In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section German Sea Power, 1848–1918

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Handbooks
  • Bibliographies and Historiography
  • German Naval and Maritime Societies, Museums, Official and Specialized Resources
  • Anthologies
  • Festschrifts
  • Journals
  • Published Documents
  • Published Papers, Letters, and Diaries
  • Memoirs and Autobiographies of the Major Naval Commanders
  • Biographies of Major Naval Officers
  • Biographies of Senior Naval Officers
  • The Beginnings of the German Navy, 1848–1871
  • The Imperial Navy in the Pre-Tirpitz Era, 1872–1897
  • The Tirpitz Era and Anglo-German Relations, 1897–1914
  • General Histories of World War I at Sea, 1914–1918
  • German Naval War Aims, 1914–1918
  • U-Boat Operations, 1914–1918
  • Naval Communications Intelligence
  • The Naval Collapse and Scapa Flow

Military History German Sea Power, 1848–1918
Keith W. Bird
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0177


The rich historiography of the German navy reflects the close connection between the rise of navalism and the social, economic, and political development of the Prussian and German states from 1848 to the present day, a microcosm of German society and a symbol of national unity and the most visible instrument of Germany’s attempts to become a world power. Beginning as early as 1914 and persisting well into the first decade of the 2000s, the writing of naval history became a battleground between academic historians and civilian and military defenders over Germany’s naval ambitions and its role in two world wars. With the establishment of the Federal Republic’s Bundesmarine (1956–1995) and its East German counterpart, the Volksmarine (1956–1990), both sought to build a new politically acceptable tradition that rejected the historical heritage of the Kaiserliche Marine (1871–1919), Weimar’s Reichsmarine (1919–1935) and the Third Reich’s Kriegsmarine (1935–1945). Although lacking a traditional line of historical continuity and its long struggle after 1945 to engage objectively with its past, today’s Deutsche Marine, renamed in 1995, continues to emphasize the role of its history as a “bearer of tradition,” especially in support of democratic values. This is particularly evident in the importance ascribed to the designation of the liberal and democratic Frankfurt Parliament’s Reichsflotte (1848–1852) as the “first German fleet.” In 1968, the return of the records of the captured German naval archives provided historians with unprecedented access to the records of a traditional, conservative leadership elite that played a key role in Germany’s dramatic rise and fall. The emergence of the new school of “social history” led to a vigorous debate over the continuity and discontinuities in the origins and course of German navalism in the larger context of the nation’s history. The revisionists’ structural approach over the navy’s social and political role as a “system stabilizer” and the development and influence of a unique “Sea Power Ideology” from 1897 to 1944 challenged the manipulated “official” orthodoxy crafted by conservative historians. The result of this “historians’ quarrel” was a broadening of naval history incorporating interdisciplinary approaches from cultural and comparative history, anthropology and the social sciences and fresh appraisals of Germany’s navies including the Prussian navy (1701–1867) and the unified German Confederation’s Norddeutsche Bundesmarine (1867–1871). The blending of the academic interest in naval history and the military’s role in historical scholarship contributed to a deepening of the understanding of political-economic factors and the interrelationship of these to strategic, tactical, logistical, and administrative issues.

General Overviews and Handbooks

Despite the extensive literature, there is no current comprehensive scholarly study of the German navy. Scholars and general readers will find Rohwer 2005 an essential vade mecum for its chronology of the naval war 1939–1945. This expanded edition benefits from the availability of a growing number of new reference materials and is invaluable for revising or adding new details for the German navy as well as other naval combatants. To keep it continually updated, it also has an online site. Potter and Nimitz 1986, the expanded German edition of the classic reference work and textbook, incorporates Rohwer’s encyclopedic knowledge of Germany’s naval development. Duppler 1998 succinctly captures the key elements of the navy’s tradition and historical consciousness through its collection of key documents, photos, and insightful overviews of the navy’s development of its military role over the social and political course of German history. An incisive overview of German naval history from 1848 to the present, Witt 2017 shows the navy’s critical engagement with its past since 1956 to develop a heritage that confronts its past and promotes its democratic values. Hubatsch 1958 continues to be the authoritative source for the evolution of the naval command and organizational structure from 1848 to 1945. The most extensive handbook exclusively for naval affairs is Petter, et al. 1978 with its broad emphasis on the domestic and foreign policy on naval development reflecting what Petter claimed represented the “new naval history.” Neugebauer 2009 affords a foundational study of military history intended as a teaching guide for professional audiences as well as a general readership, identifying the key issues, sources, and literature of the military’s relationship to Germany’s political and social development from the early middle ages to the present. The naval section integrates the much-needed context of naval operations as well as an update of the deployment of Die Deutsche Marine. Rahn 2010 culminates the author’s years of research and writing in an extensive article that offers an invaluable exegesis for historians seeking to understand the course of Germany’s naval development 1871–1945 and the navy’s options and experiences as a continental power in their two confrontations against the Atlantic sea powers and the challenges and the limitations they faced.

