BETWEEN 1927 AND 1938 a hundred or so German officers, active and retired, served as advisers to the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. Their involvement went well beyond the usual spheres of tactics, doctrine, and training. The Germans not only worked at modernizing China’s armed forces, they were instrumental in the country’s industrialization and the government’s integration into a world economy. Above all, the Germans contributed decisively to creating the core of the Nationalist army—the divisions that checked the Japanese at Shanghai in 1932, bloodied them in that same city in 1937, and fought themselves to extinction in the bitter war that by 1940 had reduced Japanese visions of conquest to the reality of an attritional stalemate that Japan might not lose but could not win.
The German advisers came to China for a spectrum of reasons, personal and professional. More often than might be expected, an interest in Chinese culture motivated bored men whose careers in the German military had been unceremoniously terminated in 1919. The opportunity to shape a modern army from the ground up was reinforced by a desire to institutionalize the lessons of the Great War—an opportunity severely restricted at home by the Versailles Treaty, which also forbade Germany from sponsoring military missions. Their advisers then officially went to China as private contractors and at the request of the Chinese, though they were approved by the Weimar government.
Chiang Kai-shek was the force behind the German presence in China. His condign dismissal of his Soviet advisers in 1926 was not entirely a result of his break with the Chinese Communist Party. Soviet methods and doctrines were increasingly too revolutionary in the Chinese military—and political—context. Since his days commanding Whampoa Military Academy, Chiang had sought to create a core army that would be both politically loyal and militarily effective. The emerging Nationalist army emphasized German military ideals of mobility, spirit, and discipline, underpinned by a willingness to take heavy casualties. Chiang also saw the German example and the Prussian tradition as alternative matrices for a revolution that would modernize China’s economy and society while sustaining Chinese culture and identity. The German Second Reich that arose after reunification in 1871 had combined exponential economic growth with a central government strong enough to control the federal states. Even its defeat in the Great War reflected a heroic stand against long odds. Chiang believed that the German militarism so harshly criticized in the West would be a positive integrating force in a China where a sense of a commonweal had atrophied to near nonexistence.
German-Chinese cooperation also benefited both nations on another level: China possessed large, and largely undeveloped, supplies of raw materials. A resource-straitened Germany had heavy-industrial products, weapons in particular, that China badly needed. A trade relationship had every chance to develop into a financial-developmental connection. And Germany’s relative pariah status in the international community gave China diplomatic leverage unobtainable with any other first-world power.
THE FIRST GERMAN ADVISER on the ground in China proved an ideal choice. Max Bauer was a general staff officer with wartime experience in organizing munitions production and a record as a postwar right-wing putschist. He had know-how, connections, and unusual skill as an intriguer. Hired by Chiang in 1927, Bauer urged that China’s military and industry be modernized simultaneously, with weapons imported only until China could build its own factories. This fit Chiang’s thinking closely, and Bauer’s influence was further reinforced by his emphasis on modernizing in a Chinese context—working to create a national identity that would transcend regional and familial ties. Bauer’s death from smallpox in 1929 left most of his work in a theoretical stage. (Some historians speculate that he may have been deliberately infected by opponents who thought he was contributing too much to the centralization of China, which they rejected.) At the time of his death, the deputy he had selected, retired lieutenant colonel Hermann Kriebel, was still en route to China, but Chiang thought enough of Bauer’s judgment that he appointed Kriebel as Bauer’s successor.
Kriebel arrived as Chiang was refocusing his attention on an immediate problem: the renewed outbreak of civil war. Kriebel lacked Bauer’s broad gauge and situational awareness, and he was given no time to develop either quality. His tactical thinking was focused sometime around 1915, and he had even less engagement with Bauer’s (and Chiang’s) concept of commercial and industrial development. His indifference even to small arms replacement and ammunition resupply was a throwback to the 19th century. Kriebel lasted only a year in China, and in May 1930 Chiang replaced him with Georg Wetzell, who had distinguished himself as a staff officer during the war.
