Seligmann, M. S. (2011) The Anglo-German naval race: from reality to myth and back again. Invited Presentation presented to: Reappraising the First World War Seminar Series: Britain, The First World War and Sea Power, Imperial War Museum, London, 2 June 2011.
The naval competition that took place between Britain and Germany in the run up to the First World War has been subject to considerable scrutiny. For contemporaries, it was a source both of fascination and alarm. It inspired endless commentaries in the newspapers and periodicals of the period as well as a whole genre of invasion scare literature. After the war, as the archetypal modern armaments race, it attracted renewed attention for the supposed lessons that could be learnt from it. Equally, numerous historians, drawn by the many larger-than-life characters that played a part in it - e.g. Fisher, Tirpitz, Churchill, Kaiser Wilhelm II - have sought to narrate its course and explain its origins and development. Despite or perhaps because of this extensive examination, there is remarkably little concurrence on this topic. Numerous details have been contested. For example, what part, if any, did battleships play in British naval calculations? Did Britain actually withdraw its forces from overseas to concentrate against a threat in home waters? If so, then against whom was this aimed? Was Germany Britain's main enemy or did France and Russia remain key factors in Admiralty planning? If the details have been questioned, so, too, has the reality of the naval race itself. The competition caused by German shipbuilding, which had once seemed the self-evident leitmotiv of the Anglo-German antagonism, was reinterpreted by revisionist historians as a menace deliberately exaggerated by the Admiralty for political and budgetary advantage. The real aim of the naval leadership was not to counter Germany but to build a navy capable of confronting all comers anywhere across the globe. This is contested by a new cohort of naval historians. Interested in intelligence history, trade defence and strategic culture, they have given a new substance to the naval race. This maze of interpretation, revisionism and re-evaluation will be the subject of this talk.
Conference or Workshop Item (Invited Presentation)