[Photo story] The secret pre-World War II diplomacy between China and Germany

Before World War II, an unlikely alliance and friendship sprang up between China and Germany. As diplomatic ties warmed, Germany provided China with arms and equipment against the Japanese invasion. However, because China and the Soviet Union were military allies, Hitler drew closer to Japan, resulting in the subsequent deterioration of China-Germany relations, and the division of camps in WWII.
In June 1937, German leader Hitler received China’s Finance Minister H.H. Kung at the Kehlsteinhaus in the mountains, representing the peak of China-Germany military cooperation. Kung was the special personal representative of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.
In June 1937, German leader Hitler received China’s Finance Minister H.H. Kung at the Kehlsteinhaus in the mountains, representing the peak of China-Germany military cooperation. Kung was the special personal representative of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.

(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.

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In 1934, Hitler conducted public tours and speeches in Germany, with the public raising their arms in a Nazi salute showing absolute loyalty to Hitler. By this time, Germany was under Nazi rule.
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In June 1937, German leader Hitler received the delegation led by China’s Finance Minister H.H. Kung at the Kehlsteinhaus in the mountains.
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In June 1937, German leader Hitler received the Chinese delegation at the Kehlsteinhaus in the mountains.
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German leader Hitler during the visit of China’s Finance Minister H.H. Kung, June 1937. Kung spoke of the dangers of a Japanese invasion, while Hitler felt China and Japan should work together against the communists, and was willing to mediate conflicts between both sides.
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A military officer and member of the Waffen-SS guarding Hitler during his meeting with the Chinese delegation, June 1937.

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.

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A colour image from the French illustrated publication Le Petit Journal, 1900, showing the Boxers rushing into a Catholic church and destroying the altar, and killing the priest and congregation. The Boxer Rebellion prompted the Eight-Nation Alliance to attack Beijing.
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A colour image from the French illustrated publication Le Petit Parisien, 1900, showing a meeting of generals of the Eight-Nation Alliance, with German general Alfred von Waldersee in the middle, holding a map. Germany took the Boxer Rebellion as an opportunity to strengthen its hold on Jiaozhou Bay and extend its reach to Qinhuangdao.

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.

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German officers setting up camp in Qingdao, Shandong, in the mid-1900s. Shandong was within Germany’s sphere of influence.
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German naval officers riding Chinese rickshaws near Qingdao, in the mid-1900s.
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The German governor’s official building, Kiautschou Governor's Hall, in Qingdao, in the mid-1900s.
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The German governor’s residence in Qingdao, in the mid-1900s.
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An area with German-style villas in the mountain areas near Qingdao, Shandong, in the mid-1900s.

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.

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In 1934, at the tenth anniversary of the Central Military Academy, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek gave a rousing speech. During this period, as the conflicts between China and Japan grew, Chiang often lectured the officers and soldiers on Japan’s movements, to raise their combat readiness.
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Artillery, cavalry and infantry soldiers holding a joint military exercise, September 1935. Besides improving the troops’ equipment and training, the German consultants also suggested that defence capabilities should be based on industrial strength. Supported by German defence technology, military factories were set up in Taiyuan, Jinan, Kunming, Chongqing, Nanning and Guangdong, which were capable of producing Maxim guns and mortars.

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.

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In 1936, General Hans von Seeckt — head of the German advisory team in China — was buried in Berlin, with German leader Hitler in attendance. At the bottom left is a photo of von Seeckt.
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In 1936, Hans von Seeckt — head adviser of the Kuomintang government’s military committee — died of illness in Berlin, for which the government in Nanjing held a memorial. The photo shows the funeral hall, with two rifles displayed and the Chinese and German flags on either side. Many key people in the party, government and military in Nanjing came to pay their respects.

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.

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In June 1936, the head of the Kuomintang government Chiang Kai-shek addressed Chinese athletes the day before they left to participate in the Berlin Olympics. Behind Chiang are the Chinese and German flags.

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.

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In August 1937, the Battle of Shanghai broke out. The German-equipped central army division of the National Revolutionary Army stands ready for action at the front line, to duke it out against the elite forces of the Japanese army. The Chinese troops that were trained and equipped by Germany were much more battle ready.
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The public sends off the army’s 179th Brigade to the frontlines of the Battle of Taiyuan. In October 1937, after the Japanese military captured Beiping and Tianjin, it entered the Xinkou and Niangzi Pass, subsequently following the Tongpu and Zhengtai railway to Taiyuan, the provincial capital of Shanxi Province. Cheered on by the residents of Taiyuan, soldiers from the army’s 179th Brigade raise their hands in a chant in the spirit of resistance as their train whistles and departs for the battlefront.
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In September 1937, the Japanese attacked Northern China with a superior force of five divisions. The Chinese troops built an inner great wall, buttressing Xinkou and Taiyuan defences to exhaust the Japanese troops and fight a long-term war.
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The Kuomintang army’s mortar unit shifting ground in the Battle of Taiyuan, October 1937.
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October 1937, two Chinese soldiers firing at Japanese aircraft with machine guns at a periphery position in Taiyuan.
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Smoke and fire in Zhabei District showing the unparalleled intensity of the Battle of Shanghai.
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Japanese troops engaging in an intense street battle with Chinese troops in Zhabei, Shanghai, October 1937. The photo shows a Japanese soldier with a samurai sword drawn, ready to enter a home in search of anti-Japanese elements.
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A Japanese military aircraft flies above Pudong, Shanghai, October 1937. The smoking area below is Zhabei district, which was bombarded by the Japanese army. During the Battle of Shanghai, the Japanese army sent many military aircraft to carry out aggressive bombing of Shanghai city, while also bombarding cities and towns including Nanjing, Anqing and Wuhu. The Chinese air force took off from Nanjing and Hangzhou, with both sides engaging in fierce air battles.
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In May 1938, China and Japan each mobilised over a million troops in the Battle of Wuhan. The photo shows Chinese troops using a German Panzerspahwagen Sd.Kfz. 222 tank. German equipment closed the gap in military strength between China and Japan.

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.

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In 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan established the Axis powers. This is a publicity poster for the Axis powers released by the Japanese authorities, featuring German leader Hitler and Italian leader Mussolini; as the Japanese emperor could not be shown, he is represented by Mount Fuji and a samurai warrior. The establishment of the Axis powers represented world politics moving towards two major opposing camps, and the approaching Second World War.
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In 1939, the China-Soviet Friendship Association held a celebration for Soviet leader Stalin in Chongqing, hosted by association chairman Feng Yuxiang (second from left) and Soviet ambassador to China Aleksandr Panyushkin. As Germany and Japan were allies, China and the Soviet Union joined forces against Japan’s invasion, which became the main focus of the Far East theatre.

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.

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A publicity poster by US civic group United China Relief, 1943, drumming up support for China’s war efforts, and saying that China was in fact fighting for the US in its initial efforts.
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A publicity poster by US civic group United China Relief, 1943, drumming up support for China’s war efforts. This became the greatest help in China’s final 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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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. Later, his diaries were released, recording the Nanjing Massacre as witnessed by Rabe, becoming an important historical record of World War II.
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Ho Feng-Shan, the Chinese consul-general in Vienna, Austria. In 1938, under persecution by the Nazis, many Jews rushed to leave, and applied for visas at consulates of various countries, only to be rejected by many Western countries. Ho acted according to his conscience and ignored the objections of his superiors, and on his own accord issued thousands of visas to Jews allowing them to escape to Shanghai. These were known as the “visa of life”. In 2000, Ho was posthumously awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli organisation Yad Vashem, and called “The Chinese who will never be forgotten”.

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