Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.
When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”
The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”
Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.
Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.
It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.
Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.
The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.
Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.
Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”