Erich Raeder was born on April 24, 1876, at the small seaside resort of Wandsbeck (near Hamburg), where his father, Hans Raeder, was a teacher of French and English at a public school. His mother’s father was Albert Hartmann, a musician at the royal court, and she instilled in him a love for music that stayed with him his entire life. In the spring of 1889, Dr. Raeder was transferred to the small town of Gruenberg, Silesia, where his son matriculated with honors in March 1894. Young Erich immediately applied to join the Imperial German Navy, a decision he had taken only two weeks before.
Unlike the army, the Imperial Navy did not place a premium on a young man’s Prussian Junker background, so Raeder’s middle-class origins would not be held against him. He was accepted at once and ordered to report to Kiel on April 1 to begin his training. Perhaps because of his lack of athletic ability, his initial homesickness, and his relatively small stature (he was only five foot six), Raeder was at first seemingly overlooked by his superiors. However, his academic achievement was such that he graduated first in the class of 1895, becoming a Faehnrich zur See (midshipman). By that time he had already made training cruises in the Baltic Sea and to the West Indies. Further training followed in navigation, gunnery, torpedoes, mines, tactics, sports, and sailing. He again excelled and in the fall of 1897 was commissioned ensign and assigned to SMS Sachsen as the signals officer. Undoubtedly he made a good impression, for shortly thereafter he was made signals officer for the battleship Deutschland, the flagship of Prince Heinrich, the brother of the Kaiser and commander of the Eastern Squadron. Young Ensign Raeder was thus a member of the admiral’s staff as well and, as an additional duty, was in charge of the ship’s band.
The Deutschland sailed for China in late 1897. Prince Heinrich soon took his young communications officer under his wing and Raeder accompanied him to Tsingtao, Peking, Port Arthur, Vladivostok, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Saigon, and other stations. Promoted to lieutenant in 1901, Raeder returned to Kiel as a training officer. Later that year, however, he was transferred to the battleship Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the new flagship of his mentor, Prince Heinrich, who was now the commander of the 1st Battleship Squadron. From 1903 to 1905 he attended the Naval Academy at Kiel, a sure sign that he had impressed his superiors and was marked for distinction. During this period he was sent to Russia for three months of advanced language training. (He chose Russian because he was already fluent in French and English and was studying Spanish on his own time.) After graduating from the academy in 1905, he served as navigation officer for the coastal defense armored ship Frithjof and on April 1, 1906, was posted to the Naval Information Office in Berlin, where he dealt with the foreign press and edited the naval journal Marine Rundschau (Naval Review) and Nauticus, the German naval annual. “Clear-headed and responsive to another point of view, he was exactly the man to deal with foreign press questions and to present an acceptable exterior to the many anxious inquirers from other countries,” a former officer wrote of him later. He also proved to be an excellent writer and was calm and composed, without being eloquent, when being interrogated by foreign journalists. All of this combined to create a very favorable impression. He also attracted the attention of the Imperial Navy’s leading benefactor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, in 1910, named him navigation officer for his personal yacht, the Hohenzollern. This was quite an honor for Raeder, who remained something of a monarchist his entire life. Even as the commander-in-chief of Hitler’s navy, his personal flag carried the colors and emblems of the Imperial Navy, rather than the swastika
Raeder was promoted to commander in 1911 and the following year became senior staff officer (and in 1917 chief of staff) to Vice Admiral Ritter Franz von Hipper, the commander-in-chief of the reconnaissance forces of the German High Seas Fleet. In 1914 and 1915, he took part in mining operations and hit-and-run attacks against the British coast and in support operations for the German Army in the Baltic area. He also fought in the battles of the Dogger Bank (April 24, 1915) and Jutland (May 21, 1916), called the Battle of the Skaggerak by the Germans. Here he was in the navigation room of the Luetzow when it was battered to pieces by British warships. Somehow Raeder escaped the inferno and ended the battle aboard a cruiser.
