Most people who stayed awake for at least half of their high school history class knows that the Axis Powers in World War II consisted of Germany, Italy and Japan. But few know that German tactics and weapons—not to mention some actual Germans—helped the Chinese Nationalists stall Imperial Japan’s conquest of China.
For about a decade, German soldiers advised Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek in his campaigns against Chinese Communists … and also against Germany’s future allies, the Japanese.
It’s one of history’s most unexpected—and frankly unknown—wartime partnerships. It all began in the aftermath of the Chinese revolution of 1911, as warlords carved up the country and battled each other for power.
European and American arms dealers, unable to find customers in the war-weary countries of the West in the years after World War I, found enthusiastic buyers in the Chinese. The warlords imported firearms and heavy weaponry and, in some cases, manufactured their own copies.
One of the most powerful, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin had his own private air force of almost 100 of the latest aircraft, including light bombers. He also maintained close ties with Japan, in particular courting investment from the Japanese South Manchuria Railroad Company.
Some warlords hired foreign military instructors, many of them World War I veterans. The advisers made their way to China in both official and unofficial capacities. The influx of foreign soldiers would soon include Germans.
Rise of the nationalists
The greatest threat to the warlords were not each other, but revolutionaries under the banner of the Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang. Led by Sun Yat-Sen, a republican and educated medical doctor, the Kuomintang sought to unify China and transform it into a modern state.
The Kuomintang, aligned with the Chinese Communist Party and backed by Soviet advisers under the command of Vasily Blyukher, launched the Northern Expedition to defeat the warlords.
Under the military leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist army scored victory after victory against the warlords. With the death of Sun Yat-Sen of liver failure, Chiang began to consolidate control of the movement. That put him at odds with the Communists, several of whom were themselves plotting to take control of the revolution.
When the army reached Shanghai in 1927, Chiang enlisted local crime syndicates, notably the powerful Green Gang, to crack down on labor unions and violently purge Communists from the ranks. He then expelled Blyukher and the other Soviet advisers, unceremoniously sending them back to Moscow.
The last major warlord was Marshal Zhang Zuolin. Failing to protect Japanese investments, Zhang had fallen out of favor with his backers in Tokyo.
On June 4, 1928, while traveling an SMR rail line, a bomb detonated underneath Zhang’s armored train, killing him. Most believe the Japanese Kwantung Army planted the explosive device.
Zhang was succeeded by his son Zhang Xueling, the Young Marshal. The Young Marshal, whom the Japanese expected to be a spineless puppet they could easily control, surprised everyone by quickly aligning himself with the Nationalists. The warlord era was fast ending.
But Chang realized he had a problem. Severing ties with the Soviets had left him without any significant foreign backer. There were still a few warlord holdouts—who often did have foreign backing—plus a growing Communist insurrection. Japan also loomed just across the China Seas.
On the advice of a German-educated friend, Chiang looked to Berlin to fill the void the Soviets had left. Germany was an attractive partner to Chiang. Berlin had lost all of its holdings in China after World War I and would be less likely to interfere in China’s politics than comparable Western powers.
And the forced downsizing of Germany’s once-mighty army also resulted in a wealth of highly experienced but unemployed German soldierswho’d be eager for work in China.
Here come the Germans!
Chiang sent an invitation to Gen. Erich Ludendorff to bring military and civil experts to China. Ludendorff declined the invitation, fearing his high profile would attract unwanted attention. Still, he saw potential in the offer, and recommended retired Col. Max Bauer—a logistics specialist with war experience—to lead a proposed German Advisory Group.
After a quick tour of China, Bauer returned to Berlin and handpicked a team of 25 advisers. Immediately upon arriving in November 1928, the advisers set to work training young Chinese officers.
Despite most of the advisers being retired—and technically civilians—in the employ of the Chinese government, the activities of German military men abroad was a touchy subject due to post-war limitations on what Germany could legally do.
As a result, Bauer gave strict orders to the group to avoid diplomats and journalists. Despite this, American military observers in 1929 reported seeing Chinese troops undergoing close-order drill under German supervision.
