Fleet Acts
The Naval Laws were five separate laws passed by the German Empire
German Empire
The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...

, in 1898, 1900, 1906, 1908, and 1912. These acts, championed by Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Secretary of State for the Navy, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz
Alfred von Tirpitz
Alfred von Tirpitz was a German Admiral, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, the powerful administrative branch of the German Imperial Navy from 1897 until 1916. Prussia never had a major navy, nor did the other German states before the German Empire was formed in 1871...

, committed Germany to building up a navy capable of competing with the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

 of the United Kingdom
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the formal name of the United Kingdom during the period when what is now the Republic of Ireland formed a part of it....


German desires and the strategic debate

The Kaiser had long wanted a large naval force to assure Germany of what he called "a place in the sun". A large German navy could assist in German attempts to attain colonies, as well as further the country's economic and commercial interests elsewhere in the world. He was determined to make his country a colonial power in the Pacific and Africa. He was also a very militaristic man, and wished to increase the strength of the German armed forces; in particular he wanted to develop a navy that could match the Royal Navy of Britain. As he wrote in his autobiography:
Though Wilhelm loved naval power, he was initially unsure what form the German Navy would take: a force made up primarily of smaller vessels such as cruiser
A cruiser is a type of warship. The term has been in use for several hundreds of years, and has had different meanings throughout this period...

s, or larger vessels such as battleship
A battleship is a large armored warship with a main battery consisting of heavy caliber guns. Battleships were larger, better armed and armored than cruisers and destroyers. As the largest armed ships in a fleet, battleships were used to attain command of the sea and represented the apex of a...

s. He initially leaned toward cruisers because they could go to all corners of the globe and display the German flag wherever they went, while battleships were large and cumbersome and thus needed to stay in the Baltic
Baltic Sea
The Baltic Sea is a brackish mediterranean sea located in Northern Europe, from 53°N to 66°N latitude and from 20°E to 26°E longitude. It is bounded by the Scandinavian Peninsula, the mainland of Europe, and the Danish islands. It drains into the Kattegat by way of the Øresund, the Great Belt and...

 or North Sea
North Sea
In the southwest, beyond the Straits of Dover, the North Sea becomes the English Channel connecting to the Atlantic Ocean. In the east, it connects to the Baltic Sea via the Skagerrak and Kattegat, narrow straits that separate Denmark from Norway and Sweden respectively...

. The Secretary of the German Imperial Naval Office
German Imperial Naval Office
The German Imperial Naval Office was a government office in the German Empire. In April, 1889 what had been the German Imperial Admiralty was abolished and its duties divided among three new entities: the Imperial Naval High Command , the Imperial Naval Office and the German Imperial Naval Cabinet...

, Admiral Friedrich von Hollmann
Friedrich von Hollmann
Friedrich von Hollmann was an Admiral of the German Imperial Navy and Secretary of the German Imperial Naval Office under Emperor Wilhelm II....

, also favoured cruisers because they were cheaper and more suited to German maritime strategy, which then emphasized coastal defence. However, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz
Alfred von Tirpitz
Alfred von Tirpitz was a German Admiral, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, the powerful administrative branch of the German Imperial Navy from 1897 until 1916. Prussia never had a major navy, nor did the other German states before the German Empire was formed in 1871...

, the leading proponent of battleships for the German navy, argued that because Germany did not have many colonies or overseas coaling stations, cruiser warfare did not make sense. Rather, it was important to concentrate a large fleet of battleships in close proximity to the strongest sea power, as this was the only way that Germany could compete with Britain (the world's leading naval and colonial power) and thus achieve world power for itself. Tirpitz further claimed that the mere presence of a large battleship fleet would indirectly protect German colonies and commerce the world over, despite the battleships' limited range. The victory of the battleship camp in this strategic debate was cemented when Tirpitz
replaced Hollmann as State Secretary for the Navy.

On June 15, 1897, Tirpitz unveiled a memorandum
A memorandum is from the Latin verbal phrase memorandum est, the gerundive form of the verb memoro, "to mention, call to mind, recount, relate", which means "It must be remembered ..."...

 that was to alter European history. In this document, he argued that in order to defeat the strongest naval power, a fleet of battleships was necessary. He then proceeded to reverse his argument: if battleships were necessary, Germany's enemy must be the strongest naval power – Britain. Tirpitz's plans were predicated on "risk theory
Risk theory
Risk theory connotes the study usually by actuaries and insurers of the financial impact on a carrier of a portfolio of insurance policies. For example, if the carrier has 100 policies that insures against a total loss of $1000, and if each policy's chance of loss is independent and has a...

" – even if the German fleet was smaller than that of Britain, it had to be able to inflict damage on the Royal Navy that was severe enough to endanger British dominance of the seas. The losses would be so heavy that another power, perhaps a German ally or British foe, could then swoop in and destroy the remnants of the British fleet. To avoid such a costly naval confrontation with Germany, British diplomacy would become more accommodating towards German colonial and economic desires. Tirpitz felt that such a massive shipbuilding program could only work if its particulars were enshrined in law; this would commit the navy to building a fixed number of ships in advance, ensure that the fleet was built up continuously, and avoid the need to haggle for the money to build each ship in the Reichstag
Reichstag (German Empire)
The Reichstag was the parliament of the North German Confederation , and of the German Reich ....