In January 1918, Raeder left Hipper’s staff and took command of the light cruiser Koeln II, a post he held until October. Shortly before the war ended, Captain Raeder became chief of the Central Bureau of the German Naval Command.
In late October and early November 1918, the German High Seas Fleet mutinied, an event that sparked the revolution that swept away the House of Hohenzollern. Wilhelm II fled into exile in Holland on November 9, and the Weimar Republic was proclaimed in Berlin a few hours later. From the beginning, Captain Raeder was deeply involved in the political maneuvering that accompanied the birth of the republic. With the admirals of the old naval command in disgrace and retiring in droves, the conservative Raeder wanted to make sure that the new commander of the navy was not someone from the political left. He therefore visited the new defense minister, Gustav Noske, almost as soon as he arrived in Berlin. During this meeting, Raeder emphasized that the new head of the navy should be an active officer who had the confidence of the Officer Corps. He added that Admiral Adolf von Trotha, the then chief of the Personnel Office (and former chief of staff of the High Seas Fleet), was just such a man. Noske was receptive and sent Raeder to discuss the matter with Friedrich Ebert, the new president of the republic. It is impossible to tell if Raeder’s actions were decisive, but von Trotha was eventually appointed.
Naturally, Erich Raeder was selected for retention in the 15,000-man navy of the Weimar Republic, where he did what he could to circumvent the harsh Treaty of Versailles, later telling the judges at Nuremberg that he did so “as a matter of honor.” In the spring of 1920, he backed Wolfgang Kapp’s Putsch against the republic.6 When this East Prussian monarchist was defeated by a general strike and fled into exile in Sweden, Raeder’s continued presence in the Central Bureau was unacceptable to the government; indeed, he was fortunate to have been allowed to remain in the service at all. He was assigned to the Naval Archives—a backwater post, true enough, but much more significant than one might think. Here Raeder had the chance to study the development of the naval tactics and strategy of World War I as they affected Germany. He was also assigned the task of preparing a two-volume history of German cruiser warfare in foreign waters and in the process became a noted naval historian and strategic theorist, especially on the subject of cruiser warfare. His books included Die Kreuzerkrieg in den Auslandischen Gewaessern (published in 1922), Das Kreuzergeschwader (1922), Die Taetigkeit der Kleinen Kreuzer Emden und Karlsruhe (1923), and Der Krieg zur See. In his spare time he attended the University of Berlin and was on the verge of earning his Ph.D. in political science when he was promoted to Konteradmiral (rear admiral) and became inspector of naval education in July 1922.
By this time Raeder was a professed democrat and a strong believer in the Weimar Republic, or so he said. In reality his views had not changed. One officer referred to his attitude as “stage-prop liberalism.” Nevertheless his politically adaptable attitude fooled most of the politicians and parliamentarians. His participation in the Kapp Putsch was forgiven, and he was no longer disqualified from rising to the top posts of the navy. In October 1924, he became commander of Light Reconnaissance Forces, North Sea, and in January 1925, was promoted to vice admiral and made commander of the Baltic Naval District. He became noted for his strict (if fussy) moral code and his strong sense of duty.
In August 1927, the “Lohmann Scandal” rocked the navy. A Berlin newspaper exposed the fact that secret naval rearmament funds existed and were being administered by Kapitaen zur See (Captain) Walter Lohmann of the Naval Transport Department and Captain Gottfried Hansen of the Weapons Department. Among other things, it was revealed that German-designed submarines were being constructed at a Krupp-controlled shipyard in Turkey. A Reichstag investigation followed and, naturally, heads rolled, chief among which were the defense minister and Admiral Hans Adolf Zenker, the chief of the Naval Command. What was needed now was a good republican flag officer to replace the disgraced Zenker. Erich Raeder suited the bill admirably. The fact that President Paul von Hindenburg liked him did not hurt his cause at all. On October 1, 1928, after some unpleasant Reichstag hearings, he was promoted to Admiral (equivalent to U.S. vice admiral) and became chief of the Naval Command—the highest post in the German Navy at that time.
