(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)
World War II basically pitted the Allies — China, the US, Britain and the Soviet Union — against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan, which also decided the post-war world order. However, in fact, a few years before WWII, relations between Germany and China were good, with German leader Adolf Hitler helping Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese invasion.
In June 1937, China’s Finance Minister Kung Hsiang-hsi (better known as H.H. Kung) attended the coronation of Britain’s King George VI, after which he visited Germany and met with German leader Adolf Hitler. Kung’s wife, Soong Ai-ling, was the elder sister of Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. Kung often made overseas visits as Chiang’s personal representative, especially when it came to secret diplomacy involving arms purchases.
On 13 June, Hitler received Kung’s group at the famous Kehlsteinhaus in Salzburg, where they spoke for about an hour. Many years later, the Chinese officials at the meeting recalled that Kung described to Hitler the damage caused by Japan’s invasion of China, and Hitler said China and Japan should work together against the threat of communism and the Soviet Union, and he would be willing to mediate in the China-Japan conflict. The atmosphere of the meeting was cordial.
On 14 June, Kung and his party returned to Berlin and met with Minister of War Werner von Blomberg, where both sides discussed military cooperation, in particular, the details of China exchanging industrial materials for German military equipment. That evening, the German defence ministry held a welcome dinner for the Chinese delegation, symbolising the peak of friendly relations between both sides.
However, less than a month after this visit, the Marco Polo Bridge incident occurred and Japan started its all-out invasion of China. Major changes occurred in the international situation, and China-Germany relations rapidly deteriorated.
Sowing the seeds of secret diplomacy
To explain the secret diplomacy between China and Germany before WWII, we have to talk about its historical background.
Among European colonial countries of modern times, Germany was a late entrant. In 1871, following a series of military victories directed by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II established the Second Reich — that was when Germany truly joined the ranks of modern sovereign states.
In 1897, Germany sent troops to China to occupy Qingdao in Shandong province, and forced China to sign a treaty recognising Germany’s special status in Shandong. During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the Boxers attacked Westerners in Beijing, and the German ambassador to China Clemens von Ketteler was killed.
Subsequently, Empress Cixi declared war on the various powers and ordered an attack on the Beijing Legation Quarter, and so the powers hit back by organising themselves into the Eight-Nation Alliance, with German general Alfred von Waldersee as commander. Germany became a significant force among the powers in China.
When WWI broke out in 1914, China and Japan joined Britain, France, Russia and the US in fighting against the German Reich, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire. The Japanese army attacked the German army in Shandong and captured Qingdao.
At the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war, the various powers recognised Japan taking over Germany’s special interests in Shandong, completely ignoring the sovereignty of China, a fellow victor of the war. This incident sparked the May 4th Movement, the nationalistic awakening of China’s intellectual youths.
After WWI, Germany also lost its privileged status in China, leading to a more equal relationship between China and Germany. In 1930, the Kuomintang (KMT) government led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek accomplished its military unification, and China entered a period of rapid development, with vast improvements in its economy and cultural education. In particular, the prosperous Greater Shanghai area became a new location for people from all over the world to make money.
The Chiang government sought to build a strong army to stand up against Japanese imperialism. While the Western powers sympathised with China’s plight, in terms of diplomacy, they had to give priority to Japan’s position as a powerful force and were unwilling to help China militarily. At this time, Germany was isolated by the West and was anxious to find international allies, and immediately extended assistance to China.
In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek recruited Colonel Max Bauer and other German military officers as consultants and instructors. At the time, Germany was in the turbulent period of the Weimar Republic, but China-Germany relations developed steadily.
In 1933, the Nazi Party became the largest party in the German Bundestag. Hitler became German Chancellor and pushed the policy of military expansion. He was encircled by the West, which also refused to help Chiang against Japan, and so there was room for strategic cooperation between China and Germany.
While Germany provided China with advanced weapons and equipment, and helped to train the Chinese army, China sent to Germany precious metals, ores and agricultural produce. Both sides engaged in barter trade to avoid the problem of insufficient foreign exchange.
In 1934, Chiang recruited former Chief of the German Troop Office Hans von Seeckt as a consultant to the KMT government, taking the lead in establishing a German military consultative team of nearly 100 people. From then on, senior Nazi officers helped Chiang Kai-shek to build a modern army and plan the military containment of the communists, as well as China’s long-term war resistance.
