Updated: Jul 30
Our precarious world
Our world has changed a lot. The preceding centuries have reshaped our world through industrialization and social change which has reshaped how we think about the international stage. Today’s international relations are governed by a status quo that proscribes certain norms and informs certain laws ostensibly supposed to be followed by nations. However, if you look at the actions of the pre-eminent superpowers like the United States and China it would seem as though the hard-learned lessons of the past and laws that followed don’t apply to them.
In many respects, we like to think we are better than our dark and destructive past, yet we are governed by fundamentally the same fears and worries. The state's pursuit of power and security comes at the expense of other states who, driven by the same concern, respond in turn. This is a vicious cycle that has consumed our past and defined much of our history which culminated in the world wars.
Let us illustrate the kinds of fear, worry, and power ambition that drives the vicious cycle of inter-state anarchy forward with one of the largest and most expensive arms races. One which fostered the rivalries that ended up shaping the battle lines of the First World War. This is a short recounting of the Anglo-German naval arms race, its great dreadnought battleships, and what became of it all in the end. But before we get to the race and the turn of the 20th century, we have to look at the beginning of the 19th to explain the Europe that produced this situation.
The Concert of Europe
Europe of the post-Napoleonic period was defined by the balancing of forces between great powers. War had swept the continent on a scale rarely seen throughout its long and bloody history. After many arduous years fighting Napoleon, the powers of Europe were tired of waging war and sick of its cost and damages. This did not mean, however, that they were willing to give up their ambitions. The world of international relations remained a world where the larger eats the smaller, where the weaker suffer while the stronger reign; not based on any system of justice or an idea of who earned and deserved what, merely the strength of arms and the ability to wage war.
This act of power balancing was not codified in any international institutions or legislation, it relied entirely on the awareness and decision making of the actors involved.
Knowing full well this reality that they were immersed in, the states of Europe would, throughout the 19th and early 20th century, organize themselves in an ever shifting network of alliances. Blocs headed by great powers whose objective was to create a balance of power between the opposing alliances where the lesser powers would frequently switch sides in order to prevent any one alliance from becoming powerful enough to consider taking the other one on. This act of power balancing was not codified in any international institutions or legislation, it relied entirely on the awareness and decision making of the actors involved and their ability to understand the balance for themselves or through the influence of others.
This was not a rules based order. This was a strategy of survival on the grand stage, a game each country had to play to balance their ambitions and interests against potential rivals who would take their goals from them or see them cut to size. The whole arrangement worked wonderfully, save for the small flaw of the entire affair being reliant on dangerously uncertain power politics, ever shifting opinions of autocrats, and using some of the biggest armies the world had ever seen as playing cards in that greatest and most dangerous of games, the Concert of Europe. Needless to say, this volatile and ever shifting order was easy to disrupt and one of its most significant disruptions came from the contest of sea power.
Water thicker than blood
Alfred von Tirpitz was an officer of old Prussian stock. He lived through the rise of the North German Confederation and the unification of Germany. Tirpitz became a favorite of Kaiser Wilhelm II which allowed him to rise through the ranks and embed his influence in the government apparatus. A profound influence on the Kaiser, von Tirpitz presented Wilhelm with a plan for the future development of the Imperial German Navy in what is known as the Tirpitz Memorandum in 1897.
Up until this point Germany, with its small coastal defense navy had a rather friendly relationship with Great Britain, indeed Wilhelm II was firstt cousin to King George V of Britain. At first sight, one might think that blood is indeed thicker than water but Wilhelm possessed a profound and complicated love-hate relationship with the British side of his family. A brash and theatrical man by nature, the dominant position of the British empire and thus his relatives to which he compared his own worth, complicated things.
Wilhelm in his mind wanted to be respected as an emperor. As such he sought to influence the world stage, the Concert of Europe, to make Germany a preeminent colonial power that could rival Britain and (in his mind) afford him the respect that was owed to him. In Tirpitz’s proposal, Wilhelm found what he had been looking for, or so he thought.
But what did Tirpitz want? In the German naval circles of the time, there was an ongoing debate about the future of the navy and if it would be better off with large numbers of cruisers for protection of their nascent overseas holdings or a battleship fleet to protect their European coast. In his memorandum Tirpitz came down hard on the battleship side, arguing for a form of risk theory where, acknowledging that Germany could not match Britain on even terms, the German fleet should be big enough and powerful enough to make a naval war a pyrrhic victory for the Royal Navy that would weaken Britain enough for other colonial European powers to turn on them, taking their colonial possessions for themselves. Ideally, in the mind of Tirpitz, not wanting to risk such ruinous conflict the British Empire would be forced to give Germany concessions on the world stage. That was the plan, at any rate.
