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The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire

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Overview

This book is about the theatre of power and identity that unfolded in and between Britain and Germany in the decades before the First World War. It explores what contemporaries described as the cult of the navy: the many ways in which the navy and the sea were celebrated in the fleet reviews, naval visits and ship launches that were watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators. At once royal rituals and national entertainments, these were events at which tradition, power and claims to the sea were played out between the nations. This was a public stage on which the domestic and the foreign intersected and where the modern mass market of media and consumerism collided with politics and international relations. Conflict and identity were literally acted out between the two countries. By focusing on this dynamic arena, Jan Rüger offers a fascinating new history of the Anglo-German antagonism.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Rüger...is skillful in bringing out the navalism and the competition between Britain and Germany."
-Jeremy Black, H-Albion

"Rüger's fine monograph demonstrates that naval theater was a significan cultural and social dynamic, and as such an important aspect of the Anglo-German naval rivalry." -Jon Sumida, Journal of Modern History

"It will constitute required reading for specialists of early twentieth-century history as well as comparative European cultural history, and for scholars interested in research on the origins of the First World War, from both the British and German angles. It should, of course, be in all university libraries."
-Antoine Capet, H-Albion

"...a great read, a rare quality in research monographs." -Kenneth E. Hendrickson, The Historian

"Students of German or British nationalism, imperialism, militarism, and consumerism will not want to miss this book." -Christopher A. Molnar, H-German

'With the publication of The Great Naval Game, Jan Rüger makes an original contribution both to cultural history and naval history. But, it is much more than that. … Throughout the process, he repeatedly challenges various historiographical assumptions … In each chapter, Rüger utilizes a variety of sources to tell an articulate story and make a compelling argument.' -German Studies Review

"Jan Rüger has written a wonderful book that brings together military, cultural, and comparative history in an exemplary manner. His study offers a new, highly original perspective on the flourishing of the Anglo-German antagonism before the First World War." -Dirk Bonker, Journal of British Studies

"A path-breaking study … striking and original … The writing is elegant, and the research impressive." -International History Review

"Researched with admirable depth and intensity … should be widely read and discussed." -Journal of Military History

"Students of German or British nationalism, imperialism, militarism, and consumerism will not want to miss this book." -H-net

"Incisively written, a compelling analysis." -Mariner’s Mirror

"This is an important book that can rightly claim to have examined the Anglo-German antagonism during the pre-1914 period from a new perspective." -Central European History

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Jan Rüger teaches history at Birkbeck College, University of London. In 2002-3, he was a visiting fellow at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University.
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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
9780521875769 - The Great Naval Game - Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire - by Jan Rüger
Excerpt


Introduction

This book is about the theatre of power and identity that unfolded in and between Britain and Germany in the imperial age. It explores what contemporaries described as the ‘cult of the navy’: the many ways in which the navy and the sea were celebrated in the decades before the First World War. At the heart of this obsession were a host of rituals that put the navy and the nation on the public stage. Of these, fleet reviews and launches of warships were the most prominent. At once royal rituals and national entertainments, these were spectacles of power and pride, with hundreds of thousands regularly turning out to watch. They became a potent public theatre where tradition, power and claims to the sea were demonstrated to both domestic and foreign audiences. What role did this maritime stage play in the rise of the Anglo-German antagonism? What was its significance for nation-building and ideas of empire? And how might it change our understanding of the relationship between politics and culture, between public ritual and power?

In addressing such questions, this book understands the navy not only as a political and military instrument, but also as a powerful cultural symbol. Unravelling the spectacle created around this symbol opens a window to aspects of the history of Britain, Germany and the age of empire that have to date remained unexplored.This was a public theatre in which the domestic and the foreign intersected, where the modern mass market of media and consumerism collided with politics and international relations, and where identity and conflict were acted out between the nations. By focusing on this dynamic arena, The Great Naval Game explores the Anglo-German antagonism from a new perspective. Traditionally, historians have understood the growing rivalry between the two countries in diplomatic, strategic and economic terms. In the grand narratives that explained the ‘rise and fall of the great powers’ culture seemed a lesser category, a sub-field of the high politics of diplomacy and strategy.1 True, a number of scholars have since explored important cultural aspects of the two countries’ relations, such as exchange and transfer, as well as mutual stereotypes and images of ‘the other’.2 Yet, too often this enquiry has been left disconnected from the world of power and politics, as if to confirm the view of culture as a separate phenomenon and a source of subordinate influence, a view that has been prominent amongst political historians. This book has a different premise as its starting point. It aims to discover the cultural in politics and the political in culture. The two were inseparable in the celebration of the navy and the sea: ritual and theatre merged with power and politics. Focusing on this spectacle allows us to see the intensely political implications of public entertainment and forces us to understand international relations no longer as divorced from the cultural context in which they took place.

