Th. Rothstein Justice, 1 April 1911

The German Menace
8. The Expansion of the German Navy

Source: Justice, 1 April, 1911, p.2. Article labelled VII but must be VIII;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

We have hitherto considered such acts of German aggression as are alleged to have been committed by her against Continental Powers, and we must now consider the most important count in the indictment against her – viz. her aggression against this country. The chief subject to be discussed in this connection is the expansion of the German Navy, ostensibly the fons et origo of the whole trouble. Germany so runs the usual argument, repeated the other day in the House of Commons by Lord C. Beresford – Germany is surely not building her Navy with a view to defending herself against Switzerland; hence it is clear that she is building it with a view to attacking this country, depriving her of her colonies, and – who knows? – perhaps also invading and annexing her as she did Schleswig-Holstein and Alsace-Lorraine! We ought to examine what truth there is in these allegations.

The German Navy is being constructed in accordance with a programme which was laid down in 1900, and was supplemented by a subsequent Act of 1906, and modified by an Act passed in 1908. The former of these laws fixed the strength of the Navy at 38 battleships, 14 armoured cruisers, and 38 cruisers, with the necessary complement of minor craft. The Act of 1906 added six further armoured cruisers, and the Act of 1908, by reducing the age limit of vessels from 23 to 20 years, while not effecting any increase in the number of ships, has increased the number of vessels to be laid down each year. The programme is being executed at the rate of so many ships laid down every year, neither more nor less, and will be completed in 1917.

This large Navy, it is said, is intended against England – intended as a means of wresting from her the sea-power. Curiously enough, however, this sinister intention was only discovered about three or four years after it had been conceived by the German Government. It was in the autumn of 1899 that Bülow, in a long and highly elaborated speech, announced the decision of the Imperial Government to effect a tremendous change in the then existing naval programme. In 1900 the Navy Bill was introduced, and, after great discussions, accepted by the Reichstag. In that very year the first keels of the new ships were laid down, and the execution of the programme continued in the subsequent years with mathematical precision. All this was done in the full light of day – nay, with that ostentatious publicity which is commonly lent to undertakings of that sort by the swaggering Kaiser and only too subservient Ministers. Yet in the very autumn of 1899, when the intentions of the German Government had already been proclaimed with the usual flourish of trumpets Joseph Chamberlain, in the course of famous speech at Leicester, made a distinct bid for an alliance with Germany, and two years later the Kaiser was appointed Field Marshal of the British Army, Lord Robert receiving at the same time the German Black Eagle. Even so late as 1902, the British Government still found it possible not only to co-operate with Germany in the sordid demonstration against Venezuela, but also to lend assistance to a German expedition to the Niger delta with a view to establishing a coaling station and factories for German trade with the hinterland of Cameroon. In the same year King Edward did not mind being appointed à la suite of the German Navy, and Brodrick and Roberts attended as guests the German autumn manoeuvres. One of the most curious incidents of that period was the issue, in July, 1901, of a strong manifesto, by the Navy League, backed up by a highly indiscreet letter from Lord Charles Beresford, then second in command of the Mediterranean Fleet, beating the biggest drum over the “wholly inadequate state of the British Navy” – especially in the Mediterranean, “where the battle for the Empire would probably be fought out"!

Wonderful, is it not? Here was the German naval programme not only proclaimed from all house tops, but actually in the course of construction, and yet not only does England continue to entertain towards her terrible rival the friendliest sentiments, but the danger to the Empire is being looked for in the Mediterranean! What blindness, what fatuity! It may be added that the so called Pan-Germans had been active already for several years, that the worst phases of Prussian brutality towards the Poles – the flogging of Polish children for refusing to abandon their mother tongue, and the famous comparison by Bülow of the Polish population with rabbits – fell within this period of 1900-1902, and that it was in 1902 that Professor Halle published the sensational book suggesting the annexation of Holland. Yet the British Government saw no reason for coming forward as the champion of downtrodden nationalities, and instead of arming against Germany, discussed all through those years the mode of defending the Mediterranean.

