My Great-grandfather Grand-Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930)

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the builder and soul of the German Fleet, served nearly twenty years as Secretary of the Navy, longer in one post than any minister since Bismarck. Unlike his main opponent First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, Tirpitz had climbed the ladder rung-by-rung, and served aboard a sailing ship and an armoured cruiser. But they shared remarkable similarities, not only their weak school performance, but also parental worries about the future of these sons, as well as their character traits such as skill for leadership, perseverance and ruthless tactics. His early boss Admiral Senden wrote: “Tirpitz has too big a head of steam not to be a leader. He is ambitious, not choosy about his means, and of a sanguine disposition. …He has never had a superior who could match him.”[1]

Grand-Admiral Tirpitz was a consummate politician. “Tirpitz developed quite naturally a preponderance à laBismarck. He had no doubt the overwhelming stature of statesman-like greatness” (Scheer).“At the height of his power he was – afterBismarck– “the most able, most durable, most influential and most effective Minister of Imperial Germany” (Robert Masse). He was “the ablest naval man produced by any country in modern times” (William Langer). He was notably active with four Chancellors, including Hohenlohe, Bülow, and Bethmann-Hollweg, and a far better strategist than either.

“The passage of the First Navy Law (1898)…was without question the most important event in the domestic politics of Imperial Germany between the fall of Bismarckand the beginning of the twentieth century… His bill had the clarity and economy which earlier naval plans lacked because he had a fully developed theory of power… the famous risk theory[2]… There was no one to equal him as a manager of men, a manipulator of public opinion, an administrator and negotiator”. It was his liberal attitude to Parliament and his fundamental acceptance of its forms, which made him the “most successful German politician between Bismarck and Stresemann… adopting unusual tactics in dealing with the Kaiser, the Reichstag, industry and the public.  He was an open-minded, ready to listen, but tough negotiator, determined to reach his objective, even if he had to threaten to resign”. While the Reichstag had misgivings with Wilhelm’s continuous, open-ended fleet plans, it trusted Tirpitz, because he exuded professional competence, steady approach and predictability regarding the expansion of the navy” (Jonathan Steinberg). “The positioning of Tirpitz before the Reichstag resembled that of Pericles in Athens: ‘In words it was a democracy, but in reality it was the mastery of the first man’ (Eckart Kehr). “There are no parallels in any Navy for the stupendous work that Tirpitz set about to do and accomplished…Perhaps the closest parallel to his work is the work of Colbert, who regenerated and reorganized the French navy” (The English Naval Annual).[3]

Tirpitz transformed German navalism into a mass movement. First “propaganda minister in modern times”, he set up a News Section in his Ministry with the purpose to create a domestic climate favourable to a powerful fleet, and promoted the German Flottenverein with 600,000 members. The Navy found growing support from nationalists, liberals, democrats, industrial and mercantilist circles and partisans of the 1848 Revolution. They disliked the Army for its aristocracy and anti-revolutionary action. Taking England as a model, they saw the Navy as the path towards domination, national emancipation, personal freedom and Lebensraum.

For a man of his period he was surprisingly modern and open.  Although liberal at heart, and despite his criticism of the Kaiser, Alfred remained faithful to the Prussian monarchy until the very end. However, as “the only personality able to inspire widespread confidence in Germany” (Arnim), when chaos threatened Germany after WWI, he did not object to demands to assume dictatorial powers, although he refused to comply in order not to antagonize the wavering Army Chief Seeckt.