  • Duppler, Jörg, ed. Germania auf dem Meere: Bilder und Dokumente zur Deutschen Marinegeschichte. Hamburg, Germany: Mittler, 1998.

    Written for a general audience, Duppler includes selected seminal documents (several previously unpublished) with an insightful commentary on the navy’s origins from the first “German” fleet created in 1848 and the struggle to develop a new naval tradition in the post-1945 society of a democratic state. In a concise summary of the 150 years of the navy’s history, he offers an important perspective of the long-debated issue of the degree of “continuity or discontinuity” in Germany’s naval tradition.

  • Hubatsch, Walther. Der Admiralstab und die obersten Marinebehörden in Deutschland 1848–1945. Frankfurt: Bernard and Graefe, 1958.

    Considered the leading authority on the Imperial navy until the new scholarship of the 1970s, Hubatsch represented the conservative first generation of post-1945 German scholars who defended Tirpitz’s fleet ambitions and the military role of the Kaiserliche Marine and focused more on the description of events rather than critically engaging with Germany’s naval policies. He was, however, a critic of Tirpitz’s fragmented command structure.

  • Neugebauer, Karl-Volker, ed. Grundkurs deutsche Militärgeschichte. 3 vols. with interactive DVD. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2009.

    Intended as a multimedia, interactive teaching and learning handbook for the political and historical training for officer candidates and readers interested in military history. For the navy, Werner Rahn concisely summarizes its role from the Imperial navy through two world wars. He highlights the important themes and includes the navy’s relationship to the state and society, significant operational issues, and the organizational and training challenges.

  • Petter, Wolfgang, Jost Dülffer, and Rolf Güth. Deutsche Marinegeschichte der Neuzeit: Handbuch zur deutschen Militärgeschichte 1648 bis 1939. Vol. 48. Parts VII and VIII. Munich: Bernard and Graefe, 1978.

    Petter’s excellent overview of German naval armament from Wallenstein (early 16th century) to the Tirpitz era connects naval development over a longer period than the contemporary view of the navy’s tradition beginning in 1848. Dülffer skillfully highlights the major themes (including a detailed bibliography linked to the major topics) incorporating the research of the new generation of “revisionists.” Güth’s two reference guides to the organization of the navy cover the period 1913–1933 (section 8) and 1933–1939 (section 7).

  • Potter, E. B., and Chester W. Nimitz. Seemacht: Eine Seekriegsgeschichte von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Edited by Jürgen Rohwer. Herrsching, Germany: M. Pawlak, 1986.

    Expanded German version of the second edition of Sea Power: A Naval History. Rohwer, author of over four hundred studies in naval and military history, edited the German edition coordinating the contributions of major topics by German scholars who incorporated the significant German and European dimensions of naval history as well as the new research based on the German naval archives and other new documentation available.

  • Rahn, Werner. “Strategische Optionen und Erfahrungen der deutschen Marineführung 1914 bis 1944. Zu den Chancen und Grenzen einer mitteleuropäischen Kontinentalmacht gegen Seemächte.” In Werner Rahn-Dienst und Wissenschaft. Edited by Wilfried Rädisch, 33–72. Potsdam, Germany: Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, 2010.

    An insightful synthesis of the context of the navy’s attempts to confront its material and geographic issues in each of its two world wars and the factors that influenced the decisions of its leaders in formulating and developing their policies, strategies, and operations. In the final analysis, the navy’s institutional miscalculations failed to appreciate the challenge that Germany’s ambition to become a world sea power represented to the Atlantic powers and badly underestimated the English reaction.

  • Rohwer, Jürgen. Chronology of the War at Sea 1939–1945. The Naval History of World War II. 3d rev. exp. ed. London: Chatham, 2005.

    Originally published in 1968 in German. Updates available online. In addition to revisions and new entries, the many indexes guide the reader through a wealth of information. The range of topics include lists of warships, ship losses, individuals, convoys, U-boat “wolf-packs,” and key background issues such as the role of Signals Intelligence and code-breaking, crimes against humanity in the sea warfare, and an analysis of the three major turning points in the naval war.

  • Witt, Jann M. Deutsche Marinegeschichte. Berlin: Palm Verlag, 2017.

    Highlights the major themes of the eight German navies since the founding of the Reichsflotte in 1848 (first formally celebrated in 1998), this book is based on the exhibition of the historical hall at the naval memorial in Laboe, the official memorial of the navy and its interpretation of its history.

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