Matthew S. Seligmann, Frank Nägler, Epkenhans, Michael. The Naval Route to the Abyss: The Anglo-German Naval Race 1895–1914. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2015. 558 S. ISBN 978-1-4724-4094-5; ISBN 978-1-4724-4095-2.
Reviewed by Dirk Bönker
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (September, 2015)
M. Seligmann u.a. (Hrsg.): The Naval Route to the Abyss
Much has been written about the Anglo-German naval race before World War I. Thanks to Matthew S. Seligmann, Frank Nägler, and Michael Epkenhans, we now have a massive collection of documents on it, drawing from both British and German archives. Published as Volume 161 of the Publications of the Navy Records Society, the volume offers an equal focus on the German Empire and the British Empire as the two co-eval participants in that arms race. The editors of this joint production are specialists in British or German naval history. Two of them, Seligmann and Epkenhans, have already published two voluminous editions of archival sources on different aspects of the subject, British naval attaché reports from Germany between 1906 and 1914, and the papers of a senior German naval officer, Admiral Albert Hopman, respectively. Matthew S. Seligmann (ed.), Naval Intelligence from Germany: The Reports of the British Naval Attachés in Berlin, 1906–1914, Aldershot 2007; Michael Epkenhans (ed.), Albert Hopman. Das ereignisreiche Leben eines „Wilhelminers“. Tagebücher, Briefe, Aufzeichnungen 1901 bis 1920, München 2004.
The book contains more than 150 documents of both British and German provenance. All the German documents are translated into English. Thematically, the edition deliberately foregrounds issues of “grand strategy” and “conceptions of future war,” with particular “tactical matters” also receiving attention (p. xvi). The volume opens with a substantive introduction that surveys the dense historiographies on the British and German sides of the Anglo-German naval arms race going back to the end of World War I. The documents are organized into eight chapters, arranged by both chronology and country. Following a familiar narrative of the arms race, the editors divide the book into four periods: 1895–1904/05, 1905–1907, 1908–1911, and 1912–14. For each period, there is a chapter each on Germany and Britain, all of which contain effective introductions that offer accounts of the main developments during the period and ably situate the sources that follow. Annotations to the documents are sparse yet sufficient. The selection of documents seems judicious; it certainly is for the German side, which this reviewer feels most confident to judge. Many of the German documents were already published, either fully or partly, in Volker R. Berghahn / Wilhelm Deist (eds.), Rüstung im Zeichen der wilhelminischen Weltpolitik: Grundlegende Dokumente 1890–1914, Düsseldorf 1988.
The editors frame their volume primarily as a defense of the very notion of an Anglo-German naval race, its materiality and historical relevance. They do so in explicit critique of all the scholars of the Royal Navy and the British Empire who have come to downplay the centrality of the arms race, and the larger Anglo-German antagonism it was a part of, for the understanding of British naval policy and strategy before 1914. The work of these historians has sparked a heated debate, in which one of the editors, Seligmann, has been a vocal participant. Accordingly, various chapter introductions feature extended historiographical arguments along these lines.
This is a collection of immense value, both to researchers and to teachers. The documents offer rich insight into the making of an arms race over time and from each national perspective. They allow the reader to make sense of national pursuits of maritime force, set them in a comparative perspective, and view them as part of a broader process of a bilateral arms competition. In making a key set of documents covering each participating side easily accessible, the volume provides fresh food for new thought on British and German naval policies and their interaction. In short, "The Naval Route into the Abyss" is successful in its purpose of directing attention to the existence, complexity, and importance of the arms race and in offering a general narrative and framework of analysis.
Like all such collections, of course, this volume is also shaped by its boundaries. First, the book primarily approaches the Anglo-German arms race in terms of grand strategic, operational, and other military matters. Matters of domestic politics, social imperialism, public representation or political economy are not at the center. This more narrow perspective also extends to the cultural politics of the naval race. Here, the editors are particularly explicit: they dismiss recent scholarship on the public cults of the navies and performative display of power and deterrence in each country, arguing that such scholarship substitutes culture, theatrics and representation for the real world of strategy and actual fighting power. The key work is Jan Rüger, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire, Cambridge 2007. Strikingly, the introduction does not reference other books about the national media, navalist publics, and the arms race in the two countries, including Dominik Geppert, Pressekriege. Öffentlichkeit und Diplomatie in den deutsch-britischen Beziehungen 1896–1912, München 2007.
Second, the book faces inwards: its focus is resolutely on Germany and Britain and the space in between. This focus is well-suited to bring to the fore the bi-national dynamics of the arms race. On the other hand, we learn much less about how naval elites and civilian policy-makers thought about the global politics of war and empire in general and how they viewed the empire on the opposite shores of the North Seas through its lens, how their pursuits transcended the narrow world of Anglo-German relations, and how their thinking in general about military force, global power, and national industry was part of the realm of transnational military politics, that is, the web of exchanges, mutual observations, and influences among national militaries.
And third, the range and type of documents included is excellent for scholars interested in reconstructing the sequence of the arms race, as well as the changing calculations of its participants. But it will not fully satisfy scholars who are interested in a series of broader interpretive issues. For example, a reader will find it difficult to make sense of the rigid nature and, in fact, increasingly self-enclosed quality of the German pursuits of maritime force and explain the fantastical quality underlying it, or to account for the seemingly superior rationality and very success of the British response to the German naval challenge. A still tantalizing essay that questions the assumption of superior rationality is Gustav Schmidt, Rationalismus und Irrationalismus in der englischen Flottenpolitik, in: Herbert Schottelius / Wilhelm Deist (eds.), Marine und Marinepolitik im kaiserlichen Deutschland 1871–1914, Düsseldorf 1972, pp. 283–295.
But none of these limits should distract attention from the book’s considerable accomplishments. Providing equal attention to Germany and Britain, this collection of documents offers fascinating insight into the dynamics of a maritime competition that was a key event in the politics of war and empire before World War I, and left its imprint on the direction of national politics and culture on both sides of the North Seas. Anyone seriously interested in the topic will be grateful to the editors for this fine volume.
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Dirk Bönker. Review of Seligmann, Matthew S.; Nägler, Frank; Epkenhans; Michael, The Naval Route to the Abyss: The Anglo-German Naval Race 1895–1914.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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