The first item on Raeder’s agenda was to set an authoritarian tone for his administration of the navy. He ordered, among other things, that once he made a decision all officers were to support it, no matter what. He then carried out what the junior officers called the “great seal hunt,” in which several senior officers were forced to retire, supposedly so that bright, young officers could be promoted. However, as Charles Thomas, the noted historian of the German Navy, wrote, “Raeder was clearly taking no chances that his authority might be challenged by one of his more charismatic subordinates, and throughout Raeder’s tenure of office one criticized the commander at one’s peril.”
In his new post Raeder pursued the policy of a balanced fleet—a policy he continued into World War II and one that was disastrous to the German Navy and, indeed, to the entire German war effort.
Basically Raeder was a “big ship” man. He wanted some of every type of naval vessel, but his main reliance was on the Panzerschiff, the so-called pocket battleship—light battle cruisers that could “outrun anything that could defeat it and could defeat anything that could overtake it.” He also authorized the construction of a flotilla of freighters that could double as auxiliary cruisers and a flotilla of trawlers that could quickly be converted into minesweepers. Secretly, but more carefully than Zenker, he continued to support submarine development abroad.
Raeder wanted a navy of highly trained and disciplined men divorced from political activity of any kind. Straitlaced, taciturn, and almost devoid of humor, he was old-fashioned and considered himself the guardian of the morality of the naval officers corps—which included their wives. He once issued an order that officers’ wives could not bob their hair, wear any type of cosmetics or short skirts, or put lacquer on their fingernails! He also had an unpleasant knack for showing up unannounced at isolated bases, poking his nose into crew’s quarters and galleys, and generally making a pest of himself. He was particularly concerned with the appearance of uniforms and flower boxes in barracks’ windows. Such fussiness, plus his regulations prohibiting naval personnel from visiting bars in uniform, or from smoking when driving, walking on the streets, or riding in public vehicles, did not make him particularly popular with his men. Once, a submarine returned after a patrol of several weeks. As soon as it docked, according to one German officer, Admiral Raeder jumped abroad, inspected the men, and reprimanded the crew for its slovenly appearance.
Although fastidious, he was somewhat different at home. Married, with a son, he purchased a modest villa in Charlottenburg (a suburb of Berlin) and enjoyed playing with his dachshund and listening to music. He liked to attend musical concerts (especially if Beethoven or Brahms was being played), enjoyed yachting, and went to every soccer game he could find.
Despite some misgivings, Admiral Raeder welcomed the rise of National Socialism because he could now press on with his naval expansion program without interference—although he was careful not to alienate any possible future governments until after the Nazis came to power on January 30, 1933. He first met Hitler on February 2, 1933, and soon was describing him as “an extraordinary man who was born to lead.” Hitler also was glad to have Raeder in charge of the navy, because the admiral confined his ambition to his own branch of the service, was not a danger to the regime, and seemed to be an excellent adviser on naval affairs, about which Hitler admitted he knew nothing.
The Raeder naval construction program began in earnest in March 1935, when Hitler unilaterally renounced the Treaty of Versailles. On June 18, 1935, German special envoy Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Anglo-German Naval Treaty in London. Under the terms of this treaty, Germany agreed to restrict the size of its naval forces to 35 percent of those of Great Britain and her Commonwealth—except in the area of U-boats, where Germany was allowed parity. Hitler and Raeder were delighted, for the treaty seemed to rule out the possibility of Britain as a naval adversary. Raeder went so far as to forbid any references to a possible naval war with Britain—even in contingency plans or theoretical studies by his staff. Hitler had told him as early as February 3, 1933, that he wanted peaceful coexistence with Great Britain, and the admiral stubbornly insisted on believing him, to the exclusion of all other possibilities. Raeder continued to maintain this dangerously unrealistic position until May 1938.