. The stage was thus set for a set of laws that would precipitate the transformation of Anglo-German relations
Anglo-German relations
Germany – United Kingdom relations also Anglo-German relations are the bilateral relations between Britain and Germany.Before the unification of Germany in 1871, Britain was often allied in wartime with Prussia. The Hanoverian kings of England were also the rulers of the German state of Hanover...


The Naval Laws

At the turn of the 20th century, Britain adhered to the so-called "Two-Power Standard": the Royal Navy had to be equal in strength to that of the next two naval powers combined. The standard, long accepted unofficially, was made official by the Naval Defence Act 1889
Naval Defence Act 1889
The Naval Defence Act 1889 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, instituted on May 31, 1889 to increase the United Kingdom's naval strength and formally adopt the country’s "two-power standard." The standard called for the Royal Navy to maintain a number of battleships at least equal...

, and designated the French and Russian navies as the most likely adversaries for Britain on the high seas. However, the German Naval Laws advocated by Tirpitz began to threaten this standard.

The First Naval Law, introduced to the Reichstag in late 1897, outlined the composition of the fleet by vessel class and the number of ships to be constructed by 1904 and also set a cost limit. It authorized a fixed number of battleships that would not be altered by an annual parliamentary vote. The Bill proposed 16 battleships to be built in the next 3 years. The law passed the Reichstag on March 26, 1898, however there was opposition; the Conservative Party and the SPD were against spending vast amounts of money. Its ramifications were not immediately evident, as the seven battleships it called for would not be sufficient to fight either the British or French navies.

Germany's real threat to the Royal Navy began with the Second Naval Law. During the Second Boer War
Second Boer War
The Second Boer War was fought from 11 October 1899 until 31 May 1902 between the British Empire and the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers of two independent Boer republics, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State...

, the Germans greatly sympathized with the Boers, whom they considered a racially and culturally akin people. In January 1900, British cruisers on patrol detained three German mail steamers off the coast of Africa to search them, suspecting them of carrying materiel
Materiel is a term used in English to refer to the equipment and supplies in military and commercial supply chain management....

 to the Boers. Although the British quickly apologized, Germans were outraged, and Admiral von Tirpitz took advantage of the anger to introduce a new naval bill, which passed through the Reichstag with very little opposition on June 20 of that year. This law doubled the size of the fleet from 19 to 38 battleships; two flagships, four battle squadrons of eight battleships each, and four reserve battleships were to be constructed over seventeen years, from 1901 to 1917. This law made clear that not only was the German Navy to be a powerful battle fleet instead of a coastal defence force (in the process turning Germany into the second-leading naval power in the world), but that the primary opponent of this enlarged fleet was to be the United Kingdom.

The next 12 years saw the Reichstag pass three more Naval Laws, in 1906, 1908, and 1912; in each case, Tirpitz took advantage of a sense of crisis and alarm in Germany to ensure the success of the legislation. In June 1906, the Third Naval Law, mandating the construction of six large cruisers, became law following the German failure to break the Entente cordiale
Entente Cordiale
The Entente Cordiale was a series of agreements signed on 8 April 1904 between the United Kingdom and the French Republic. Beyond the immediate concerns of colonial expansion addressed by the agreement, the signing of the Entente Cordiale marked the end of almost a millennium of intermittent...

 at the Algeciras Conference
Algeciras Conference
The Algeciras Conference of 1906 took place in Algeciras, Spain, and lasted from January 16 to April 7. The purpose of the conference was to find a solution to the First Moroccan Crisis between France and Germany, which arose as Germany attempted to prevent France from establishing a protectorate...

. The Fourth Naval Law of April 1908 pared down the age at which battleships were to be replaced from 25 to 21 years, and was sparked by a feeling that King Edward VII
Edward VII of the United Kingdom
Edward VII was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Emperor of India from 22 January 1901 until his death in 1910...

 and Great Britain was trying to encircle Germany. The Fifth Naval Law, sparked by the German retreat in the Agadir Crisis
Agadir Crisis
The Agadir Crisis, also called the Second Moroccan Crisis, or the Panthersprung, was the international tension sparked by the deployment of the German gunboat Panther, to the Moroccan port of Agadir on July 1, 1911.-Background:...

 of 1911, passed in June 1912 and added three more battleships to the building program.

