The Risk Theory and the Tirpitz plan

The Risk Theory

Ships were no longer dependent on wind and weather. Nations in Europe could exert force in remote parts of the world far better than ever before. Faced with growing dependence on food imports and foreign exports, all great industrial powers tried in the second part of the 19th Century to secure their commerce and transportation needs by seeking freedom of navigation and territorial conquests. Gunboats and battle fleets gained a central role in global politics. Great powers were concerned about Britain’s naval autocracy and dominant position. Franz Ferdinand von Habsburg of Austria, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, supported their ministers of the Navy – Montecuccoli, Grigorovich and Tirpitz – providing them “with the room for maneuver to carry out their naval expansion plans.

Engineering and marine technology were advancing so rapidly that few naval leaders had the capacity to understand the significance of change for strategic thinking. Tirpitz was one of those few.  Like Tirpitz, Churchill had a passion for technical innovation. Both discarded the battle cruiser in favour of the battle ship. Churchill pushed for the introduction of the super dreadnoughts powered by oil (instead of coal), which allowed greater speed and refueling through tankers at sea. As it could only be obtained overseas, Churchill’s navy acquired a controlling interest in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Churchill’s ships were faster and better armed, but Tirpitz’s were sturdier and artillery more precise.

In 1891, the Kaiser had no doubt that ‘our future is on the water’, and wanted a fleet, but did not know what kind of a fleet and its strategic purpose. Tirpitz turned into the architect and prime mover of Germany’s  ‘maritime revolution’ by combining military technology with the political objective of replacing the Pax Britannica by a global balance of naval power. He saw the main existential threat coming from England as it faced Germany’s growing economic competition and might wish to curb it by launching a preventive attack against the German Navy. After all, similar fears had led Britain to eliminate earlier rivals such as Spain, Holland,  and France.  To face that threat he developed his famous risk theory in his ‘Service Memo IX’  of 1895, where  he struck out for a defensive fleet capable of inflicting early severe damage upon the Royal Navy in the event of a preventive attack and pushing Britain to an understanding with Germany in order to achieve a diplomatic re-alignment..

Tirpitz was the first modern strategist to see that an arms race can be used as a kind of lever to force other powers to move in a desired direction. In England, Tirpitz was accused of militarism. But he thought it was England who wished to preventively crush Germany in order to retain its status as the world super-sea-power. His fears of such a preemptive strike were confirmed, when First Sea Lord Fisher proposed twice (1904 and 1908) using Britain’s current naval superiority to launch pre-emptive strikes against Kiel and Wilhelmshaven naval bases as the Royal Navy had done against the Danish navy in 1801 and 1807. But Fisher got no support from England’s liberals. In 1906, Lord Reginald Esher, Chairman of the Royal Defence Committee, said that the danger that Fisher grabs the reins and provokes a war against Germany is ‘much’ greater than the risk that the Kaiser would do so. Also Churchill was more trigger-happy than Tirpitz, perhaps due to the greater power of the British Navy. Violet Asquith (daughter of the PM) had observed ‘Winston is in glorious form though slightly over-concentrated on instruments of destruction”.

The Achilles heel of the “risk theory”,was that Germany needed time – Tirpitz called it “danger zone” – to become strong enough to deter Britain from attacking it. During that time, Britain could extend the danger zone by expanding and upgrading its own navy, let alone trying a preemptive strike to destroy the German fleet before it became a threat. Tirpitz actually underestimated Britain’s will and capacity to uphold its dominant maritime role, and was forced to witness the danger zone expanding from 1905 (his original assessment) to 1920 or so. Instead of simply responding to the German challenge, Britain always kept a step ahead in fleet construction forcing all other powers to join the race. One further problem of all deterrent instruments is that more or less competent politicians handle it in peace as well as in war. It is no wonder that the weakness of Germany’s political leadership in those days did not allow Tirpitz’s risk-theory to meet its purpose.[1]

The Tirpitz  Plan and the Naval Race

Britain’s determination to maintain its dominant superiority in battleships, notably with its Naval Defense Acts of 1889 and 1893, which preceded Tirpitz’s two Naval Laws, forced other states to strengthen their own navies in order to secure a share of the sea trade. While the German fleet had moved up from sixth to second place, it remained far behind Britain’s, whose navy at the war outbreak had still twice the German tonnage.[2] Germany actually dropped out of the naval arms race well before the war began.