Retired as lieutenant general in 1927, Wetzell was recommended by his wartime boss, General Erich Ludendorff. Wetzell arrived in country as the civil war reached its climax—and German influence in China sank to its nadir. In its first engagement, the showpiece of the German mission, an improvised lehrdivision (demonstration division), was committed to battle against superior numbers and inadequately supported. Wetzell inherited the damage of its failure and set about to address Nationalist military backwardness—with real success. One of his few connections between details and policy was his insistence that the still pervasive Japanese military influence at unit level be reduced or removed. Wetzell arranged German-delivered lectures for officer cadets; expanded opportunities for Nationalist officers to attend schools in Germany; and worked to update the artillery school’s retrograde approaches to gunnery; and he moved toward standardizing the army’s hodgepodge of weapons—German models preferred.
Of even more long-range significance, Wetzell expanded the German-focused training program for the infantry in the face of Chiang’s constant and destabilizing need for troops. Two of the divisions that came under close German supervision at this time formed the core of the 1932 Shanghai confrontation, when Chiang’s troops shocked the Japanese by holding on for over a month. The unexpected success was widely and legitimately credited to German influence: a defensive system whose labyrinthine trenches, machine gun nests, and barbed wire evoked the Western Front and the tactics of defense in depth—fall back under pressure, then counterattack locally as opportunity develops.
The stand at Shanghai generated a rush of patriotic enthusiasm that did much to consolidate Chiang’s still shaky leadership position. It also established Wetzell’s status as an instructor, a tactician, and to a degree a planner. Yet Chiang, committed to a strategy “seventy per cent political, thirty per cent military,” grew increasingly dissatisfied with Wetzell’s narrow operational focus. For Chiang, the success at Shanghai only highlighted chronic shortages in equipment and a near-random logistics system that made replication on a larger scale, such as an all-out war with Japan, impossible. Shanghai had been an unavoidable eye-opener to current operational shortcomings and to future possibilities. Still, Wetzell remained oblivious to the importance of industrial development in producing the kind of army Chiang sought. Wetzell’s disinterest in defense economics also diminished his standing with German business, with the German military (the Reichswehr), and with the German government.
In the spring of 1933, with Chiang obviously looking for a new face, Adolf Hitler sent him Hans von Seeckt, whom Wetzell had also suggested. He had hoped to rebuild his position with Chiang by presenting Seeckt as a temporary honored guest, mentor, and troubleshooter. Chiang had other ideas. As early as 1923 he had considered inviting Seeckt to China. Now he sought advice on army reform, where Seeckt had made his reputation. Seeckt’s response reflected the “less is more” concept he had applied from necessity and principle in creating the Reichswehr. He recommended large-scale demobilization and replacement of masses of poorly trained and equipped troops with a small, highly trained elite based upon the existing demonstration brigade, put under close German supervision. Train it with modern weapons and in modern methods, he advised, and make it the matrix for small, high-tech field forces built around trucks, tanks, and aircraft.
Essentially, Seeckt’s proposals represented an extension of Wetzell’s concepts rather than their revision. But Seeckt’s name and reputation carried massive weight in military circles among the Nationalists. Officers who disliked or distrusted the pedestrian and unsophisticated Wetzell considered Seeckt a light bringer. Seeckt’s suggestions would become the basis for Nationalist military development until the Chinese were submerged by the war with Japan.
Seeckt left China in July 1933 with no plans to return, as his already fragile health had suffered badly from the humid climate. But after his departure, relations between Chiang and Wetzell eroded to such a point that Chiang threatened to replace the German mission with a French one. With the enthusiastic urging of the German War Ministry, Seeckt returned to China in April 1934 and began regularizing the relationship between Chiang and the advisory team. He established his own role as sole contact with Chiang and responsible to him for the functioning of the advisory team, now to comprise a permanent staff of both Germans and Chinese; a chief responsible for its functioning would act as Seeckt’s second in command. This systematic reorganization was at right angles both to Chiang’s general preference for the flexibility of informality and to the patterns of intrigue endemic to any Chinese bureaucracy. But it brought order and structure to the advising function at a critical point in China’s history.
