On this day in 1916, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the man largely responsible for the buildup of the German navy in the years before World War I and the aggressive naval strategy pursued by Germany during the first two years of the war, tenders his resignation to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who—somewhat to Tirpitz’s surprise—accepts it.
Tirpitz began his close working relationship with the kaiser in 1897, when he was appointed secretary of state of the Imperial Navy Department. A year later, Tirpitz introduced the First Fleet Act, which marked the beginning of a significant reorganization and buildup of the German navy. The Second Fleet Act in 1900 was far more ambitious, setting a deadline of 17 years to construct a fleet of two flagships, 36 battleships, eleven large cruisers and 34 smaller ones—a fleet that would challenge even that of the peerless British Royal Navy.
By 1905, German naval strength had exceeded that of both France and Russia and was on its way—though it had a long way to go—towards its goal of becoming a genuine rival for the Royal Navy. This fact worried Britain and its First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, who in 1906 presided over the launch of the immense and innovative new battleship HMS Dreadnought, which would become the symbol of the German-British arms race in the years leading up to World War I.
In 1911, Tirpitz was promoted to the rank of grand admiral; three years later, with the outbreak of the war, he was made commander of the entire German navy. Despite its push during the preceding decade, Germany was only able to muster 18 battleships and battle cruisers at the start of World War I, compared with 29 similar British crafts. Understandably pessimistic about Germany’s chances against Britain at sea, Tirpitz recognized that the deadly German U-boat submarine was his navy’s most effective weapon—he thus advocated an aggressive policy of submarine warfare, announced by the kaiser in February 1915, whereby neutral as well as enemy ships were vulnerable to attack by German submarines if they entered the war zone of the North Sea between Germany and Britain.
After a number of such attacks, culminating with the May 7, 1915, sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania—in which 1,201 people, including 128 Americans drowned—the German government moved to limit the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare to avoid antagonizing neutral countries, notably the United States. By the fall of 1915, Tirpitz and other naval leaders were so constrained that they suspended the policy altogether. (It would be reinstituted in February 1917, prompting the United States to break diplomatic relations with Germany and move towards entry into the war on the side of the Allies.)
In the midst of the international indignation surrounding the policy he had fathered, Tirpitz steadily found himself alienated from the rest of the German war command, including his former champion, the kaiser. On March 16, 1916, when Tirpitz offered his resignation, Wilhelm accepted, and the admiral stepped down from his post.
In the post-war period, Tirpitz co-founded the right-wing Fatherland Party, which attempted to capitalize on nostalgia for the strong Germany of 1914, and served as a deputy in the Reichstag government from 1924 to 1928. He never regained his former influence, however, and died in 1930.