The Risk Fleet

Excerpt of Senior Paper for Gonzaga University History Degree: "The Risk Fleet: Follies and Failures (1897-1914)"


The Risk Fleet: Follies and Failures (1897-1914)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany possessed all the conditions of sea-power: trade and commerce of world-wide importance, moving almost too rapidly in their mighty development, military genius, organizing capacity and an industrious temperament, a strong constitution and a patriotic people. The time was short to make good the delay of years. But… a calamitous policy set us at war with the four strongest naval powers of Europe, of whom England alone was doubly our superior. From the start we could not reckon on complete victory, on the defeat of England; but I can confidently express my conviction that our navy—taking it all in all—was good and ready strong enough to put such pressure on England that we could gain a peace enabling us to make good our heavy losses. But to achieve this, it was vital to realize the character of the war of destruction waged against us, and to act accordingly both in politics and in war; above all, we should have used our fleet at the right time, relentlessly, and under a united leadership.

—Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930)

Under the leadership of Admiral Tirpitz, Germany constructed its first true navy between 1897 and 1914. While the army was the traditional source of German power in Europe, Kaiser Wilhelm II believed a navy would make Germany a world power. Between 1897 and 1914, Germany constructed a navy second only to Britain's. However, since the main objectives of the buildup failed before the outbreak of World War I, it was unable to positively affect the course of the war.

Other writers have argued that the naval buildup was necessary for the acquisition and protection of colonies, defense, and/or political bargaining value. Scholars often overlook the failures of the Tirpitz and the German government before the outbreak of war. They primarily overlook the fact that while the foundations of Risk Theory had collapsed by 1907, the buildup continued—without a solid foundation. They also frequently overlook Tirpitz's refusal to support submarine development before the war.

The memoirs and communications of the German leaders provide first-person accounts of the purpose, course, and consequences of the buildup. The German navy ultimately failed to attain its most important goals. Admiral Tirpitz and the German government failed to obtain a naval alliance, failed to build their navy to the critical size, and failed to develop the types of ships actually needed in World War I. Compounding these failures, the fleet construction drained resources needed for other military purposes.

Risk Theory—The Purpose of the Fleet

In 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Admiral von Tirpitz to the office of State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office (Reichsmarineamt or RMA). His task was to implement his Risk Theory (Risikogedanke)—to build such a formidable fleet that the British, with their navy scattered around the world, would never dare risk war. This fleet is often labeled the Risk Fleet or Risk Navy. Tirpitz described his theory in a December 1899 speech to the Reichstag. He argued that the most difficult conceivable naval war should be the basis of the German navy. This situation would occur in a North Sea battle against Britain. On the threat to Britain, he argued:

The proposed German fleet offered the English every guarantee of peace, because the latter were two or three times stronger, and it would have been madness to have let loose a war with such slight prospects of overcoming the British fleet.

On the other hand, what we aimed at was to be so strong that it would mean a certain risk even for the English fleet, with its enormous superiority, to pick a quarrel with us.

Tirpitz hoped that the German fleet could simultaneously threaten Britain and prevent war. He focused on the deterrent value of the fleet, not necessarily the alliance value.


Many German leaders hoped that the new German navy could lead to an alliance with Britain. In his memoirs, Chancellor Bülow described Wilhelm's dream of peaceful relations between the fleets, if not an alliance:

What Wilhelm II most desired and imagined for the future was to see himself, at the head of a glorious German Fleet, starting out on a peaceful visit to England. The English Sovereign… would meet the German Kaiser in Portsmouth. The two fleets would file past each other; the two Monarchs, each wearing the naval uniform of the other's country and wearing the other's decorations, would then stand on the bridges of their flag-ships. Then, after they had embraced in the prescribed manner, a gala dinner with lovely speeches would be held in Cowes.

This does demonstrate the actual hope for an alliance with Britain, but it was far too optimistic. In a letter to his mother, Wilhelm admitted that "an English government cannot and never will form an alliance with any Continental Power…" Tirpitz later argued that Germany "could not win England for a friend and supporter without sinking back to the level of a poor agricultural State."

By 1907, the alliance systems of World War I were in place. The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) faced the Triple Entente. Neither of Germany's allies had a significant navy. Not only did Germany face a larger British navy than expected, but Germany had found no significant naval allies. The fleet had failed to improve Germany's alliances—the Triple Alliance of 1882 faced an opposing alliance rather than just several separate states.

Composition of the German Navy

When Tirpitz began planning the new navy, he focused on battleships—the most powerful, prestigious, and expensive type of ship. This focus on battleships hindered the development of submarines. The Reichstag was forced to divide a limited amount of resources between the army, the navy, and the rest of the government. The navy put most of its share into battleships, as Tirpitz passively waited for submarine technology to be perfected. While he later acquired some degree of infamy for advocating unrestricted submarine warfare against British shipping, Tirpitz originally opposed and hindered the development of German submarines. He argued that "commerce-raiding and transatlantic war against England is so hopeless because of the shortage of bases on our side and the superfluity on England's side, that we must ignore this type of war against England in our plans." He also considered commerce warfare offensive to traditional naval tactics. While submarine technology continued to develop, most submarine advances occurred outside of Germany.

In his memoirs, Tirpitz also credited the navy's very existence with defending Germany. He argued that it prevented a closer British blockade or a British invasion through Denmark. He also argued that the German navy forced the British to divert significant manpower—1,500,000 to 2,000,000 men—into their navy instead of into the trenches. However, defense was not the reason Tirpitz claimed to want a fleet. He sought either a decisive battle or political maneuvering to avoid war. Both objectives failed. The fleet never fought a decisive battle and Germany did go to war with Britain. He also ignored the fact that the German navy required significant resources and manpower that was diverted from the German side of the western front.

Works Cited

Bülow, Bernhard von. Memoirs of Prince von Bülow. F. A. Voigt, trans.
Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1931.

Cable, James. The Political Influence of Naval Force in History.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Holstein, Friedrich von. The Holstein papers. Norman Rich & M. H. Fisher, eds.
Cambridge University Press, 1955-63.

Padfield, Peter. The Great Naval Race: The Anglo-German Naval Rivalry, 1900-1914.
New York: David McKay Company, 1974.

Reynolds, Clark. Command of the Sea: the History and Strategy of Maritime Empires.
New York: Morrow, 1974.

Tirpitz, Alfred von. My Memoirs.
London: Hurst & Blackett, c. 1919.

Weir, Gary E. Building the Kaiser's Navy: The Imperial Navy Office and German Industry in the von Tirpitz Era, 1890-1919.
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992.