 0213164310.

See Also