Help to fight the Japanese
From 1935 to 1938, China exchanged ores for German cannons, air defence cannons, mortars, various guns and tanks; also binoculars, helmets, air defence equipment and bridge facilities, as well as missile boats, torpedoes and submarines from the navy. 83% of the weapons and equipment imported by China came from Germany, while nearly 300,000 troops were trained, armed and equipped by Germany, with plans to build 30 German-equipped divisions.
At the end of 1936, after the Xi'an incident ended peacefully, the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cooperated for the second time against the Japanese invasion. Relations between China and the Soviet Union improved significantly.
In July 1937, Japan launched a full-on invasion of China, and there was a fundamental change in the international situation. While the Western powers sympathised with China, they all remained neutral. The only ones who actively supported China were the Soviet Union and the still-friendly Germany.
Besides the Soviet Union providing loans, the Red Army sent thousands of fighter planes, bombers and training aircraft, as well as thousands of air force personnel, who helped China’s war efforts as volunteers, and helped to train the Chinese air force. It was not until 1941 when the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact with Japan that it withdrew its military assistance personnel.
As for China-Germany relations, China’s German-equipped infantry divisions showed strong fighting capabilities and engaged in an intense battle with Japan’s elite forces in the Greater Shanghai area. German military consultants participated in the planning, and the Battle of Shanghai was also called the ”German War”. At first, the Japanese army boasted that it would force China to capitulate within three months, but it was fighting for three months in Greater Shanghai alone.
Germany’s tilt towards Japan
The Chinese army and people went through an enormous loss of life and property, but the casualties of the Japanese troops were also far higher than expected. Japan’s aim of a quick victory was a total failure.
Also, even as the German-equipped Chinese army divisions made huge contributions, China-Germany relations also rapidly deteriorated. Because China and the Soviet Union were military allies, Hitler decided to steer clear of China, and roped in the Soviet Union’s enemy, Japan.
In February 1938, Germany recognised the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, then stopped exporting arms to China and recalled the military consultant team. In July 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan established the Axis powers, and the following year China announced cutting off diplomatic relations with Germany.
The US was about four years later than the Soviet Union and Germany in helping China against the Japanese invasion, but it was a key factor in China’s final victory. Early in the Sino-Japanese war, the US carefully stayed neutral. Despite strong calls from the American public to support China, the US government chose to wait and see, only quietly supporting General Claire Lee Chennault in helping to train the Chinese air force.
In fact, in consideration of economic benefits and to avoid diplomatic opposition with Japan, the US continued to export crude oil to Japan, which was necessary for its war machinery. Only in 1940 when Japan showed its ambitions to attack Western colonies in Southeast Asia did the US actively help China’s war resistance, including halting oil exports to Japan and providing China with weapons, strategic supplies and loans, while helping China’s war efforts with volunteer pilots. US assistance to China’s war efforts was the ultimate and greatest force in China’s victory.
Individuals who were prepared to make sacrifices
Overall, the military cooperation and secret diplomacy between China and Germany before WWII was the product of the unique international situation. It did not last long, but had a profound impact.
And even amid ruthless international politics, there were some moving incidents. For example, in December 1937, during the Nanjing Massacre, John Rabe — a representative of Siemens in China and a senior Nazi member — worked with people from all over the world to establish the Nanjing Safety Zone, protecting over 200,000 Chinese from being killed by Japanese troops.
In 1938, when China-Germany relations deteriorated, Rabe's view of China was deemed to be damaging to Germany-Japan relations, and he was detained and interrogated by the Nazis. Later, Rabe's wartime diaries were published, detailing the massacre by the Japanese army, becoming an important historical record.
At the same time, Ho Feng-Shan — the Chinese consul-general in Vienna, Austria — issued many visas to Jewish refugees. In 1938, under persecution by the Nazis, many Jews rushed to leave, and applied for visas at consulates of various countries.
On 6 July 1938, at an international meeting for refugees held at Évian-les-Bains in France (the Evian Conference), 31 out of 32 countries including the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand refused to take in Jewish refugees. Ho acted according to his conscience and on his own accord issued thousands of visas to Jews who sought assistance at the Chinese consulate. Each visa saved a life, and was called the “visa of life”.
US Secretary of the Treasury Werner Michael Blumenthal was one of the Jews who received a visa from Ho and escaped to Shanghai. The 30,000 Jews who escaped to Shanghai outnumbered the total number of Jewish refugees taken in by Canada, Australia, India, South Africa, New Zealand and other British foreign territories.
In 2000, Ho was posthumously awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli organisation Yad Vashem, and a memorial to Ho was erected in Jerusalem, carved with the words “The Chinese who will never be forgotten”.
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