He actually  worked hard to redraw the democratic Weimarconstitution with an authoritarian pen, arguing that Germanyneeded a strong state authority to stabilize the economy, help the threatened middle classes, fight separatism and conduct a strong foreign policy in the national interest.  In November 1922, he drafted a plan for a German dictatorship together with Ulrich Wille Jr., a cousin of his wife, senior officer and son of the only general in Switzerland’s history, who led the Swiss Army in the First World War.[4] “Tirpitz and Wille wanted the leaders of right-wing organizations to acclaim Kahr as dictator, stop fulfilling the Treaty of Versailles, return to the German federal states all the rights they had lost through the Weimar constitution….and limit large land ownerships in order to offer small homesteads and plots to workers and employees…Wille and Tirpitz hoped that this programme would undermine socialist influence and reconcile the masses with authoritarian state leadership (although it risked antagonizing the large landowners on the German right)… Tirpitz hinted that the dictatorship should reintroduce the Bismarckian constitution and restore the states to their federal rights… Tirpitz understood that the Nazis might stage a putsch in Munich that would (rather) divide Germany…and met Hitler, whom Vollerthun invited for lunch on 7 September (1923). Tirpitz’s talk with Hitler, however, confirmed his negative attitude: ‘this man…to me he seems inaccessible to arguments: a fanatic inclined to craziness whom pampering has made unrestrained.’ Tirpitz’s authority was so great that even Ludendorff assured Vollerthun that he would fall behind Tirpitz should he assume a leading role…once in power, Tirpitz planned to assure Britain that the new German government intended primarily to restore order at home and to secure the country against socialism….At the beginning of 1924 Tirpitz outlined in a letter to Admiral von Trotha what he would do if he could decide. His foremost objective would surprisingly be the establishment of relations with England…and the offer to make an Englishman, the Duke of Cumberland, descendant of the former King of Hannover regent of the Reich… it could be in England’s own interest to support Germany so that France did not become the dominating force on the continent.”[5]

On the other hand, Tirpitz advocated that German policy ‘pull together all free peoples’ ofEurope‘without the tutelage of the Anglo-Saxons.’ He believed thatEurope’s strength and supremacy and the world status of its States rested on ‘the balance of the diversity of autonomous cultures in a limited space’.’

After Hitler’s and Ludendorff’s Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923 had destroyed his schemes, in April 1924 Tirpitz accepted an invitation to run for the Reichstag in Bavaria on the DNVP (Deutschnationale Volkspartei) ticket. Tirpitz resigned from the Reichstag before the 1928 elections, when the extremists started capturing the control of the DNVP. Tirpitz died from heart failure 6 March 1930 inMunich, before Hitler’s ascent to power on.

The support for a German autocracy by a man who had shown so much respect for the Reichstag was a reflection of his pragmatism recognizing that theWeimarRepublicwas dysfunctional and could not respond to the challenges facingGermanyafterVersailles. But he felt too old to lead directly and searched for a newBismarck.  After dropping Stresemann as unsuited to respond to popular demand for national pride, rearmament and economic reconstruction, he fell back on Hindenburg, a symbol of national strength and war hero (the victor of Tannenberg againstRussia) and urged him to lead his party’s elections in April 1925. Hindenburg won, but turned out to be the wrong choice. He too like Tirpitz was too old and exhausted for the job. He too was a monarchist who would have to serve a republic. He too was too involved with the DNVP to be considered standing above the parties. Compared to Tirpitz, he had three further drawbacks: He hated to take the job, considered himself unfit for it, and had zero political experience.

But, Tirpitz thought he could manipulate him replacing State Secretary Meissner with Ulrich von Hassell Sr. (my grandfather’s homonymous father) and rule by presidential decree, but Stresemann defused that scheme so that Hindenburg – a pliable man with a pliable State Secretary (who in 1934 also served Hitler) -,ignored the need for constitutional reform, followed Stresemann’s compromising approach and signed all international treaties the cabinet presented to him. This led Tirpitz to call Hindenburg Mein grosses Schmerzenskind (my problem child).

While he advocated strong government, Tirpitz despised Hitler, his methods and symbols such as the swastika, and his anti-Semitism (Tirpitz’s wife was half Jewish). While a conservative, he was also a realist, who refused to be put in any political box. R. Scheck concluded that,  “Tirpitz’s lack of success after 1914, or the demise of Germany’s traditional right…had fatal consequences because they helped make certain that, instead of reactionary nationalists, the most violent and radical group of the right, the Nazi movement, seized control of the ailing Weimar Republic.[6]


[1] Jonathan Steinberg (JS), Yesterday’s Deterrent (JS), pp. 69-89
[2] The story of the Tirpitz plan and naval race will be the subject of a separate note.
[3]  Article in the ENA “The Spirit of the German Navy Law”, see Franz-Uhle Wettler (FUW), Tirpitz p. 181
[4]  The best description is from Raphael Scheck (RS), from who are these excerpts.
[5] FUW ca. 419-421
[6] RS, pp.201-207