Bauer worked to standardize the acquisition of equipment and weapons, urging Chiang to cut out expensive middlemen and buy directly from manufacturers.
Unsurprisingly, many of these manufacturers were German, resulting in increased business for German companies. But the retail boom was cut short by Bauer’s unexpected death in May 1929.
Bauer was succeeded by Col. Hermann Kriebel, a Nazi fanatic. He had been a member of the paramilitary Freikorps and had a long record of putschist activity with Hitler in Bavaria. One rumor has it that as a member of the German 1919 Armistice delegation, his parting words were, “See you again in 20 years.”
Kriebel was arrogant, contemptuous of the Chinese and clashed with Bauer’s selected officers. His attitude almost doomed the mission, and Chiang demanded he be replaced.
Kriebel was succeeded by Gen. Georg Wetzell. He helped plan anti-Communist operations and advised Gen. Ling during the 1932 Shanghai War against the Japanese. He also convinced Chiang to set up an artillery school. Chinese artillery would play a huge role years later against Japanese invaders.
Gen. Hans von Seeckt, an influential German army staff officer and Wetzell’s successor, built Chinese capacity further. Seeckt, vividly recalling the bloody cost of static trench warfare, believed in a war of movement.
He used his connections with German industrialists to bring in a huge influx of modern German equipment, ranging from helmets to artillery. One journalist suggested that as much as 60 percent of Chinese war material at this time was imported from Germany.
The last and arguably best chief adviser was Gen. Alexander von Falkenhausen. He had been military attaché in Tokyo from 1910 to 1914 and traveled to China to observe the revolution in 1911. During World War I, he served in France, East Prussia and Turkey and as a commander was credited with two victories over the British in East Jordan in 1918.
As a world traveler and professional soldier who’d worked in a variety of cultures, Falkenhausen was immune to the extremism that drove many of his predecessors. He also had little love for the Nazis, having lost his brother to a violent internal struggle in the party that solidified Hitler’s control.
As a result, he was better able to develop close personal and professional ties with the Chinese.
Chinese in Germany
With Germans increasingly entrenched in China, some of their Chinese counterparts found themselves in Germany. Chinese businessmen, government officials and students hoped to learn from Germany’s rapid rebound from an economically crippled failed state into a world power. German industry was of particular interest.
The Nazis were split on their opinion of the Chinese. Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering in particular were in bitter disagreement. Goebbels was decidedly pro-China and favored continuing German business interests—he also viewed Chiang as a burgeoning fascist.
Goering, however, saw the Japanese as the stronger and most worthy power in Asia—especially considering their disdain for the Soviets—and pushed for the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan.
One of the most notable Chinese in Germany at the time was Chiang Kai-Shek’s adopted son Chiang Wei-Kuo. He went to study military tactics with the German army, training in military schools and taking part in military operations.
He even commanded troops during the annexation of the Austria.
As Falkenhausen took over the group in 1936, tensions between Japan and China were escalating. Around the same time, The Young Marshal Zhang Xueling, tasked by Chiang to eradicate the communists, was fed up with battling fellow Chinese while the Japanese only grew stronger.
Zhang conspired with Communist leader Zhou Enlai and proceeded to kidnap Chiang and forc him into a truce with the Communists. Upon his release, he promptly had Zhang imprisoned. Falkenhausen set to work advising Chiang on how best to resist Japanese aggression. One of the great ironies of this episode is that Falkenhausen and Chiang’s interactions were always in Japanese, their only common language.
The July 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident marked the beginning of Japan’s full-scale invasion of China. The poorly-trained Chinese troops in the north were quickly routed. When the fighting broke out in Shanghai, Tokyo expected a quick victory.
However, among the Chinese troops dispatched to Shanghai was the German trained — and equipped — 88th Division. Against all expectations, the division’s infantry inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese in vicious urban combat. The Japanese responded by shelling and bombing the Chinese troops—and by sending in tanks.