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Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy


Patrick J. Kelly


Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 2011

Hardback. xvi+586 pp. Illustrations. Maps.  ISBN 978-0253355935. $45.00


Reviewed by Michael Epkenhans

Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Potsdam



Numerous books were written in the past dealing with Germany's naval buildup before 1914 and the rise of Anglo-German antagonism eventually leading to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. However. the number of serious scholarly studies on the architect of the German High Seas Fleet, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, is rather small. Only a handful are indeed worth mentioning.

After many years of thorough and often tiring research in German archives, Patrick J. Kelly from Adelphi University has added another one. In contrast to many of his predecessors, instead of simply repeating what others had written before, Kelly carefully examined Tirpitz's own papers as well as those of the Imperial German Navy Office and other governmental institutions. Moreover, following modern trends in writing biographies, Kelly also tried to describe and to judge his "hero" against the background of both German and international developments in political, social, economic and military affairs in a long century starting with the German wars of unification in the 1860s and ending with the destruction of the Weimar Republic in 1933. In all these developments Tirpitz played a minor or major role, either as a young man who fervently hoped that Prussia would become a great power soon or as gray eminence who tried to persuade his former comrade-in-arms and then President of the Weimar Republic, Hindenburg, to eventually abolish the parliamentary regime of that republic.

This beginning and ending notwithstanding, Kelly leaves no doubt, however, that the era which was most, perhaps even decisively, influenced by Tirpitz was the so-called "Wilhelmine Era". In order to explain this influence Kelly goes back into Tirpitz's early childhood. Based on new material from family sources, Kelly carefully describes the rise of a young man from a small town in Prussia who almost hated school to a talented officer of one of Europe's smaller navies. One of the important developments which Kelly rightly emphasizes is the great interest of this young officer in politics at a very early age. In this respect, Tirpitz definitely differed from many of his fellow officers.

In spite of the importance of his great interests in matters not directly linked with daily routine for his future career, one should, of course, not forget the role of good luck, fortune and, last but not least, Tirpitz's industriousness. As a young torpedo officer, he did indeed show talents, which soon attracted the attention of his superiors. The latter, in turn, furthered his career, until Wilhelm II, himself a naval enthusiast, became fascinated by Tirpitz's ideas, laid down the famous Dienstschrift IX (service memo) in the early 1890s. From then on the German Emperor and Tirpitz formed a "team" which, eventually, led Germany into disaster.

In the course of his narrative, Kelly extensively deals with all aspects of Tirpitz's attempts to strengthen Germany's position towards Great Britain. He analyzes both the assumptions as well as the flaws of Tirpitz's "Risk theory". Kelly also gives a detailed description of Tirpitz's influence on both German foreign policy and domestic politics, of his building policy, and his stubborn attempts to prevent any naval agreement with Great Britain. Eventually he describes Tirpitz's decreasing role during the war, culminating in his dismissal in 1916 and his attempts to again pull the strings behind the curtain after Germany's defeat in 1918.


In many ways Kelly's explanation of Tirpitz's aims and his behavior differs from other accounts. For Kelly, Tirpitz is not the clever admiral who, a grand design in mind, tried to manipulate the masses in order to strengthen the monarchical system by weakening the Reichstag's power with his "iron budget". Similarly, although Kelly does not deny the flaws of the "Risk Theory", he also stresses its limited success, for in his opinion it did indeed improve Germany's naval position considerably.

How does Kelly explain Tirpitz's success as well as his failure? Kelly does not deny that social Darwinism or the intention to defend the existing system against social democrats somehow influenced Tirpitz's thinking. His main argument in explaining Tirpitz's behavior, his success as well as his failure, is, however, based on Graham Allison's governmental, or bureaucratic, politics model from "Essence of Decision" published in 1999. For Kelly this model "explains much of Tirpitz's behaviour that would be difficult to account for with the historian's usual default model, the rational actor. Clearly many of Tirpitz's actions were not rationally grounded in the national interest" [464].

This sounds interesting, though the reviewer cannot deny his doubts. Of course, "Ressorteifer" (departmental self-interest) was an important factor, but does this really sufficiently explain Tirpitz's behavior? We should not forget that not only important members of the government shared his ideas, but that Tirpitz himself, throughout his lifetime, was also deeply convinced that he had indeed put forward a grand design both to make Germany a world power and to help stabilize the domestic situation.

Nevertheless, Kelly's book is a great achievement. Well written and based on new sources, his biography of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz allows the reader deep insights into the life of a man who played a very important role at the turn of the last century and who shaped German policy like hardly anyone else.


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