An examination of this public stage has to overcome, however imperfectly, the artificial boundaries between academic disciplines and specialisms. Indeed, it is the increasing separation into scholarly sub-disciplines that best explains why historians have had surprisingly little to say about the naval theatre. There has been a strong interest in public celebrations and royal rituals, especially so since the concept of ‘invented traditions’ rose to prominence. Eric Hobsbawm and David Cannadine have been particularly influential in explaining the growing pomp and circumstance of the late nineteenth century as a reaction to the rise of democracy and modern mass society: the less monarchs and governments could rely on traditional forms of legitimacy, the more they invented public rituals to display their continuing relevance and power.3 In the twenty years since the emergence of this thesis, historians have explored national festivals and commemorations extensively.4 Curiously, however, neither in Britain nor in Germany has this interest extended to the navy, one of the most powerful icons in this period, combining royal, national and imperial symbolism.

Nor has the intensive debate about national identity directed any attention to the navy as a cultural symbol. In Britain this debate has focused on the role of religion, conflict and state formation for the making and unmaking of ‘the nation’, with Linda Colley as one of the most influential recent protagonists.5 The cult of the navy in fact offers a powerful stage for the issues examined in this debate, a stage on which notions of Britishness collided with English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish identities. The Royal Navy became one of the most important metaphors of Britishness in the nineteenth century, just as the German fleet was employed as a floating symbol of unity and national identification on the other side of the North Sea. Both played essential roles for the shaping of ‘the nation’, for ideas of empire, ‘overseas’ and difference. In exploring the naval theatre, this book aims to contribute to our understanding of nationhood and its relationship with that ‘remarkable transoceanic construct of substance and sentiment’ called the empire.6

Naval historians working on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have shown sadly little interest in such issues. They have been interested in technology, administration and strategy, and they continue to be preoccupied with naval operations and sea battles.7 What is sorely needed is a cultural history of the modern Royal Navy, an approach that inquires into the ways the navy and its past have been narrated and appropriated, an approach that investigates the cultural and political implications of the hero and tradition-worshipping that is so prevalent in accounts of the navy and the sea.8 In Losing Nelson Barry Unsworth deconstructs such naval mythologizing by telling the (fictional) story of Charles Cleasby, a man unable to see himself separately from his hero Horatio Nelson. After years of re-enacting and reliving Nelson’s battles and victories, Cleasby undergoes a painful metamorphosis. He begins to question his glorification of naval and national heroism and, in finally shedding his fixation, he comes to a better self-understanding.9 Perhaps it is time that historians of the Royal Navy take a similar step. An inquiry into the symbolic role of the navy has important clues to offer for our understanding of sea power in the age of empire.10 Strategy and battle tactics, diplomacy and politics alone do not explain why the Royal Navy mattered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The ‘great game for mastery in the North Sea’11 was as much as a cultural phenomenon as it was a political one.

A cultural history of the German navy is similarly lacking. Here, historians have focused on the intentions behind the building of the fleet and its role in domestic politics. Was this an exercise in manipulating the masses, a palliative for the Wilhelmine electorate? Or was the building of the German navy a natural reaction to the rise of other powers in the age of imperialism and navalism? These questions, which were ultimately about how historians interpreted the relationship between foreign and domestic politics, have been impressively researched and hotly debated.12 Yet, by focusing on such issues, historians have failed to investigate more closely the symbolic significance of the navy and the sea, described by Admiral von Tirpitz himself as a ‘cultural space’.13

