1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tirpitz, Alfred von
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Tirpitz, Alfred von
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TIRPITZ, ALFRED VON (1849- ), German admiral and politician, was born at Küstrin March 19 1849. He entered the Prussian navy in 1865, and by 1890 had risen to be chief-of-staff of the Baltic station in the Imperial navy. In 1892 he was in charge of the work of the chief-of-staff in the higher command of the navy. He was promoted to be rear-admiral in 1895, and in 1896 and 1897 he was in command of the cruiser division in east Asiatic waters. In 1899 he reached the rank of vice-admiral and in 1903 that of admiral. For the long period of 19 years, from 1897 to 1916, he was Secretary of State for the Imperial navy, and in this capacity advocated the navy bills of 1898, 1900, 1907 and 1912 for increasing the German fleet and successfully carried them through the Reichstag. In 1911 he received the rank of grand-admiral, and he retired in 1916.
The best account of Adml. von Tirpitz's naval achievements and political activities is contained in the book which he published in 1919 under the title of Erinnerungen. In that book he shows how gigantic was the task of creating the new German navy with which Great Britain had to reckon at the outbreak of the World War. Not only had a whole array of subsidiary industries to be established and supplies of raw materials secured; thousands of skilled workmen and hundreds of directing personalities of strong character and exceptional ability had to be found and trained. It has been customary to attribute the creation of the German navy to the Kaiser William II., and it is true that in large part the initiative for successive increases, and the demagogic appeals by which they were supported, originated with the Emperor. On the other hand, it was Tirpitz who not only conducted the practical advocacy of these schemes in the Reichstag, but also organized the service of propaganda in the German press and on the platform, putting popular pressure on the parliamentary representatives of the nation and constraining them to agree to the enormous expenditure which these schemes entailed. William II. was often a hindrance as well as a help, and Tirpitz gives instances in which the work of the construction departments and even that of the Secretary of State were interrupted or hampered by wild-cat Imperial projects for the construction of architecturally impossible vessels or of mechanically impossible machinery. One of these projects, on which an elaborate report had actually to be submitted to the Emperor, was a device for which it was claimed that it had solved the problem of perpetual motion. In the conduct of the naval war the official role of Tirpitz was confined to reporting and advising at general headquarters, the actual conduct and initiative in operations being in the hands of the higher command of the navy at Wilhelmshaven, subject to the Emperor's approval or veto. Tirpitz advances two contentions; first, that he would have sent the navy into decisive action at an earlier stage of the war; secondly, that he would have made an earlier and more ruthless use of the German U-boats; but his opponents traverse both these claims, and in particular assert that as Secretary of State he had neglected the construction of submarines, so that Germany entered the war with a comparatively small supply of these vessels.
In the political sphere Tirpitz was a bitter opponent of Bethmann Hollweg, whom he charged with indecision, half-heartedness and nebulous conceptions of the necessities of German policy. His own experiences in the Reichstag, and the close contact with the political parties which his advocacy of successive naval bills had involved, made him a master of political intrigue. During the years which immediately preceded the war, as well as during the first 18 months of the conflict, he was himself a candidate for the office of Imperial Chancellor, in the sense that many of the reactionary Conservatives and of those who advocated a ruthless conception of policy in peace and war regarded him as their political hope. Lord Haldane, in his book Before the War (1920), records his impression of Tirpitz when he visited Berlin in Feb. 1912 in order to make tentative proposals for an agreement regarding the limitation of new construction. Bethmann Hollweg, Lord Haldane thought, was willing to entertain the British suggestions; it was Tirpitz who behind the scenes offered a most strenuous opposition to any restrictions. Tirpitz himself maintains that his naval aspirations were directed not towards a war with Great Britain, but to the creation of a state of naval equilibrium or of German superiority, which would have enabled Germany to insist upon the unreserved coöperation of British policy in her world aims. It was probably true that Germany's policy was directed rather towards being so strong at sea as to make England unwilling to fight her unless absolutely necessary, than towards actually challenging British naval supremacy. But this policy was, in any case, bound to make England peculiarly sensitive to provocation by Germany, — a point which was ignored by the champions of a great German navy. Tirpitz's book, in so far as his statements may be trusted, throws much light upon the circumstances in which German policy was directed or drifted in July 1914 into paths which inevitably led to war. He enlarges in particular upon what he considers the folly of the declaration of war upon Russia (see Bethmann Hollweg). He is naturally influenced to some extent in what he says by his poor opinion of Bethmann Hollweg's capacities and by his own thorough knowledge of the Emperor's fickle and impetuous character.
His resignation in 1916, and the stages of his relations with the Emperor and the Higher Naval Command which led to it, are described in his Erinnerungen with almost tragic vividness. Tirpitz remained a leading figure in the political agitation against the Chancellor's policy and was selected as president of the “Vaterlandspartei,” a political association started in Sept. 1917 under reactionary auspices to combat all attempts at peace by compromise, and to advocate the prosecution of the U-boat warfare with extreme ruthlessness. This association offered a vigorous opposition to the movement, which succeeded only when it was too late, for obtaining alterations in the constitution limiting the power of the Emperor and laying the foundations of real parliamentary government in the Empire and in Prussia.
After the revolution Tirpitz was one of those against whom German popular animosity was chiefly directed as being the inspirer of the naval and world policy which led to the war, and also the most powerful influence in prolonging it. He was one of those who found it inadvisable to remain in Germany, and he departed to find a refuge in Switzerland. After the republican Government seemed fairly established, and the reign of law and order was being restored, he returned; but, possibly on account of his advanced age, did not appear during 1921 to be taking any further part in political intrigue or agitation. (G. S.)