Tirpitz’s overriding objective was not fleet expansion firepower and speed (First Sea Lord Fisher’s priority), but state of the art technology and the ideal balance between top mobility, firepower and above all stability against sinking combined with top training and motivation of the crews. His Navy was superior to the British in areas such as mines, radio material for torpedoes and U-boats, artillery and ship stability.

Only nine days in his new post, on 15 June 1897, Tirpitz presented to the Kaiser in Potsdam a short, 2,500-word secret memorandum containing a fully-fledged, radically new strategy for the German Navy. According to British historian Jonathan Steinberg, “Within a few days, Tirpitz had given direction, logic, consistency and economy …to what had taken the Imperial Naval Office nearly a decade to ponder on…and (his strategy) can be said without exaggeration to have changed the course of modern history.”

“When the Draft “Law Concerning the German Fleet” was submitted to the Bundesrat on October 29, 1897, it was accompanied by a “Begründung zum Gesetzentwurf” (motivation) which concealed a commitment to a given building programme by law regardless of ship size and cost. The seriousness with which Tirpitz took the Reichstag, the way he flattered its rank and file and the persuasiveness of his arguments explain why the Reichstag continued to vote between 1898 and 1912 as many as six times with comfortable majorities on updates of the Tirpitz Plan, accepting whatever was proposed. But Tirpitz proved wrong in doubting Britain’s budgetary capacity to match Germany’s fleet construction efforts, because he did not expect England to be ready to devote, as it did, up to 80 percent of its budget to defence.

On 1st September 1909, Tirpitz proposed to limit naval tonnage and armaments submitting a draft agreement with Britain according to which in years 1910-1913 annual dreadnought construction would be limited to three for Britain and two for Germany, and proposed that a draft agreement would be submitted to the Reichstag in which Germany declared it would not attack England, if it accepted a navy power ratio of 2:3 and would in turn to be secured against an English attack. Tirpitz’s proposal endangered his own Fleet Law, but was consistent with the concept of the Risk Fleet. This was the first time in history that reduction of armaments had been discussed between two Powers of equal rank. But, Fisher answered ‘Tell him I’ll see him d—d (damned) first.’ “The British would be content only if Germany cut down its naval programme without conditions; then political relations would improve without a formal agreement; the only result was greatly to increase the suspicion of each side for the other. The British became convinced that Germany was bent on challenging their supremacy at sea and on establishing her domination of Europe as well; the Germans became equally convinced that Great Britain was planning to ‘encircle’ them and would ultimately join France and Russia in war against them.”[3]

On the very day of Haldane’s Berlin talks, McKenna’s successor First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill hurt the talks by delivering a speech in which he hurt German pride saying: ‘The British Navy is to us necessity and; from some point of view, the German Navy is to them more in the nature of a luxury.” On 18 May 1912 Churchill deliberately caused a complete breakdown of the talks when he declared: “Whatever the Germans do, England has fixed its course…(and) for every (dreadnought) ship that the Germans build above their naval law, England will order two”. Little later Churchill imposed a building programme that went well beyond even the criteria announced in that speech. When at the end of 1913 Churchill made a naval budget request of over £50m, the largest the world had ever seen, Lloyd George, remarked that, ‘The first lord had become militant, even belligerent’, and his plan involved ‘exorbitant expenditure’.


[1] The historian Feldman has defined the three Chancellor as the ‘wavering’ Bethmann, the ‘incapable’ Michaelis and the ‘aged’ Hertling (FUW, p. 129)

[2] In terms of warship tonnage, 1880-1914 Germany’s shot up from 88,000 tons to 1,305,000 tons moving from 6th to 2nd place, while Britain grew from 650,000 tons to 2,714,000 tons, more than double the German figure, and equal to the next two largest fleets at the outbreak of WWI, when Britain numbered 21 dreadnought-class battleships against Germany’s 13 and four battle cruisers against Germany’s three.

[3] A. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1848-1918), p. 461&ff