Welcome to the fifth installment in my series Century of German History! Every post in the series sheds light on a focal event of German history in the 20th century and illustrates this event with precisely one board game. You can find the four previous posts here, here, here, and here.
Today we go to the very beginning of the century, to the very first decade and the Anglo-German naval arms race – from the comfortable naval position the United Kingdom enjoyed in the 19th century to the German challenge to this position, and the arms race proper and its consequences. Our game will be Europe in Turmoil: Prelude to the Great War (Kris van Beurden, Compass Games).
From Pax Britannica to the Age of New Navalism
Britannia ruled the waves after Napoleon had been defeated for good in 1815. No other country mounted a challenge to British naval supremacy, and the Royal Navy was roughly as strong as all other naval forces in the world combined for most of the 19th century. Britain was therefore able to enforce her interests globally, especially the expansion of her trade into markets all over the globe. British naval and commercial dominance mutually reinforced each other and made it unnecessary for Britain to expand her formal colonial empire until the end of the century – British goods were plentiful and cheap, and the Royal Navy made sure they could be bought everywhere from China to Argentina.
However, the other nations did not sit still in naval matters forever. By the 1880s, France and Russia both expanded their fleets, and others followed suit – Italy, Japan, the United States, Germany. At the same time, British commercial dominance also waned, as the other countries caught up with Britain’s industrial headstart. Finally, a new imperialism had many countries, chief of them France, claim colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, so that Britain’s informal economic control over most of the world ended.
The triangle of British commercial-colonial-naval supremacy had therefore been broken. Britain responded threefold: Instead of the export of industrial goods, the British economy focused on shipping and financial services like banking, insurances etc. (until today, the City of London is a major global financial center as well as the centerpiece of the British economy). Britain exchanged its informal control over the globe for a formal colonial empire spanning a quarter of it. And navally, the House of Commons instituted the „Two-Power Standard“, which required the Royal Navy to be at least as powerful as the next two navies combined. In 1889, when the Two-Power Standard became law, those were the French and Russian navies. Notice how defensive that move is – while it commenced a British naval buildup, its goal was to keep a position that Britain had (easily!) enjoyed for the last 75 years.
That brings us to Europe in Turmoil. The game uses a Naval Arms Race Track in a similar way as Twilight Struggle employs its Space Race: Normally, playing an opponent-aligned event would trigger said event (while still giving you the operations points to spend). But if you play it on the Naval Arms Race, the event does not trigger (and you also don’t get any operations points). In Europe in Turmoil, the importance of the Naval Arms Race Track goes however well beyond being a safety valve. Whichever player is ahead on the track receives bonuses of immense power – for example, being able to play one card per turn for both the operations value and the event!
A new age of navalism dawned. One year after the two-power standard became law, this navalism got its theoretical underpinnings: American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan published his seminal work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Although the book only dealt with the period between 1660 and 1783, it was widely taken as a general treatise on sea power. Its main tenets – that sea power could win over land power by blockading the shores, and that the decisive part of a navy was its battleships, not its cruisers for commercial raiding – became policy in several countries. Two avid readers of Mahan’s were German admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (the head of the Imperial Naval Office) and his Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The German Challenge: Building of the High Seas Fleet
Germany had traditionally been a continental power. She lay in the heart of Europe and bordered three other great powers by land, so the army was the natural fundament of her security. In contrast, the largest part of the German coastline was at the Baltic Sea, an inland sea only contested by the Russian Empire (which, if it wanted to attack Germany, could just use the direct land path). Only a short strip of coastline on the North Sea connected Germany with the overseas world. Consequently, the German Navy remained small – by the time Mahan’s book was published, even Italy had a stronger navy.
Admiral Tirpitz, however, saw Germany’s future on the seas. At the time, the theory of „global empires“ was popular which postulated that only three or four countries would survive and gobble up all the others. If Germany were to remain, she had to become a „global empire“ – and that meant competing on the oceans and overseas. Specifically, Tirpitz’s goal was to enforce the cooperation of Britain, the dominant naval power, by building a German navy so strong that any kind of Anglo-German naval conflict would come at an unacceptable risk to the United Kingdom. Thus, Britain would have no choice but to share her global supremacy with Germany. Subsequently, this plan came to be known as the „risk fleet“. Until then, Germany had been barely a concern for British policymakers (which were much more taken up with clashes over African and Asian colonies with the French, the threat Russian expansion in Central Asia posed to India, or the growing dominance of the United States in the Western hemisphere endangering the British position in Canada and the Caribbean) – but now an age of Anglo-German tensions began.
Of course, Germany could not challenge British naval supremacy with a fleet smaller than Italy’s. Therefore, Tirpitz pushed the „Naval Laws“ of 1898 and 1900 which instituted an ambitious build-up. One of the financial sources for this build-up was a newly introduced tax on sparkling wine. Tirpitz’s fleet lies on the bottom of the sea for a century now, but the tax still exists in Germany.
While Tirpitz had read Mahan, he had obviously not quite understood him. One of Mahan’s central hypotheses ist that naval power is the product of fleet strength and naval position. No matter how strong the German fleet would become, it was still hamstrung by the disadvantageous naval position: As long as the Royal Navy controlled the exits of the North Sea (so, the English Channel and the gap between Scotland and Norway), the German fleet could never break out and endanger any British position overseas. At the same time, it was unlikely that Britain would just sit and watch while Germany built up her navy. Either Britain would meet the German challenge and expand her own navy, or she would launch a preventive attack on the German fleet and try to destroy it in port (like the British had done with the Danish fleet in Copenhagen during the Napoleonic wars).