It takes much longer to build a navy than an army and, to a much greater degree than with ground forces, a navy must be modeled after that of its most likely enemy. Hitler told Raeder to pattern his navy after those of Russia and France—the most likely enemies. Raeder did so without a backward glance. Neither wanted a war with Great Britain; therefore, they assumed that there would be no war with Great Britain. Apparently it never occurred to either of them that, whatever the provocation, Britain might declare war on Germany in 1939, just as she had done in 1914.
The honeymoon period between Raeder and the Fuehrer continued into 1937. In 1935, Raeder’s title was changed to commander-in-chief of the navy, and on April 20, 1936, Hitler used the occasion of his own 47th birthday to promote Raeder to Generaladmiral (full admiral). The straitlaced officer was made an honorary member of the Nazi Party in 1937. Meanwhile, in 1936, the keels were laid for the giant battleships Bismarck (41,700 tons) and Tirpitz (42,900 tons). In the following two years the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau joined the fleet, as did the light cruisers Leipzig and Nuremberg. The heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Bluecher followed soon after. Numerous destroyers, submarines, and other vessels were also built during this period, and the 1st U-boat Flotilla was created under Captain Karl Doenitz (see later discussion).
Cracks began to appear in Raeder’s relationship with the Nazi Party in 1938.11 As early as January, Hitler was clearly putting pressure on him, saying that Germany needed a bigger battle fleet and criticizing Raeder for not moving fast enough. The admiral caustically pointed out that his naval construction program was in competition with Hitler’s public works programs, such as the Munich subway system, the huge Volkswagen Works, the autobahns, the reconstruction programs in Berlin and Hamburg, and others. As a result, the shipyards lacked skilled laborers, welders, and raw materials. Hitler ignored the protest but brought up the matter again on May 27; when he demanded, among other things, that the Bismarck and Tirpitz be completed by early 1940, that shipyard capacity be increased, that an artillery U-boat be developed, and that the Type VII U-boat go into mass production. No doubt on Raeder’s instructions, the German Supreme Naval Staff (Seekriegsleitung, or SKL; also referred to as the German Admiralty) responded by asking that all nonmilitary construction projects be shut down to release skilled labor for the military. Hitler refused to do this, so the naval construction program struggled slowly forward—well behind Hitler’s schedule for it.
A major part of the problem was that Hermann Goering, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, was also head of the Four Year Economic Plan, which was in charge of resource allocation to industry and to the various branches of the armed forces. He and the puritanical admiral despised each other. Raeder hated Goering because he blocked all the admiral’s attempts to secure a Fleet Air Arm and because of Goering’s disgraceful part in the Blomberg-Fritsch affair. Goering, on the other hand, undermined Raeder’s standing with Hitler by questioning his political beliefs, by pointing out that he went to church suspiciously often, and by giving the Fuehrer false or misleading information about the navy. Unwilling or unable to curry favor, or to persuade Hitler to overrule Goering on matters of allocation, the admiral saw his program languish. He did not seem overly concerned about it, however. The Fuehrer had told him that he would not need the navy until 1944 at the earliest, and Raeder believed him and acted accordingly.
Raeder was also having trouble from another enemy at court: SS-Gruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, head of the notorious State Secret Police (Geheimes Staatspolizeiamt, or Gestapo) and the Security Service (the SD). As a young naval officer Heydrich had broken off a marriage engagement in such a “peculiarly tasteless manner” that the young woman subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown. The puritanical Raeder—always the unbending guardian of naval morality—had him hauled before a court of honor and dismissed from the service for “impropriety.” Heydrich retaliated in the late 1930s by trying to “get something” on Raeder. He never did (because there was nothing to get), but having the vengeful chief of the Gestapo as an implacable enemy would be enough to play on anybody’s nerves. Because of the backbiting political infighting, Raeder was considering resigning in 1938.