The Great Naval Game brings together these divergent historiographies. It is as much influenced by cultural, social and political history as it is by naval and maritime history. This is a book about the navy and the sea, about imperialism and Anglo-German rivalry, but also about ritual, identity and the imagination of ‘the other’. Its title is intended to reflect this multi-faceted approach. The naval theatre was part of the imperial game, the struggle between great powers over spheres of influence and the domination of the sea. At the same time it was about entertainment, leisure and consumption. This was, as Henry Newbolt put it in his poem ‘England’, quite literally a ‘game for man and boy’.14 It could be played and enjoyed in numerous ways, ranging from the great fleet reviews themselves to a host of re-enactments in popular culture. The public collision of the intensely political and cultural dimensions of this game was precisely what made the naval theatre so relevant for Anglo-German relations.

The obsession with the fleet that flourished in Britain and Germany generated a vast amount of documents, ranging from central government records to the local files of the towns and dockyards where the navy was being celebrated; similarly from the highbrow press interpreting the naval theatre to the many layers of popular culture appropriating it. In order to reveal the often conflicting ways in which contemporaries participated in and made sense of this public spectacle, this book augments official and press sources with private diaries and journals. In addition, secret reports by undercover police and intelligence officers allow us to interpret the views of those who otherwise leave few traces in the archives. Through the help of such sources it becomes possible to contrast the role played by monarchs and ministers with that of the workers who built the ships, the lower ranks who kept them in order and the spectators who went to see them. Furthermore, it seems impossible to understand a spectacle so intrinsically visual without consulting a wide range of pictures, photographs and films. Taken by press correspondents and naval officers, commissioned by governments and film companies, these are essential sources that reflect the visual fascination of this public theatre.15

Two approaches are central for the way in which this book makes sense of such sources: the cultural and the comparative. Both require some explanation. Practitioners of cultural history have been remarkably successful in adopting the concerns and methods of other disciplines.16 In focusing on the symbolic dimension of the navy, this book is clearly influenced by their endeavours. Yet, while taking important clues from scholars concerned with ritual and theatricality, it does not follow their tendency to neglect important political contexts and to view ritual as an end in itself. The kind of cultural history attempted here aspires to be neither naïve nor cynical: while interpreting the cult of the navy as a public theatre, with its own rules and rhetoric, the book is keenly aware of the politics involved, both domestically and internationally.17 George Mosse and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, amongst others, have explained German national festivals and military spectacles as manoeuvres in the manipulation of the masses, foreshadowing the rise of the Nazis.18 Historians of modern Britain have similarly interpreted public rituals as instruments of propaganda, producing imperialist sentiment and domestic consensus.19 This book revisits such interpretations. It reassesses the direction and character of power in the ‘age of the masses’ and it asserts that, while certainly not an end in itself, naval and national pomp was more than simply a function of power.

The second key component in this interpretation is the comparative perspective. The Great Naval Game presents a parallel history of two countries. It compares their approaches to the navy and the sea and suggests conclusions about cultural and political differences. This comparison proceeds symmetrically; that is, it directs as much interest and attention to the one as to the other nation.20 While not presupposing that the historical development of either Britain or Germany presents a model by which the other country’s history should be judged, the book does contribute to the debate about ‘German peculiarities’. Militarism, civil society and constitutional development are issues that must be studied comparatively if historians want to make assertions about whether or not Germany took a ‘special path’ in the modern age.21 This book combines such a parallel history of Britain and Germany with a strong focus on the space between the nations. The rituals created around the navy and the sea in the two countries cannot be fully understood unless they are seen as closely interrelated phenomena that reacted to and influenced each other on many levels. Indeed, the naval theatre turned the sea, and the North Sea in particular, into a stage between the nations on which the key issues that defined the two countries were played out. In order to understand this Anglo-German phenomenon, we need to practise both comparative and transnational history. There need not be a contradiction between the two.22

By uncovering this Anglo-German stage, The Great Naval Game seeks to contribute to a new history of the sea as a cultural space.23 Such an approach is particularly needed for Northern Europe. While the Mediterranean has been explored extensively since Fernand Braudel’s pioneering work, first published in 1949, similar studies are lacking for the space between the British Isles and continental Europe.24 Here, this book takes a first step. It attempts to convince its readers that a fruitful starting point for a history of Britain and Germany, and indeed for modern Europe in general, may lie with a focus on the sea. Such an approach would combine the traditional emphasis on the centres of power, in this case London and Berlin, with a strong interest in the space where their influence met: how were Britain and Germany ‘made’ in the North Sea, how did the two countries project their power and identity in this maritime theatre?