The race is law
The initial Royal Navy response was fairly unconcerned. Though they saw that Germany was ramping up naval production there wasn’t any immediate cause for concern as the Royal navy still stood dominant and projected that they could outpace Germany in the long run. At the closing of the 19th and dawn of the 20th century, the Royal Navy was the largest naval force in the world. As Britain is an island country that possesses large swathes of subjugated overseas colonies, the strength of the navy had always been important as a first line of defense for the colonial enterprise and to ensure the safety of the imperial core.
These battleships, by law, had to get built and the only way to prevent it from happening would be a vote to repeal the law.
More than most other great powers, Britain lived and breathed by its ability to exert sea power. As such it had been for a long time an unofficial policy (and official from 1889 onwards) to maintain the two power standard. This standard stipulated that the Royal Navy should be as strong as the next two largest navies put together, in order to ensure no setup of alliances in the Concert of Europe could effectively contest British sea power.
As German battleships started hitting the water, however, and as the two power standard continued to strain, worries began to surface. For one, the German navy held an advantage over the Royal Navy in that the ships they were building were demanded by naval laws that Germany implemented. These battleships, by law, had to get built and the only way to prevent it from happening would be a vote to repeal the law. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy had to argue their case for more ships in front of parliament every year, making their expansions less reliable and unsteady - if more flexible. Germany all but explicitly signaled their foreign policy shift with the buildup of the fleet.
And as Tirpitz stoked the fires of the German navy and international tensions, an opposite number emerged in Britain in the form of Jackie Fisher. Becoming First Sea Lord in 1904, well into the arms race, Fisher came up the ranks in the previous decades. Marking himself as forward thinking and innovative, he sought to implement modern ideas and technologies putting him in stark contrast with many long tenured and fairly conservative flag officers.
Ironically enough Fisher’s view was opposed to war, in fact he sought to do his best to avoid it. However, as will become clear in a short while, his personal views on the matter made little difference to the eventual reality. This is because Fisher, in his position as First Sea Lord, sought to maintain peace through the employment of massive, overwhelming military deterrence. It is in pursuit of such a deterrent that Fisher pursued a plan that would become a true game changer.
Dread nought but the Dreadnought
As the tensions rose in the early 20th century and the powers of Europe looked on one another with suspicion that one or the other might try to compromise their security or interest, Fisher decided to deploy his overwhelming, massive deterrent. He called upon the industrial resources of the empire he served, pushing and pulling at his connections and favors owed to see his idea through and, on the 10th of February 1906 the battleship HMS Dreadnought was launched. In the arms race this had changed everything, and quickly. Thanks to the amount of resources Fisher pulled, Dreadnought went from an idea in peoples heads to a fully constructed ship on sailing trials in just one year - and truly it was a vessel deserving of its name. To explain in short the importance of this single ship let us quickly indulge in some technicalities.
Battleships, the measuring stick used by world navies prior to Dreadnought, developed a fairly uniform set of armaments consisting of two turrets carrying a total of four large artillery pieces of around 305mm in caliber front and back with a vast and varied set of secondary, quick firing guns in between. Dreadnought forgoed that layout entirely, built bigger and heavier than any previous battleships, Dreadnought adopted the ‘all big gun’ layout with five turrets each with two large 305mm gun for a total of ten, twice as much as any other and forgoing the secondary battery. Coupled to this was revolutionary steam turbine propulsion that allowed the bigger ship to move faster through the water and with greater endurance. In short, Dreadnought was bigger, better, and faster than anything anyone else had in 1906. This would not remain true for long.
In the end Fisher’s overwhelming deterrent in fact had an opposite effect. Dreadnought was a turning point, everything before it rendered obsolete, everything built after had to be as good if not better or it just wouldn’t do. In this way the playing field had been leveled, and the fleet measuring contest reset to the beginning. This emboldened Tirpitz who now for the first time saw in his mind a chance not just to pose a challenge to the Royal Navy, but to meet it on equal terms.
Dreadnought adopted the ‘all big gun’ layout with five turrets each with two large 305mm gun for a total of ten, twice as much as any other and forgoing the secondary battery.
The race was on again, this time with an added element of public hysteria in Britain. By now the bulk of the Royal Navy’s battleship force was based in home waters instead of out in the colonies, threatened by the rise of the German High Seas Fleet as Germany started pumping out dreadnoughts of its own.
This was a period of increasing friction, Kaiser Wilhelm’s involvement in the First Moroccan Crisis against France, and the generally belligerent attitude towards the British Empire, saw French and British relations greatly improve. Efforts to drive a divide between France and Britain by Wilhelm instead fostered stronger relationships between the traditionally rival countries exemplified with the signing of the Entente Cordiale.
