Germany and Sea Power in the 20th Century

Michael Epkenhans


Today sea power, or to be more precise, naval power is just as much one of the most important prerequisites of political, social, and economic stability in Germany as it is in the whole West. The threats of terrorism and piracy have highlighted the vulnerability of Western Society in every respect. In a globalized world, without safe passage of food and goods these societies would suffer heavy losses threatening the proper working of highly industrialized societies dependent upon the timely supply of raw materials or spare parts as well as the safe passage of manufactured goods and food. Unlike the history of the other Western powers, the history of Germany and sea power is – at least as far as the first half of the 20th century is concerned – a history of failure and seminal disaster. One of the main reasons for this judgment is that Germany developed a concept of world and sea power, which eventually contributed to the tensions leading to the outbreak of World War I. In the last decades of the 19th century Germany’s political and naval leadership decided to revolutionize the international system in order to bequeath Britain as the world’s leading power. Since sea power was the main pillar of Britain’s power, they tried to follow her example by building up a powerful fleet. This strategy failed completely. The assumption that Britain could not out-build the Imperial Navy for lack of both finances as well as of men to man the vessels was a prerequisite of Tirpitz’s progamme. This assumption, however, soon proved wrong. In 1908/09 the British Admiralty took up the gauntlet which Tirpitz had thrown into its face by ordering not only four, but even eight new vessels of the “Dreadnought”-type, thus effectively doubling Germany’s annual building-rate at that time. More importantly, the Admiralty soon accepted the offer of some of Britain’s colonies and dominions to share the financial burden of their mother country to defend the empire.

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