Seeckt paid increasing attention to greater Sino-German commercial connections as a preliminary to underwriting the industrial base that would support Nationalist China’s new military and stabilize its politics. Trade, not tactics, was the focus of the close relationship between Seeckt and Chiang—a relationship nurtured by Seeckt’s broad interests in Chinese history and culture and by the deep and favorable impression he had made on Madame Chiang. In the new Reich, the China lobby remained strong. Hitler’s rearmament projects demanded raw materials—preferably from remote, difficult-to-check sources, such as China. In the summer of 1934 Seeckt brokered a treaty with Chiang confirming the exchange of raw materials for industrial products, particularly matériel. One of the first “equal treaties” that recognized China as a full negotiating partner, this stands as Seeckt’s greatest achievement during his time in China. It gave him face and influence unrivaled by any foreigner in the Nationalist orbit. When Chiang met with senior officers, Seeckt sat by his side. When Seeckt traveled for health reasons, he enjoyed the use of Chiang’s private railway car and an honor guard at every station. Then Seeckt’s health collapsed entirely. He left China in March 1935. Both he and Chiang expected he would return, but he died in December 1936. In China, memorial services celebrated his achievements.
Seeckt’s successor, Alexander von Falkenhausen, came from the top drawer. He had served in China during the Boxer Rebellion and as a military attaché in Japan and had developed a serious interest in both countries’ cultures. During World War I he planned the 1918 defense of Jordan that bloodied Britain’s nose, and he retired from the Reichswehr in 1930 as a major general. Initially, he had accepted the familiar rationalization of working with the Nazis for the sake of the nation, but as the Third Reich consolidated its power, Falkenhausen began considering an overseas mission. In May 1934 Falkenhausen departed for China. The prudence of his decision to relocate was confirmed when his younger brother, a member of the paramilitary SA, was murdered a month later in Hitler’s “blood purge.”
As was to be expected from a man with general staff training, Falkenhausen took pains to inform himself of China’s politics, history, and geography. More than any of his predecessors, Falkenhausen could cope with the courtlike dynamics of high-level Nationalist politics. He impressed Chiang, the senior officers and officials with whom he interacted, and not least Madame Chiang.
Falkenhausen’s arrival was well timed. The campaign against the Communists was ending; relations with Japan were less antagonistic; conflicts within the Nationalist movement were stabilizing. In December 1934 Chiang introduced an army reorganization plan based heavily on Seeckt’s recommendations. It called for organizing 60 “new divisions” that would have German advisers and be trained in German methods and equipped with German-style weapons. They would be China’s frontline force; by 1937, 20 of them were combat ready or close to it. In August an agreement enabled China to order military supplies from Germany and pay for them with raw materials, while a loan of 100 million reichsmarks sweetened the deal. Small arms, light artillery, and ammunition provided the bulk of deliveries, and the new divisions enjoyed scales of equipment—some of it transferred from the Wehrmacht—unprecedented in the experience of modern China.
CHINA’S OVERALL DEFENSE CAPACITIES also reflected increased German influence: Ground was broken and foundations laid for everything from steelworks and coal mines to textile mills and electronics factories. Long-neglected arsenals were refurbished and retooled to produce modern small arms and artillery. A network of field fortifications, nicknamed China’s Hindenburg Line, was constructed between Shanghai and Nanjing. Plans were prepared for the military use of railroads and communications systems. Much of the program was embryonic, but in terms of its emphasis on detailed planning, step-by-step progress, and technical competence, the bureaucratic configuration was a model for Chiang’s long-projected reconfiguration of China’s administration. And the imports and the factories gave China a field army that at least stood a chance against Japanese invaders when war broke out in 1937.