Already the lines drawn began to fall apart, and with France no longer being an active threat to Britain, Tirpitz’s risk theory began to show its flaws, ones that even the renewed race to build ever bigger and more powerful dreadnoughts could not cover. With France friendly, Russia taken out of the equation in 1905 with the destruction of its forces by Japan, Italy focusing on its ambitions in the Mediterranean, Austria-Hungary hemmed in by Italy, and United States largely uninvolved, the risk theory quickly ran out of actors who could threaten British sea power, except for Germany itself.
The unceremonious death of the Grand Sea Fleets
There were many factors that contributed to the cascading spiral that triggered the outbreak of First World War, however it is difficult to imagine that it would have looked like it did or happen when it did if it wasn’t for the constant ratcheting of tensions caused by the polarization of the dreadnought race. The Concert of Europe had come undone, the uneasy peace that had been maintained for so long was at last profoundly disturbed and everything came apart in a display of organized violence not witnessed before by any human civilization.
While the fields ran red in the east and west, out on the seas things were surprisingly quiet. The dreadnoughts, huge warmachines on which Britain and Germany spent such vast amounts of money and resources, were just too valuable to throw into a fight. The High Seas Fleet was effectively blockaded by the massive Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy and except for one indecisive battle off of Jutland there were no large scale fleet clashes (incidents and minor engagements notwithstanding). Tirpitz and his risk theory were utterly defeated as Germany faced a war on multiple fronts and a naval blockade they could not break out of.
By the tail end of 1918 the situation had gotten desperate and the admirals of the High Seas Fleet sought to attempt a breakout in which they would succeed or all sink together, the regular sailors however, catching wind of the planned doomed voyage, staged a massive revolt in the military port of Kiel on the 3rd of November. Their protest and the complete breakdown of morale was a key trigger in creating the November Revolution that saw the end of Imperial Germany.
In the end, the victorious Royal Navy towed away the German High Seas Fleet to the Royal naval base of Scapa Flow where its mighty dreadnoughts were scuttled. Dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy did not fare much better, as after the war there just wasn’t the money to maintain the giant fleet and the vast majority of it ended up as scrap steel. Britain would never again have a fleet that large and the two power standard was relegated to history.
Why this matters
At the end of the day, all of this - Wilhelm’s insecurity, Tirpitz’s ambition, Britain’s paranoia, Fisher’s dogged determination, and the vast amounts of resources and funds spent on creating security for one state to undermine the security of the other prompting equivalent response - all of it serves to illustrate a very important point about our world in the big picture. On either side of this conflict at all levels of state and military were people who did not want war, who had no real animosity for their supposed enemies, or who genuinely wanted to prevent conflict yet they might as well have held no opinion at all. Regardless of the opinions they held, their world edged ever closer to ruin, trapped in constant escalation with no clear way out as neither side wanted to let up.
To save our civilization and the lives of our people from the ravages of war, we cannot afford a world in which the rights and concerns of nation-states are placed first.
Who could have told the emperor of Germany that he was on a fools errand? Who could’ve told parliament and the British public to stay calm and collected? Those who had their hand on the levers of state either did not want to or could not see beyond the dilemma that faced them. At the end of the day, with everyone wanting to take power and supremacy or seeking to keep theirs, ruinous conflict was brought about and everyone lost. Lost empires, lost very expensive ships, lost many, many, many lives. The immediate reaction might be that this could not happen today, the conditions are not the same, we have learned since then. It is true that we have the United Nations, and we have the great and terrible deterrent that Fisher could only dream of in the form of nuclear weapons, but the world that created the naval arms race and the First World War is not so far removed from ours.
Superpowers exist to this day, war and tensions flare up just as they did before. Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now is just how horrible and powerful our deterrents are. At the end of the day, the bigger can still impose upon the smaller, tensions simmer and states look to their interest at the detriment of others. The Anglo-German arms race brought ruin, the nuclear arms race nearly destroyed the world and even today the United States warily looks upon Chinese naval ambitions as part of their larger conflict of interests.
It is said history does not repeat but it does often rhyme. To save our civilization and the lives of our people from the ravages of war, we cannot afford a world in which the rights and concerns of nation-states are placed first because there will always be a new panic, another dreadnought race tearing around the corner. We cannot for our own sakes or the sakes of all the people of the world afford to stay isolated, clutching to our chunks of land as we do. A better world is possible, but do we dare to look at things beyond what dreadnought is being built next? Do we dare use a tool other than the military might of the nation-state to build world peace? 🔵