AT A recent show of Chinese naval might in the South China Sea, President Xi Jinping called for China to acquire a world-class navy, declaring to the assembled officers and crews that there has never been a more urgent need for the country to possess a powerful fleet. This demonstration of naval power was the largest ever put on display by the People’s Republic of China: forty-eight surface warships and submarines, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, along with seventy-six aircraft, all paraded on review before the Chinese leader.
What better way than this rousing display of naval might to boost the dream of a resurgent China, determined to play the role of a rising great power on the world stage, as well as rally popular nationalist support for the regime? A line of powerful warships steaming confidently ahead in formation and fast planes streaking overhead certainly makes for great theater. Standing tall at center stage of this spectacle, Xi took the fleet’s salute. He delivered his lines, posing as the heroic warrior dressed in military uniform—the lead actor to be reckoned with in an unfolding grand historical drama involving the fate of nations.
There were echoes in his speech of a similar call to national greatness by the leader of an earlier aspiring world power. At the turn of the twentieth century, Kaiser Wilhelm II proclaimed that his country had an urgent need for a naval buildup to counter the British Royal Navy in its drive to find a “place in the sun.” Along with Admiral von Tirpitz, the Kaiser championed the Reich’s effort to become a great sea power, taking the lead in calling upon the German people to build a mighty navy.
THE KAISER saw a burgeoning navy as a sign of Germany’s increased standing in the international arena. To the Kaiser and his camarilla, no country could aspire to stand as a respected world power without a potent high-seas fleet. Along with Germany’s rise, an end would come to Pax Britannica, the existing international order led by the United Kingdom. Instead, Germany’s leaders foresaw the emergence of a multipolar international system. A German admiral maintained that “The globe is constantly being redistributed, and it can be said that another redistribution has just begun.” Meanwhile, the Kaiser proclaimed: “Old empires are fading away and new ones are about to be formed.” In this transformation of the international balance of power, Germany’s rulers insisted that the navy would, “in the coming century, become increasingly important for our defense policy, indeed for our entire foreign policy.”
The Kaiser’s gleaming fleet of battleships also provided a symbol to rally the German people behind a patriotic national endeavor and, coincidently, to buttress the regime’s control of society and domestic politics. Along with Germany’s industrial rise came a growing and restive urban working class that challenged the political hegemony of traditional elites. Germany’s rulers saw in the construction of a modern navy a way to mobilize popular opinion so as to stave off social unrest and demands for political reform. Bernhard von Bülow, Germany’s foreign secretary and chancellor, maintained: “We must unswervingly wrestle for the souls of our workers; [we] must try to regain the sympathies of the Social Democrat workers for the state and the monarchy [and] to keep the non-Socialist workers away from Social Democracy.” Defenders of the existing political order held that the government’s naval buildup would “revive the patriotism of all classes and fill them again with loyalty to, and love for, the Emperor and the Reich.” The regime portrayed the warships coming out of the dockyards—named after German states, cities and military heroes—as steel guardians of Germany’s cultural heritage, rising power and future greatness. All Germans, regardless of social background, political beliefs, or regional loyalty, could take national pride in the Kaiser’s fleet.
But Germany’s growing naval might was not just a symbol, a show force for display purposes, to parade before and unite the German people behind the Kaiser’s regime. Germany’s warships also were potent weapons of war, instruments to coerce the then reigning world power Britain. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Germany’s chancellor at the war’s outbreak, told a confidante:
[The Kaiser’s] first and basic idea is to break Britain’s world position in favor of Germany; for this, a fleet is required, and to obtain it, a lot of money, which only a rich country can afford; so Germany should become rich; hence the priority given to industry . . . . [The Kaiser’s grandfather] founded the German empire with the army, he will establish Germany as a commercial and colonial power with the fleet.
Germany’s rulers believed that their navy would act to deter Britain from contesting German political ambitions on the world stage. London would back down in any confrontation with Berlin rather than risk losing a war at sea and, along with it, the British Empire. Britain would eventually come to recognize that it made better strategic sense to appease the rising German super-state and, hence, avoid defeat and avert the collapse of British power. With Britain cowering on the sidelines offshore, Germany could then seize the strategic initiative, overturn the international balance of power and emerge as Europe’s overlord. Or, at least, that tale of future greatness was what Germany’s leaders told themselves and looked forward to happening.
But history did not unfold according to this triumphant nationalist narrative being written by the regime in Berlin. Alarmed by Germany’s naval buildup, Britons took countering steps to provide for their security. The resulting naval arms race riveted the world’s attention. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote: “The rivalry between Germany and Great Britain today is the danger point, not only of European politics, but of world politics as well.” A British commentator on naval affairs wrote:
We are on the eve of a real, continuing, and cumulative naval crisis which will test our character as a people, our finances as a State, and our industrial resources as a manufacturing community. If we mean to win through in this bloodless war we can, but we must begin our preparations at once and determine that, however onerous the burden, it must be borne if we would not have the trident struck from our hands.
The naval competition contributed to Britons looking upon Germany as the coming enemy. To counter Germany’s strategic designs, Britain undertook a pivot to Europe, concentrating its naval forces in home waters and preparing its army to intervene on the continent in case of a German attack on Belgium and France. And, when Berlin unleashed a war to impose a German hegemony on Europe in the summer of 1914, the Kaiser’s navy did not deter Britain from entering the lists against Germany. The competition in naval weaponry did not remain bloodless.
Once at war, the German navy showed itself as a dangerous adversary, inflicting great damage on British naval forces and merchant shipping. Britain’s naval leaders feared losing their Grand Fleet of capital ships by operating too close to the first island chain formed by the islands of Sylt, Heligoland and Borkum, along the German coastline. German mines, coastal artillery, torpedo-carrying submarines and small surface ships represented a lethal operational environment for Britain’s Grand Fleet. Admiral John Jellicoe, the fleet’s commander, determined that the risks of taking the offensive toward the first island chain far outweighed the strategic rewards. Hounded by British political leaders who pressed him for a decisive naval action, Jellicoe warned:
The danger is very real and the disaster may occur in a few minutes without warning. It only requires the fleet to be inadvertently taken over one minefield for a reversal to take place in the relative strength of the British and German fleets. The existence of the Empire is at once in the most immediate and grave danger.
Thus, while the German navy did not deter British political leaders from going to war, Germany’s naval warfighting capabilities deterred Britain’s top admirals from executing a major offensive across the North Sea. The war at sea, consequently, settled into a stalemate, with the battleships of the Britain’s Grand Fleet and Germany’s High Seas Fleet cautiously watching each other, safe in their anchorages. In 1916, when the two mighty navies did at last clash at the famous Battle of Jutland, the fleet commanders avoided a decisive sea fight, turning their battleships away from the foe at critical moments during the encounter, both sides determined to protect their force.