The history of the German navy begins with the creation of the Deutsche Bundesflotte in 1848–1849 by the National Assembly in Frankfurt. The Bundesflotte fought only one battle, off Helgoland on 4 June 1849, before being dismantled after the collapse of the Frankfurt government. The navy became a symbol of national unity and was strongly supported by the liberal movement and the growing middle class. The enthusiasm for a navy in this period presaged several themes that would play an important part in future naval developments: the desire for a fleet to match that of Great Britain; recognition that building a navy would have to be done in steps; and the national role of the navy in the creation of German unity.
Increasing conflict between the German Confederation and Denmark in the 1860s and a revived national unity movement led to a renewed public interest in the establishment of a German fleet. During this second wave of “navalism” the Prussian navy greatly expanded its overseas activities in promotion and protection of trade and economic interests. Establishment of the North German Confederation and the Norddeutsche Bundesmarine in 1867 represented the most significant expression of Reich-centeredness since 1848 and resulted in approval for a new building program and the development of an overseas policy, with China as the most important location for new naval bases.
The navy, however, had only a minor role in the final stage of Prussia’s national unification of Germany in the victory over France in 1871, a fact that dampened the support and enthusiasm for a navy. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who wanted only a small navy so as to avoid any conflict with Britain, appointed an army general, Albrecht von Stosch, as chief of the Admiralty on 1 January 1872. In an attempt to regain the popularity of the navy with the liberal nationalists, Stosch renamed it the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial Navy) and implemented a construction program that would give Germany the third largest armored fleet in the world, albeit briefly.
The navy’s desire to justify its existence in light of its passivity and ineffectiveness in the Franco-Prussian War led it to emphasize an offensive spirit. Operational planning remained largely theoretical, however, with little contact with the fleet commanders or the army. Although Chancellor Bismarck was not a “fleet enthusiast,” his concept of a balance of power on the seas and the idea of having a navy of the second rank as an “alliance factor” (Bundnisfahigkeit) later played a role in Germany’s naval-political strategy. Stosch’s rivalry with Bismarck and the sinking of the Grosser Kurfurst in 1878 led to increased criticism and a public loss of confidence in the navy.
Stosch’s mix of ship types and rapid changes in technology and the confusion caused by the French Jeune École made it difficult for Stosch’s successor, another army general, Leo von Caprivi (1883–1888), to develop any coherent expansion program or strategy. Caprivi supported the construction of torpedo boats in the face of what he considered to be an imminent threat of war, as well as overseas cruisers to support Bismarck’s colonial policies.
New Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888–1918) was an enthusiastic advocate of an expanded navy, but he wavered, as did his officers, between a battleship and cruiser navy. However, his support helped restore the prestige of the navy and heightened its appeal as a symbol of nationalism, along with German aspirations for world power.
In 1897 Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Admiral Alfred Tirpitz head of the Imperial Navy Office (Reichsmarineamt). This proved a turning point, not only for the German Navy but for Germany itself. Tirpitz swiftly developed a plan that skillfully combined political, military, ideological, and economic justifications for a navy. Tirpitz sought to defend the navy against all critics. He perpetuated the fragmentation of command created by the Kaiser to maintain his bureaucratic control, and he vigorously defended his departmental interests.
Under Tirpitz, a unique “German school” of naval thought emerged. This merged the Prussian-Clausewitzian influence and the navalism of Alfred Thayer Mahan into a military and political ideology of sea power. Tirpitz’s “risk theory” that a German battle fleet would serve as a deterrent against England, was a cover for his aspiration to challenge Britain for world naval dominance.
The primacy of the battle fleet and Tirpitz’s dogma of seeking the decisive battle from its North Sea base contributed to the contradictions and illusions in German naval strategy and tactics, as well as its construction program. To get through the danger zone in which the German fleet would be vulnerable to a British attack, Tirpitz planned to build his fleet in stages.
The advent of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 and the spiraling cost of battleship construction intensified a naval race that Germany could not win and a coalition of foes it could not defeat. By the outbreak of war in August 1914, the High Seas Fleet, although the world’s second largest, was clearly outclassed by the Royal Navy. Germany had in service 15 dreadnought battleships and 5 battle cruisers to Britain’s 22 dreadnoughts and 9 battle cruisers. The difference was even more pronounced in terms of other warships. Germany had 22 predreadnought battleships to Britain’s 40, 40 cruisers of all types to Britain’s 87, 90 destroyers to Britain’s 221, 115 torpedo boats to Britain’s 109, and 32 submarines to Britain’s 73.
The inactivity of the High Seas Fleet save for the 1916 Battle of Jutland demonstrated the fallacies in Tirpitz’s planning and strategy and led directly to the implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, which brought the United States into the war. The naval mutinies in 1917 and 1918 that precipitated revolution in Germany, the scuttling of the interned High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow in 1919, and the draconian naval terms of the Treaty of Versailles left the Weimar Republic’s Reichsmarine with little popular support and a handful of obsolete ships. The Weimar Republic’s naval leaders, however, continued to believe in the political claims of Tirpitz’s sea power ideology that only a navy of the “first magnitude” would serve as an instrument of power politics and a symbol of Germany’s world power.
Following Admiral Adolf von Trotha’s ill-advised support for an aborted right-wing coup attempt in March 1920 (the Kapp Putsch), the navy’s already tenuous relationship with the supporters of the republic threatened its very existence. The navy’s secret rearmament attempts and blatant violations of the treaty as revealed by the Lohmann scandal of 1927 and controversy over the building of the navy’s new 10,000-ton “pocket battleship” (Panzerschiff) further increased its isolation. The navy became a force existing for its own purposes and sense of destiny, disengaged intellectually and professionally from the legal state and its institutions. In 1928 the new navy chief, Admiral Erich Raeder (1928–1943), whose Ressorteifer (departmental self-interest) matched that of his mentor Tirpitz, established an authoritarian, centralized command over “his” navy. In spite of his disavowal of party politics, Raeder sought to build support for expanding the fleet beyond its modest role in Germany’s national defense. With Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933, the Führer’s “national” and “social” program found a close affinity with the long-term goals of the naval leadership, and the navy followed a leader who it believed had both the desire and power to fulfill its aspirations.
Raeder believed that he had educated the Führer as to the necessity of a fleet as a power and alliance factor. Hitler’s short-term plans included an accommodation with Britain in return for its acquiescence in Germany’s continental expansion. The June 1935 Anglo-German Naval Treaty limited the size of the Kriegsmarine to 35 percent the tonnage of the Royal Navy, although it gave Germany parity in submarines.
Raeder regarded the treaty as temporary. Germany was now free to build U-boats again and to develop a balanced fleet that would be ready by 1944 to support Hitler’s next stage of military expansion. Raeder and his officers believed war with Britain and later even the United States and Japan was inevitable. The 1939 “Z” Plan, the culmination of the turn against England that had begun in 1937, would provide a deterrent while serving as the basis of an even larger blue-water fleet (as seen in proposed 1940 and 1941 construction programs).
The continuity between the navies of the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich demonstrated that the navy’s war aims were not tied to questions of national security or living space but were an expression of the navy’s attempts to expand its power and influence. This could only be accomplished through Germany’s being a world power with a world fleet—and this was the final goal for both the navy and the Führer.
As Raeder began to worry that war with England would come sooner rather than later, Hitler refused to allow any change in the building of battleships over U-boats or cruisers. When World War II began in September 1939, Raeder lamented that all his small navy could do was “die gallantly.” The German surface fleet consisted of 2 battleships, 3 pocket battleships, 1 heavy cruiser, 6 light cruisers, and 33 destroyers and torpedo boats. Fewer than half of the 57 U-boats available were suitable for Atlantic operations.
Raeder persistently argued that only all-out economic warfare could have any effect on Britain, and he planned a full-scale offensive of cruiser warfare on a global basis to force London to divide its forces. Restrictions—particularly on U-boats early in the war—and a temporary halt in the U-boat construction program frustrated Raeder’s attempts to seize the initiative and achieve early success, as well as avoid comparisons of the Kriegsmarine with the High Seas Fleet in 1914–1918. The navy regarded the successful surprise invasion of Norway and Denmark (Operation weser) in April 1940 as its major feat of arms in this stage of the war, but they lost 3 cruisers and 10 destroyers in the operation. The loss of the Bismarck in May 1941, however, led directly to Raeder’s final break with Hitler in December 1942. Nonetheless, the Channel Dash in February 1942—the escape of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen to Norway—was a strategic defeat for the navy.
In the aftermath of the defeat of France in 1940, Raeder tried unsuccessfully to redirect Hitler to the Mediterranean as a viable alternative to the invasion of the Soviet Union and as an indirect means of attacking England. With the fleet tied to Norway, the U-boat arm under its commander, Karl Dönitz, continued its role as the navy’s primary weapon. The navy, however, never resolved the issue of whether the U-boat war was a “tonnage war” or a commerce war in which U-boats attacked targets that had the greatest potential for a decisive impact. The defeat of the U-boats in May 1943 both technologically and through Allied successes in code breaking reflected the shortcomings in the naval leadership and military structure of the Third Reich.
The final act of the German navy in World War II was a considerable undertaking: the massive evacuation of civilians and soldiers from the Eastern Front in the Baltic. As a reward for the loyalty and steadfastness of the navy, at the end of the war Hitler appointed Dönitz as his successor, in sharp contrast to the navy’s ignominious end in 1918.
The developing Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union provided the opportunity and framework for naval rearmament in the newly created Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. The Bundesmarine and the Volksmarine developed within the framework of the opposing NATO and Warsaw Pact military alliances. In 1990, after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, the Volksmarine was integrated into the new Deutsche Marine. This new German navy is a blue-water navy with a balanced fleet specializing in narrow-seas warfare. In 2001 the German Navy numbered 2 destroyers, 12 frigates with an additional 3 building, 14 patrol submarines with 4 more under construction, 30 guided missile patrol boats, 17 mine hunters, and 2 naval air squadrons. Naval personnel number some 27,000, almost twice that of the navy of the Weimar Republic.
Operating under NATO’s strategic framework, the Defense Capabilities Initiative of 1999, the Deutsche Marine deploys its forces beyond the borders of the alliance in order to respond to crises such as Somalia or Yugoslavia. The navy also participates in combined joint task forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, including two NATO mine countermeasures task forces in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.
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