Born in Kuestrin in Brandenburg, the son of a senior civil servant he grew up in Frankfurt/Oder. He joined the Prussian navy in 1865 and attended Kiel Naval School, gaining his commission in 1869. At first he was part of a torpedo fleet but in 1871 he joined the torpedo department at the new German naval ministry and in 1877 he was made inspector-general of the torpedo fleet
He joined the Naval staff in 1892 and was made a Rear Admiral in 1895. In 1896-97 he commanded the Asian cruiser squadron and oversaw the gain of Kiautschou as a German port. In 1897 he was made state Secretary for the Navy. An energetic campaigner for a greatly enlarged fleet and supported by the Kaiser he championed the 'Fleet Acts' of 1898, 1900, 1908 and 1912 which by 1914 had given Germany the second largest naval force in the world (roughly 40% smaller than the Royal Navy). It included seven modern dreadnoughts, five battlecruisers, 25 cruisers and 20 pre-dreadnought battleships as well as over forty submarines. Although including fairly unrealistic targets the expansion program was sufficient to alarm the British, starting a costly naval arms race and pushing the British into closer ties with the French.
He had been made a Grand Admiral in 1911 and was appointed Commander of the Navy on the outbreak of war. Despite the building program he felt the war had come too soon for a successful surface challenge to the Royal Navy, the fleet act of 1900 had included a seventeen year timetable. Instead Tirpitz pushed for a great increase in submarine construction and unrestricted use of these new boats. Over the war 345 new U-boats were constructed and even at the Armistice over 200 were under construction. When restrictions were not lifted he resigned on March 15, 1916, he was replaced as Navy minister by Eduard von Capelle.
After the war he became head of the conservative Deutschnationalen Volkspartei (DNVP, Fatherland Party) and was elected to the Reichstag from 1924 until 1928.