The book is divided into five chapters, each of which follows a thematic approach, although they can be read chronologically. The first charts the rise of the public theatre celebrating the navy and the nation in the nineteenth century. It examines the transformation of key rituals and their emergence as professionally stage-managed and remarkably popular events before they met a sudden and unceremonious end in 1914. The chapter provides a close reading of the structure and choreography of launches of warships and fleet reviews, and investigates their historical background. It shows how, both in Britain and the Kaiserreich, these events became more frequent, more elaborate, more costly and more strongly regulated than at any time since the late eighteenth century.

One of the key factors influencing this rise was the unfolding of the political and cultural mass market towards the end of the nineteenth century. The second chapter therefore investigates how the naval theatre changed with the advent of the ‘age of the masses’ and explains the remarkable modernity of what was not least a spectacle of media, commerce and entertainment. The authorities in Britain and in Germany acknowledged that naval ceremonies had turned into a popular nation-wide theatre and they saw the great potential of this stage for promoting the navy and ‘educating the public’. However, while the governments and monarchs in both countries attempted to exploit this potential, the public itself became an important actor. Mass culture, popular papers and the cinema conveyed naval celebrations to millions of spectators, and in turn shaped the character of these events, often in a way that was beyond the control of the authorities. The entertainment provided by the naval theatre was thus never divorced from the fundamental political questions that characterized the ‘age of the masses’.

For critics at the time and for many historians since, the naval theatre was a modern version of Rome’s ‘bread and circuses’, designed to create loyalty and social cohesion amongst audiences. The third chapter reassesses this argument. Based on a wide range of first-hand accounts, it addresses three key questions. First, what was the role of the ‘radical right’ which historians have seen as so instrumental in the creation of naval enthusiasm? How, in particular, does it compare to the influence of other actors, who do not fall into the much-quoted, yet frustratingly imprecise, categories of ‘above’ and ‘below’? Second, are claims about ‘manipulation’ or ‘self-mobilization’ borne out by the way in which people made sense of and participated in this public theatre? Third, how far does the concept of militarism, frequently employed by scholars of the ‘manipulation’ school, help us to understand the character of the naval theatre? In bringing these questions together, the chapter suggests a revision in our understanding of the ‘mobilization of the masses’ in the decades before 1914.

The symbolic quality of ships and the sea has intrigued observers as diverse as Admiral von Tirpitz and Michel Foucault. Chapter 4 follows their lead and asks why it was that the fleet was invested with so much meaning in the age of empire. Both in Britain and Germany the navy served as a prime symbol of national identity at a time when ideas of ‘the nation’ were contested both from within and without. While the army and its representation were rooted in regional traditions, the navy was a genuinely national institution that brought together key sources of identification such as monarchy, empire, geography and gender. Its public celebration aimed to reconcile local, regional and national contexts. The capability to symbolically merge different national signifiers into one potent display made this a unique arena for cultural nation-building.

Chapter 5 asks what the naval theatre meant for the Anglo-German antagonism. In the decades before the First World War, the North Sea became a stage on which international relations and naval rivalry intersected with popular culture and mass politics. In this inter-national theatre, the dreadnought fleets of Britain and Germany were floating platforms for the demonstration of sea power. Yet this was as much about concepts of nation, race and gender as it was about the command of the ocean. In the naval theatre, the Anglo-German antagonism was a dramatic game, in which important cultural issues were bound up with strategic and diplomatic developments. The significance of this game became particularly clear after 1909 when the staging and celebrating of the navy continued despite the fact that the Royal Navy had effectively won the naval race.

The epilogue, finally, goes beyond the timeframe that is usually associated with ‘the age of empire’.25 The imperial age did not end abruptly with the First World War, nor did the rivalry between Britain


© Cambridge University Press

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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. The rise of the naval theatre; 2. Culture, politics and the mass market; 3. Bread and circuses; 4. Nation, navy and the sea; 5. The Anglo-German theatre; Epilogue: No more parades; Bibliography.
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