As Sino-Japanese relations turned again for the worse and Germany wavered about which Far East power to support, Falkenhausen’s primary concern became how best to bolster China’s chances to withstand the invasion. In August 1935, with Japanese pressure in north China increasing, Falkenhausen advised Chiang that only firmness would deter Japan. He warned against proposals to withdraw from the north and abandon the coast, which would mean sacrificing the developing industrial structure and the vital capacity to import arms. Instead Falkenhausen recommended using the new divisions as the core of a flexible defense based on interior lines and featuring swift, sharp counterattacks complemented by guerrilla actions. In July 1937 he informed the German embassy that the Chinese infantry was good and Chinese morale high; the army could be expected to put up a hard fight.
Falkenhausen’s ideas strongly resemble the strategic principles Seeckt sought to implement in Germany during the 1920s. The applicability of Falkenhausen’s ideas to China’s strategic situation sufficiently impressed Chiang that they formed the basis of the defense plans drawn up during 1936 and 1937. They provided for all-out resistance to inspire a war of attrition that Japan could not hope to win in the long run. The Great Wall should be the first line in the north, Japanese coastal landings should be resisted to the limit, and above all the Japanese forces in Shanghai should be destroyed.
Falkenhausen’s principles and Chiang’s implementations of them met their acid test in August 1937. The attack was spearheaded by the two best divisions in the Nationalist army—the 87th and 88th. They sported German helmets, rifles, and “potato masher” grenades. They were imbued with German tactical doctrines based on the storm troop methods of World War I. And like their predecessors, they scored initial successes but at high losses of quality personnel. The Japanese held and reinforced. Chiang committed more and more of his new divisions to a head-to-head attritional fight for Shanghai that earned the description “Verdun of the East.”
THE GERMAN ADVISERS, some 70 of them at that time, made a major contribution. They were sent where they were needed and went where they were sent, which was often the front line; Falkenhausen himself lived for days on hard-boiled eggs and cognac at the front. A Japanese nickname for the battle for Shanghai was “the German war,” but in fact it became more and more a Chinese war. In the process the Nationalist army reverted to form, accepting levels of casualties that in particular exsanguinated the “new divisions.” Barely trained replacements, funneled in from everywhere, had no hope of implementing sophisticated foreign tactics. That only encouraged a growing pattern among Chinese commanders of reverting to their tactical roots, and as an example, ignoring German recommendations for surprise attacks and prompt counterattacks as opposed to holding in place to the last man.
Lower-ranking resistance to German advice reflected Chiang’s own determination—increasingly irrational by German standards and eerily prefiguring Hitler—to hold Shanghai rather than cut losses, seek better positions, and regroup for a better time. Falkenhausen was sharply and openly critical of synergistic Nationalist shortcomings in tactics, logistics, and command. And as the core of the modern army it sought to create died in Shanghai, the German military mission in China further eroded. As late as November 1940 Germany made attempts to reconcile the Asian combatants, but Japan increasingly seemed the better—and more congenial—bet. In early 1938 the Reich had recognized the northeastern state of Manchukuo and prohibited shipment of war matériel to China. In May the German mission was recalled and formal military contact with China came to an end. Yet some of its legacy remained. German-style helmets and “broom handle” Mauser pistols were familiar Chinese equipment throughout the war, and traces of Seeckt’s and Falkenhausen’s strategic advice was evident in Chiang’s war planning before and after Pearl Harbor.
The German military mission to China became a footnote in history, but what might have happened had the Third Reich underwritten the militarist, authoritarian elements of the Nationalist movement? What if Hitler had cultivated the ideological and institutional similarities between Chiang’s visions and the fascisms of 1930s Europe? A Japan too enmeshed in China to implement a Pacific thrust, a Chinese Communist Party crushed by a Nationalist army built on the German model—the possibilities for counterfactual and alternative history are engaging and as yet unexplored.
Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College. His recent books include Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk (2013)and Hitler’s Panzers (2009).