Hidden Motives: Naval Jealousy

While Germany had a long tradition of sea trade through her port cities, she was never thought of as a great maritime power. The German Navy traces its roots indirectly back to the Brandenburg Navy which was in operation from the 16th century to 1701 when it became part of the Prussian Navy, which, unlike all other European powers, was not developed for a very long time. The Prussian Navy would later evolve into the Norddeutsche Bundesmarine from 1866 to 1871, and then the Kaiserliche Marine from 1872 to 1918.

Germany had never been keen on the idea of colonies, in part because of a general revulsion of slavery. However, watching Britain, France and others gaining riches, food sources and power from their colonies inspired a competitive attitude. The urge to colonize rapidly accelerated in the wake of a global economic crisis that had persisted since 1873, and by the end of the 1870s, German attitudes toward overseas possessions changed under Bismarck’s reluctant nod of approval.

By 1900, Europe would had added approximately one-fifth of the land area of earth to its overseas colonial possessions, with Britain leading the pack. Soon, German colonies in the South Seas and on the coast of West Africa were established by trading companies, and new colonial dominions in other regions were acquired by individual German adventurers.

The German Colonial League, Deutscher Kolonialverein, and the Society for German Colonization, Gesellschaft für deutsche Kolonisation, were founded for various reasons, not the least of which were plans to stem the tide of German emigration to the USA which was resulting in, as we say today, a brain-drain. They hoped that if the emigrants went to new German colonies instead, their language and culture would stay alive and the countries would mutually benefit from each other financially and otherwise. Otherwise, however, the new colonial policies were not all that popular, especially in the German Free Thought party, the Center and the Social Democrats, all of whom doubted the legality of the territorial acquisitions and their economic benefit. German colonial policy took on a new dimension under Kaiser Wilhelm’s financial advisors after 1890.

Britain, while proclaiming itself to be a champion of “free trade,” was not only the largest overseas empire in 1914 with its hold on India, but also had the greatest gains in the “scramble for Africa.” Between 1871 and 1900, Britain added 4.25 million square miles and 66 million people to her empire, having nearly 30% of Africa’s population under its control. France was second, ruling 15% of Africa’s people and adding 3.5 million square miles and 26 million people to her empire.

Germany came in third, having acquired an overall empire of 1,000,000 square miles and 14 million colonial subjects, mostly in her African possessions (Southwest Africa, Togoland, the Cameroons, and Tanganyika). Belgium had secured rule over 7% of Africa’s population, and even Italy jumped into the act and began to take possession of small parts of the Dark Continent. Russia, meanwhile, had added a half a million square miles and 6.5 million people in Asia to her Empire. All of them required a strong navy to maintain their holdings, and even Japan was acquiring new naval strength. Viewing all of this, the Kaiser justifiably felt that a strong navy was key to survival, but his avaricious competition cried, “German expansionism.”

A combination of naval interests and commercial pressure encouraged the development of a new canal linking the North Sea to the Baltic Sea to avoid sailing around Denmark. The first connection between the North and Baltic Seas was the Eider Canal, completed in 1784, which used stretches of the Eider River for the link between the two seas, but it was only 95 feet wide with a depth of 10 feet, which limited the size of vessels. The Eiderkanal was a 27 mile part of a 109 mile long waterway from Kiel to the Eider mouth at Tönning on the west coast.

In June 1887, construction of a new canal began. The Kiel Canal, known until 1948 as the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal in honor of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and now called the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, is 61 miles long and is the world’s busiest artificial waterway. It took 9,000 workers 8 difficult years to build the waterway, and at a colossal expense. To meet military needs and increasing traffic, the canal width was increased from 1907-1914. The Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal was viewed as an engineering marvel around the world (center image below).

Right: Brandenburg Navy 1648. Below left: von Tirpitz

Die Hanse

First German Navy

Some old ships

The German Greyhounds

The Zeppelin

More on the Navy

Prince Heinrich of Prussia

German Nationalism

The formation of the British Navy League of 1894 was followed in 1898 by the corresponding German Navy League (Flottenverein). The German Navy League extended to about 3,400 local committees over the whole German Reich. In 1898, it had 78,762 members and by 1908 grew to 1,036,320. With its founding and the start of naval construction in 1894, the German Empire began to very enthusiastically assert itself as a sea power.... using Britain as an ideal and a template.

Alfred von Tirpitz was the driving force behind the German naval efforts. Tirpitz entered the navy at age 16 and worked his way through officer school and then rose up through the ranks. He was tough, brilliant and ambitious. Introducing the First Fleet Act in 1898, Tirpitz announced the re-organization and expansion of the Navy. This was followed by the Second Fleet Act in 1900, to construct a fleet capable of matching the British Royal Navy, with a 17-year deadline for the construction of a fleet of 2 flagships, 36 battleships, 11 large and 34 small cruisers.

Initially, Germany’s efficient new naval endeavors were viewed by the British, French and Russians with more of a financial concern than a threat to their national defenses. Britain, with her own expansionist, colonialist zeal (and whose homicidal conduct in the Boer War of 1899 should have disqualified her from passing judgement on Germany), would soon have people believe that Germany “wanted to take over the world” by forming a strong navy. The German building of fleets provided the excuse for Great Britain’s “reconciliation” with France and Russia and led directly to the formation of the militaristic anti-German coalition, the Triple Entente.

As the media in Germany responded unfavorably to England’s chronic haranging, tensions increased over the rise in German naval power. British reaction was molded by nationalistic zealots such as Rudyard Kipling who published a series of scare articles which were collected as “A Fleet in Being” and subtitled “Notes of Two Trips with the Channel Squadron” in 1898. In 1905, when the British introduced the Dreadnought battleship class, Germany was prompted to increase the size of her battleships as well. Despite opposition within Germany, even from Von Bulow, Chancellor from 1900-1909, naval expansion continued with construction costs increasing proportionally. Support provided by the Navy League, founded partly to influence the passage of pet naval bills, combined with large industrial concerns made this possible. The Navy League was influential in other causes.

Between 1890 and 1913, Germany’s population swelled by 40%. Germany had become the premier producer of steel in Europe and large shifts in the population from countryside to cities created not only a new consumer class but a large and growing working class. Germany’s mercantile class, composed mainly of economically progressive liberals, represented for the most part the left wing of the Reichstag. In opposition to this party, the old Prussian aristocracy stood on the right. The Catholic Center party was center, with members who tended to be either neutral or conservative.

Labor agitators, socialists and communists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Paul Levi, Karl Liebknecht, Karl Berngardovich Radek, below, and hundreds of others were actively instigating social unrest. Marxist organizations both within and beyond Germany who were instigating fierce resistance to “Prussianism” grew rapidly in the late 1800s. Communists advocated a wave of strikes intended to paralyse the economy and gain workers’solidarity by 1907. By 1912, the left had managed to win a third of all votes cast. As in the rest of Europe, Germany’s rising working class became more militant, with union-led strike movements and class tension arising. This resulted in a legitimate fear of a break down in society, a weakening of government and general anarchy. As a reaction, groups like the Pan-German League and the German Navy League tried to curb the influence of the left wing. Nationalistic groups were not unusual anywhere at the time, and Germany was no exception.

The Kaiserliche Marine or Imperial German Navy existed between 1871 and 1919. At the Battle of Coronel, it inflicted the first major naval defeat on the British Royal Navy in over 100 years, and in the Battle of Jutland, it destroyed more ships than it lost. It was the first navy who successfully operated submarines, and it also operated Zeppelins. It never lost a ship to a catastrophic magazine explosion from an above-water attack.

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