How is such blindness to the sinister designs of the German Government and such a moral lack of sensitiveness to the wrongs of the Poles and the Dutch to be explained? Quite simply – those “sinister” designs were only discovered at a later period when it suited the purposes of certain politicians to do so, and were not contained either in the German Navy Law or in the accompanying circumstances or declarations at all. What lay at the bottom of the German government s decision to construct a big navy was the very simple factor that Germany had become a big capitalist State, strong not only in industry, but also in export seeking financial capital, and that, as every State arrived at such a stage, she wanted to acquire colonies, “spheres of influence,” and all those pretty little things which form the object of modern colonial and Imperialist policy. In 1898 she had acquired the concession for the Baghdad Railway; a couple of years previously she had obtained the “lease” of Kiao Chou; in the autumn of 1898 she had concluded a secret convention with England for the eventual sharing out of the Portuguese colonies; in 1899 she had nearly fallen out with the United States and partly England over Samoa; she had seen America grabbing Cuba and the Philippine Islands and England attacking the two Boer Republics in South Africa. She must, then, have a strong Navy to play her part in world, and to get some of the nice things of which every capitalist State stands in need. We must not forget that Germany at that time was the fifth Naval Power in the world; yet, as the American-Spanish war had shown, sea power was going to play in the future an ever more important part. Was she going to be left behind in the international race after what was called by the Kaiser “places in the sun"? “The proposed increase of the Navy,” declared Bülow, in the afore-mentioned speech in the autumn of 1899, “has become necessary owing to the change in the international position .... We do not want to interfere with any other country, but we do not wish that any other country should interfere with us (the allusion was to the Samoa affair), should violate our rights or push us aside either in political or commercial questions .... Germany cannot stand aside while other nations divide the world among them .... We must be strong enough to be secure against surprises not only on land, but also at sea. We must build a fleet strong enough to exclude all possibility of attack being made on us .... Why do all other States strengthen their fleets? (Here follows a description of the efforts of Italy, France, Russia, America, Japan, and England.) Without a great Navy, we cannot maintain our position in the world alongside of these States.” Two years later the Kaiser, speaking at Cuxhaven, deplored the fact that Germany did not as yet possess a “Navy, which she ought to have,” but “having fought for her place in the sun and won it, she ought to see that she retained this place unchallenged. Our future is on the water, and the greater the number of Germans who get out on the water, the better for us.” The citizens of the Hansa towns, the Kaiser continued, ought “to struggle for fresh markets and win them,” and referring to the concession just then granted to a German company at Shanghai, he urged his hearers to imitate this example: “Go forth and look for fresh points on which we can hang our armour.”

These declarations make the objects with which the creation of a big navy was conceived perfectly clear – to acquire commercial and financial markets, while the world was not yet entirely shared out. It was a pre-eminently capitalist conception, which every German Social Democrat ought to have combatted, and did, indeed, combat tooth and nail. But there was no point against England except this: If England should at any moment conceive the idea of barring Germany’s way to financial and colonial expansion, she would be fought as Italy or France or the United States would, in similar circumstances, be fought. This, and no more, was frankly admitted by the Kaiser and his Ministers when taunted by the Social-Democrats and the Radicals with the futility of building a Navy in face of the fact that the only country which might at any time resent Germany’s colonial ambitions would be England, who, however, possessed a fleet which Germany by no efforts of hers could ever hope to rival. “It was not absolutely necessary,” declared Admiral von Tirpitz, in his speech introducing the Bill of 1900, “that the German Navy should be as strong as that of the greatest Naval Power, for a great Naval Power would in general not be able to concentrate its whole strength against them. But even if such a Power succeeded in meeting Germany in very superior strength, it would be so seriously weakened by having had to beat a strong German fleet that, in spite of its victory, that Power’s own position would not in the immediate sequel be secured by the possession of an adequate fleet.” “Only a fleet,” also explained Professor Helfferich, a Pan-German, at the Congress of the German Colonial Society in 1905, “only a fleet which could inflict severe blows even upon a superior adversary could give Germany the assurance that her commercial rivals would resist the temptation of casting their sword into the balance of commercial competition.” These ideas, so natural from a capitalist point of view, were incorporated in the preamble of the Navy Law of 1900 and based as they were on the purely hypothetical assumption that England might be so unfair as to forbid Germany doing what she herself and all other Powers were doing, they conveyed so little menace to the British that the latter continued, as we have seen, to maintain the most friendly relations with Germany till about 1903. We shall see in our next what brought about a change in this attitude.