The British response

Throughout the 1890s, Britain had been building its own battleships on a massive scale, and was more preoccupied with France
French Third Republic
The French Third Republic was the republican government of France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed due to the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, to 1940, when France was overrun by Nazi Germany during World War II, resulting in the German and Italian occupations of France...

 and Russia
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

 than Germany, which it viewed more as an ally than as an enemy. However, the Second Naval Law, with its rapid expansion of the German fleet, began to gravely worry the island nation. German naval expansion threatened British control of the seas, which was vital not only to the maintenance of the British Empire
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

, but also to the security of the British Isles
British Isles
The British Isles are a group of islands off the northwest coast of continental Europe that include the islands of Great Britain and Ireland and over six thousand smaller isles. There are two sovereign states located on the islands: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and...

 themselves, as naval supremacy had long shielded Britain from invasion. As Lord Selborne
William Palmer, 2nd Earl of Selborne
William Waldegrave Palmer, 2nd Earl of Selborne KG, GCMG, PC , styled Viscount Wolmer between 1882 and 1895, was a British politician and colonial administrator.-Background and education:...

, the First Lord of the Admiralty, informed Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the Head of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are collectively accountable for their policies and actions to the Sovereign, to Parliament, to their political party and...

, on November 15, 1901:
As a result, the British began to shift their foreign and naval policies to meet the German threat. From 1902 onward, the Admiralty
The Admiralty was formerly the authority in the Kingdom of England, and later in the United Kingdom, responsible for the command of the Royal Navy...

 advocated the Two-Power Standard plus an additional six battleships over and above parity with the French and Russians, and in a Cabinet memorandum dated February 26, 1904, Selborne charged that the German navy was being "carefully built up from the point of view of a war with us." Diplomatically, the British forever abandoned Splendid Isolation
Splendid isolation
Splendid Isolation was the foreign policy pursued by Britain during the late 19th century, under the Conservative premierships of Benjamin Disraeli and the Marquess of Salisbury. The term was actually coined by a Canadian politician to praise Britain's lack of involvement in European affairs...

 by concluding the Anglo-Japanese Alliance
Anglo-Japanese Alliance
The first was signed in London at what is now the Lansdowne Club, on January 30, 1902, by Lord Lansdowne and Hayashi Tadasu . A diplomatic milestone for its ending of Britain's splendid isolation, the alliance was renewed and extended in scope twice, in 1905 and 1911, before its demise in 1921...

 in 1902, then followed it two years later by signing the Entente cordiale
Entente Cordiale
The Entente Cordiale was a series of agreements signed on 8 April 1904 between the United Kingdom and the French Republic. Beyond the immediate concerns of colonial expansion addressed by the agreement, the signing of the Entente Cordiale marked the end of almost a millennium of intermittent...

 with their long-time enemies, the French. With the signing of the Anglo-Russian Entente
Anglo-Russian Entente
Signed on August 31, 1907, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 brought shaky British-Russian relations to the forefront by solidifying boundaries that identified respective control in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet...

 in 1907, the German fear of encirclement became a reality.

Under Sir John Fisher, who served as First Sea Lord
First Sea Lord
The First Sea Lord is the professional head of the Royal Navy and the whole Naval Service; it was formerly known as First Naval Lord. He also holds the title of Chief of Naval Staff, and is known by the abbreviations 1SL/CNS...

 from 1904 to 1910, the Royal Navy underwent a period of revolutionary change. Since the autumn of 1902, Fisher had viewed Germany as Britain's principal naval enemy, and so he redistributed the Fleet such that the biggest and most powerful ships were situated for battle against the Germans. The Home Fleet was renamed the Channel Fleet
Channel Fleet
The Channel Fleet was the Royal Navy formation of warships that defended the waters of the English Channel from 1690 to 1909.-History:The Channel Fleet dates back at least to 1690 when its role was to defend England against the French threat under the leadership of Edward Russell, 1st Earl of...

 and ordered to remain in the proximity of the English Channel
English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...

, while the former Channel Fleet, based at Gibraltar
Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance of the Mediterranean. A peninsula with an area of , it has a northern border with Andalusia, Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar is the major landmark of the region...

, was redesignated the Atlantic Fleet. Four battleships transferred from the Mediterranean Fleet
Mediterranean Fleet
Several countries have or have had a Mediterranean Fleet in their navy. See:* Mediterranean Fleet * French Mediterranean Fleet* Mediterranean Squadron * United States Sixth Fleet...

 and five from China enlarged the Channel Fleet to 17 battleships, while the eight battleships of the Atlantic Fleet could move north toward the British Isles or east into the Mediterranean Sea.

See also

  • Kaiserliche Marine
    Kaiserliche Marine
    The Imperial German Navy was the German Navy created at the time of the formation of the German Empire. It existed between 1871 and 1919, growing out of the small Prussian Navy and Norddeutsche Bundesmarine, which primarily had the mission of coastal defense. Kaiser Wilhelm II greatly expanded...

     History of The German Imperial Navy 1871-1918
  • High Seas Fleet
    High Seas Fleet
    The High Seas Fleet was the battle fleet of the German Empire and saw action during World War I. The formation was created in February 1907, when the Home Fleet was renamed as the High Seas Fleet. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was the architect of the fleet; he envisioned a force powerful enough to...

      The German Fleet in World War I
  • Causes of World War I
    Causes of World War I
    The causes of World War I, which began in central Europe in July 1914, included many intertwined factors, such as the conflicts and hostility of the four decades leading up to the war. Militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism played major roles in the conflict as well...

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