The Promised Land Fallacy: Von Tirpitz Disastrously Builds a Navy

by Dr. John C. Hulsman
Hulsman

The Dangerous Mirage of the Promised Land Fallacy

Distantly related to the losing gambler’s syndrome is the promised land fallacy, the naïve view that one attribute of power or one strategy is sufficient to overcome the complexity of the world and—in silver bullet-like fashion—change the terms of the geopolitical game. In essence, it’s the very human effort to falsely manufacture a game-changing strategy rather than recognising that game-changing events generally happen organically.

Political risk analysts throughout the ages, frustrated by the constraints of living in the world as they have found it, are often highly susceptible to dreaming up analysis designed to liberate them from the shackles of reality. Ruinously, reality always wins.

In the years following the innovative genius of British Prime Minister Lord Robert Salisbury’s foreign policy, Anglo-German relations nevertheless spiraled out of control. No one was more responsible for this than Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, whose wrong-headed promised land strategy to supersede the British navy instead led Germany directly over the cliff into the charnel house of the Great War.

For Wilhelmine Germany, the building of a fleet from scratch to challenge the mighty Royal Navy was meant to be the country’s ticket to its place in the sun. The German political and military elite, frustrated that the world (especially haughty Great Britain) failed to recognise the ascension of Germany to Great Power status, set about rushing the forces of history, rather than merely waiting for their yearly relative gains in global power to become apparent over time. Already possessing the greatest army in the world, the Kaiser became intent on building a threatening navy.

Instead of heralding an era of German dominance, the elite in Berlin unwittingly started a process that led to its doom. The naval race awoke an alarmed London to the coming German threat to its position as the single greatest power in the world (though one in relative decline), a fact that helped directly lead to war and ruinous German defeat. Far from leading to the promised land, this approach puts political risk analysts forever at the mercy of the latest intellectual fad, often leading to simplistic analysis that doesn’t stand up to the realities of a complicated world.

Von Tirpitz Recklessly Challenges British Naval Dominance

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz became the living embodiment of the Kaiser’s drive to build a world-class navy, almost from scratch. Born March 19, 1849, pictures of von Tirpitz show a man looking like nothing so much as an enraged walrus, with his long, flowing beard, fierce eyes, and stern countenance.

Yet von Tirpitz was much more than this caricature of a stiff-necked Prussian. For one thing, he knew the English personally and well, spoke the language fluently, and even sent his two daughters to the prestigious Cheltenham Ladies’ College. For another, von Tirpitz rose through the German navy’s ranks largely through his own merits, something unheard of at the time. Tirpitz, for all the Prussian glowering, was essentially a creative, outward-looking, self-made man.

In 1897, von Tirpitz was made head of the powerful Imperial Navy Office, an unassailable bureaucratic perch that allowed him to relentlessly focus on making the German navy a force to be reckoned with; he was to remain central to German naval thinking until 1916. His primary strategic recommendation was that Germany must build as many battleships as possible and challenge British naval hegemony. Initially, von Tirpitz advocated the creation of two squadrons of eight battleships, plus a fleet flagship and two reserves.

Between 1898 and 1912, von Tirpitz managed to get four naval acts through the German Parliament, greatly expanding the size of the country’s High Seas Fleet. Over time, his clearly stated strategic goal became to construct a navy that two-thirds of the size of the dominant British Fleet. In the narrowest of terms, von Tirpitz was successful, in that he took the very meagre German navy he had inherited in the 1890s and transformed it into a world-class force.

The Germans miscalculate

The irony was that, for both von Tirpitz and the Kaiser, the German naval build-up was essentially defensive in nature. They did not wish to overwhelm Britain as a revolutionary power, but merely to be taken seriously by it as a valued guarantor of the status quo. The von Tirpitz strategic plan was to build the world’s second-largest navy after Britain’s, announcing Germany’s arrival on the world stage as an undisputed great power.

In this vision, the naval build-up would get the Germans to the promised land, making the British see sense and accommodate Germany’s rise to great power status. Yet, as so often has proven the case for those whose political risk analysis leads them to adopt the promised land strategy, unintended consequences overwhelmed these initial goals.

In direct reaction to von Tirpitz’s naval programme, Britain (between 1902-1910) embarked on its own massive naval build-up, with the express purpose of safeguarding its naval dominance and seeing off the perceived German strategic threat. As such, von Tirpitz’s build-up, far from cowing Britain into supporting Germany’s overall strategic rise, instead came to be seen as a mortal threat in London.

Conclusion: The promised land strategy and unintended consequences

The unintended result of the von Tirpitz plan was to leave Germany in the worst of all possible strategic worlds. Its efforts to catch up with the dominant British navy narrowed, but did not eliminate, Britain’s maritime advantage. In an immediate, limited sense, the Germans won the naval arms race by whittling down British dominance. But the cost of this pyrrhic victory was exorbitant.

For the change in strategic circumstances was enough to alarm Britain into fundamentally changing its foreign and strategic policies, but did not alter the overriding fact that in 1914 it still possessed by a long way the most powerful naval force in the world. It was the naval arms race that persuaded Britain to wholly adopt Lord Salisbury’s evolving policy and instead look for allies to deal with what was seen—as the result of the von Tirpitz plan—as an increasingly malevolent German threat.

Unwittingly the promised land fallacy unleashed by von Tirpitz directly led to the closer Anglo-French ties that were to form the basis of the resistance to Germany in World War I. With Britain pressed to withdraw its Mediterranean fleet to its home waters to fend off the impending German naval threat, much closer ties with Paris became an absolute strategic imperative so as to safeguard (through the French navy taking London’s place in the Mediterranean) the Suez Canal, the jugular of the British Empire.

Britain, turning its back decisively on its nineteenth-century post-Napoleonic foreign policy heritage, formally allied itself with European powers France in 1904, and Russia, in 1907. Incredibly, the Germans—in pursuing their promised land strategy to secure in von Tirpitz’s words German ‘political independence’ from England—had instead forced the British into their eternal enemy France’s waiting arms, the worst possible strategic thing Berlin could have done. World War I was not far away.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and cofounder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent foreign policy organization. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work is To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk.