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Book Review: Erich Raeder: Admiral of the Third Reich (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2006)

Discussion in 'Biographies and Everything Else' started by dgmitchell, Jun 6, 2009.

  1. dgmitchell

    dgmitchell Ace

    May 9, 2008
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    Book reviewed by Steven Douglas Mercatante.

    Website Link: http://globeatwar.com/

    Keith Bird’s Erich Raeder: Admiral of the Third Reich breaks new ground in exploring one of the pivotal personalities involved in the war at sea during World War II. Remarkably, in the sixty plus years since the War ended no one has produced a complete biographical treatment of German Grand Admiral Erich Raeder. Bird’s work fills this gaping whole in the historical narrative and focuses on not just Raeder, but more importantly his stewardship of the German Navy during the critical years of 1928-1943. In Admiral of the Third Reich Bird has produced a through but concise examination into, most interestingly, the creation of Raeder’s beliefs in regards to naval warfare within the context which Germany faced war at sea as well as the decisions made by Raeder in rebuilding the German Navy after Hitler threw aside the restrictions on German naval power imposed by the Allies following World War I.

    Bird begins his book by both exploring Raeder’s early years and also putting Germany’s Second World War approach to naval warfare in the unique historical context within which the Prussian and Imperial German navy had operated, with a special emphasis on the role played by Raeder’s most important predecessor: Tirpitz. The 19th century combination of nationalism and militarism inherent in the push for a greater German naval capability had found its greatest patron after the German unification in the form of one Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930). By 1897, as the Secretary of State of the Imperial Navy Department, Tirpitz had gained considerable access to Kaiser Wilhelm II – access Tirpitz used to launch the Imperial German Navy on a breathtaking expansion primarily focused on building a modern and powerful battle fleet. When World War One began the Battleship, evolved from the steam-powered ironclad and Dreadnaught, had reigned supreme. The British Royal Navy had held a tremendous lead in the numbers of battleships it could put to sea, however, under Tirpitz, the Imperial German Navy competed with the British and pursued a naval strategy premised around the battleship and battle fleet.

    Tirpitz was undeterred by Britain’s own prodigious building program; he continued ahead with his own – albeit eventually modifying his belief in the decisive battle to take into account the deterrent effect a German battle fleet “in being” offered against the British Navy. Bird highlights the problems with Tirpitz’s “fleet in being” compromise including the salient weakness of any battle fleet; the massive cost incurred in building and maintaining battle fleets meant nations only cautiously employed their battle fleets and thus largely wasted the effort made in creating a fleet of capital ships. Thus, although Germany is, to this day, extolled as the most proficient practitioner of asymmetric warfare at sea during the First and Second World War – via the submarine, or U-boat, for the German Unterseeboat; according to Bird following the First World War even German naval planners largely missed the proverbial boat in regards to further developing the U-boat into a true underwater weapon.
    Bird then goes on to amply demonstrate that even a full decade after the First World War ended, that Raeder remained heavily influenced by his mentor, Tirpitz. This is not to say Raeder dogmatically adhered to Tirpitzian strategy. Raeder, during the inter war years, like his influences, peers and predecessors, did attempt to solve the intractable problem represented by how an inferior navy could challenge a vastly more powerful foe but, in one of Bird’s most important revelations, not to the extent it would have required Raeder sacrifice his dreams of building a world class battle fleet. Although Bird’s analysis of Raeder’s leadership is not completely damning Bird makes clear that in a military sense Raeder’s greatest failing in rebuilding the German navy was that he never really let go of a battle fleet mentality. Raeder compounded this mistake by failing to push for better coordination between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine; an omission exacerbated by Hitler’s concomitant failure to force Goering to allow the Navy to develop its own air capability or to devote Luftwaffe resources to naval warfare. Bird also amply explores German naval decision making during Raeder’s Second World War leadership, with another strength in Bird’s book coming through in his description of the strategic indecision and inconsistency gripping the German naval command during the War. Finally, Bird performs another invaluable service to history in illustrating how much Raeder was in complete support of and agreement with Hitler’s criminal ideological goals for remaking Europe in particular at the expense of Europe’s Jewish and Slavic populations. Thus, Bird helps further destroy the myth perpetuated after the Second World War ended that the Wermacht was largely apolitical and the genocidal criminal activities perpetrated by Germany were really only carried out by the National Socialist leadership and their minions in the SS and other such organizations.

    Admiral of the Third Reich is well researched; an enjoyable read and is a great secondary source for any Second World War researcher. It is rare to be able to describe a book as truly ground breaking but Admiral of the Third Reich truly fits that at times ill used description. If you have more than a passing knowledge of the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic and are seeking a more detailed explanation into how and why Germany’s maritime strategy failed during World War II than I highly recommend this book for you.

    Author bio: Steven Douglas Mercatante is the founder and editor of The Globe at War, a website dedicated to exploring the past one hundred plus years of global warfare. Found at http://globeatwar.com/. In addition Steven has recently completed a manuscript examining why Germany came far closer to winning the Second World War in Europe than previously thought and re-examining why Germany suffered catastrophic defeat; a manuscript stemming from over two decades researching and studying the Second World War.

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