Book Review: Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy


by Patrick J. Kelly

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 585. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $47.00. ISBN: 0253355931

The Father of the Kaiser’s Navy

Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy is an important book for those seeking to understand the factors contributing to the outbreak of World War I. The author, Patrick Kelly, has researched the subject in impressive detail and written with piercing analysis. It essentially has four major sections; the youth of Alfred Tirpitz (1849-1930) and his maturation as a naval officer, including a rather undistinguished performance in Asia, his service as State Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office, his experiences in the World War, with frustrations and declining influence, and a post- war political career. Basically, Tirpitz was a mediocre commander who sought power and jealously protected it; deprecating new ideas, while promoting his own.

Tirpitz was chiefly responsible for the development of the torpedo as a significant weapon, working for twelve years in the Torpedo Arm Section of the German Navy, 1877-1889. A highlight of the book is an 1879 photograph of a square rigger, SMS Zieten, with two torpedo tubes above water on its starboard side.

In 1896 Tirpitz was sent to East Asia to identify a site suitable for a naval base, a task complicated by his lack of objectivity and internal Navy politics. Eventually he seized his favorite site, regardless of Chinese concerns. His performance was unimpressive.

Upon his 1897 return to Germany, Tirpitz sought and served as State Secretary of the Navy until 1916, somewhat like a uniformed officer being the Secretary of the Navy. He had much to say about Navy expenditures, primarily for building capital ships, which gave him the power he sought.

His chief responsibility was to build the fleet, which he did successfully by frequently threatening the Emperor with his resignation, schmoozing with Germany’s four political parties, linking expanded international commerce to a more powerful navy, and building a base of navy loyalists. The result was a fierce and expensive buildup of the German navy into a force that was still outgunned by the British, who had many more ships with far greater cruising ranges. Hatred of Britain was used to justify the expansion of the Imperial Navy, which never developed plans for its use, nor was it used much in the Great War. In the meantime, the gradually developing submarine force was ignored.

This period of service was when Tirpitz performed best, but his worst features came to light; a craving for bureaucratic power, a poorly designed fleet with only a North Sea mission, no coherent war plan because it would challenge Tirpitz’s power and, overall, self-interest at heart, not the interest of the Navy.

Kelly is to be commended for keeping all of the complicated legislative activity straight over a long period of time. For the reader, it is a tough slog.

When the war ended construction, the Admiral’s influence was reduced to very little. He had not commanded anything since 1897, his ideas were ridiculed, and he was basically sidelined. When investigated for war crimes in 1920 he was found innocent because he had had no authority.

After the War, Tirpitz participated in civilian politics, winning a seat as a deputy in the Reichstag. He was interested in establishing a dictatorship to combat the unrest of that period but nothing came of it.

The Nazis built a fitting memorial to the Admiral, naming a battleship after him. The British responded appropriately, bombing it to the bottom of a Norwegian inlet.

Kelly’s last chapter of Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy is titled “Conclusion”, and is primarily a summary. The veteran student of the Imperial Navy should review this section before spending the time to read the entire book which could be considered TMI. 


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Our Reviewer: Ron Drees is an archivist, retired from processing the collection of Dr. Michael DeBakey, a world-famous cardiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His interest in history dates back to junior high school with an emphasis on American military history, particularly the Civil and World Wars. He has written several reviews for Michael Hanlon's blog "Roads to the Great War", about the catastrophe that still shapes the world. His favorite WWI book is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 which tells how the tragedy was compounded by setting the stage for even greater misery. He lives in Houston with his wife of 42 years, Lin, a retired librarian, and their Sheltie, Hannah. He had a grandfather who was a teamster on the German side in WWI, his my first boss had been a Marine at Iwo Jima, virtually the only survivor of his company, and his brother-in-had been was at Inchon. Ron’s previous reviews include Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918 and Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front .




Note: Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: Ron Drees   

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