Nonetheless, Germany stuck to Tirpitz’s plan. The naval buildup may have been bad foreign policy, but in the domestic arena it was successful. The navy was generally seen as the symbol of the (newly) united Germany, whereas the land forces consisted of several independent armies of the individual German states (Prussia, Bavaria, or Württemberg, among others). Just as well, the navy was the preferred service of the rising middle classes (whereas the army, especially in its prestigious branches like cavalry, was still dominated by the old aristocracy) – remember how the Tirpitz event card offered the exchange of authoritarian support points (so, aristocratic power) in Germany for advancing on the Naval Arms Race track?
No matter if the naval buildup was good or bad policy – the Anglo-German naval arms race was on.
Britain’s Response: The Naval Arms Race
Britain met the challenge in three ways: First, she launched building programs of her own. Germany was building between two and four capital ships per year when the British parliament had only provided the funds for two – but propelled by immense public support (and the strategic necessity), parliament approved of a major expansion. As Winston Churchill, who was at the time President of the Board of Trade (and opposed to the expansion), quipped: „The Admiralty had demanded six ships: the economists offered four: and we finally compromised on eight.“ The public relations campaign for a bigger navy under the slogan „We want eight and we won’t wait“ ended the dreams of the German High Seas Fleet of rivalling the Royal Navy.
At the same time, the Royal Navy transformed itself. Instead of being the world’s naval policeman (as it had been during the 19th century), guarding trade lanes, opening markets, deterring piracy, and closing down the slave trade, it now became focused on achieving the optimal position for a future great power war. That meant fewer, but bigger ships – not the hundreds of gunboats which would patrol rivers from West Africa to China, but powerful battleships (of which HMS Dreadnought, the first all-big-gun battleship, became the incarnation). It also meant that the Royal Navy would redeploy its vessels: It reduced its overseas presence considerably and concentrated ships in home waters. The architect of this technical and strategic reinvention of the Royal Navy was Jackie Fisher, First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910. Fisher brought the Royal Navy to the 20th century.
Lastly, the reduction of British naval presence overseas led to a more general strategic shift. As Britain could not maintain all her positions and possessions in an overstretched empire, she sought rapprochements with almost all other powers:
- Contrary to the British policy of „splendid isolation“, of not getting tied to other powers and instead only allying with them in wars against common enemies, Britain signed an alliance with Japan as early as 1902. That brought her a strong (and growing) naval ally in the Far East, where the small British squadron was already outmatched by the combined power of the French and Russian squadrons.
- Less combatively, Britain quietly retreated from almost all of her positions in the Western hemisphere to the benefit of the United States. As American economic, naval, and military power grew, it simply became untenable for the United Kingdom to enforce its positions on issues like the border of Venezuela or on who would have a share in the canal to be built in Central America to link the Atlantic and the Pacific. The British strategy of appeasement toward the expanding United States succeeded as the US never made a move for Britain’s most important interest in the Americas – Canada.
- Most importantly, however, Britain made up with her traditional enemy for two and a half centuries – France. Louis XIV and Napoléon might have tried to crush England, and the French Republic of the late 19th century might have clashed with the British from the Nile to the Mekong, but now France seemed like a valuable ally for Britain. Franco-British naval cooperation allowed the Royal Navy to pull ships to the North Sea, guarding the channel entrances against the German fleet for both Britain and France, whereas the French fleet was concentrated in the Mediterranean (and upheld both French and British interests there). Britain therefore got out of a strategic dilemma, and France’s chances of not having to fight alone against her arch-enemy Germany improved. Furthermore, Britain could reduce her colonial military presence (as the main potential threat to many colonies was from their French colonial neighbors), and the countless French naval bases all over the globe were denied to the enemy in case of a global war. In the future, France’s connection to Russia, another traditional enemy of Britain’s (for their competing interests in India and Central Asia), would prove decisive in bringing about the Anglo-British rapprochement.
The German challenge could not be appeased in these ways. Unlike the distant, but very concrete threats like France’s move on the Nile, the German naval buildup was more abstract – after all, these battleships could conceivably be used against any other country or just sit in port. At the same time, it also aimed at Britain’s central security necessity, the control of the waters around the British Isles. This could not be partitioned in an amiable way – Britain could not give up some market share or agree on a territorial division as she used to do to solve her conflicts with other powers. On the other hand, there was also no necessity to give up any positions – as long as Britain had a slight naval superiority, she was still supremely in command of the North Sea by virtue of her superior naval position which dominated that of Germany. In fact, the speed of the naval arms race slowed down considerably after the British decision to build eight new ships in 1909. Germany acceded to continued British naval supremacy. While the naval arms race temporarily poisoned Anglo-German relations, it did not lead to the outbreak of a war.
The influential contemporary book mentioned in the post is Mahan, Alfred Thayer: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660—1783, Little, Brown, and Co., New York City, NY 1890, an edition of which you can find online here.
You’ll find the British perspective in Kennedy, Paul: The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Penguin, London 2001, pp. 205—237.
For the strategy of the arms race, see Kennedy, Paul: Strategic Aspects of the Anglo-German Naval Race, in: id., Strategy and Diplomacy 1870—1945. Eight Studies, George Allen & Unwin, London 1983, pp. 127—160.
The first argument that the German buildup was founded mostly in domestic politics is Kehr, Eckart: Schlachtflottenbau und Parteipolitik 1894—1901: Versuch eines Querschnitts durch die innenpolitischen, sozialen und ideologischen Voraussetzungen des deutschen Imperialismus, Ebering, Berlin 1930 (in German).
On how much Anglo-German naval tensions amounted for the outbreak of World War I, see Epkenhans, Michael: Was a Peaceful Outcome Thinkable? The Naval Race Before 1914, in: Afflerbach, Holger/Stevenson, David (eds.): An Improbable War? The Outbreak of World War I and European Political Culture Before 1914, Berghahn, New York, NY 2007.