Category Archives: nationalism

Foreign Safety Zone, Nanjing, 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2591-2628:

The safety zone, the brainchild of Rabe and a few other foreigners who had stayed behind in Nanjing, started to take form in the first week of December, when it was officially publicized and four committees were set up to take care of food, housing, finance and sanitation. Once the plans for the zone were detailed in the local press, scared Chinese civilians started moving in by the hundreds, convinced that it was only a matter of time until the Japanese took over. A small newspaper’s repeated claim that it was the “duty” of all patriotic Chinese to stay outside the zone and face the Japanese bombs was largely ignored.

The zone was beset with problems from the start, both practical and bureaucratic. Thousands of bags of rice and flour meant for the zone’s future residents were left unguarded and quickly disappeared. Many assumed that they had been stolen by the military. Potentially much more serious problems arose when Chinese military units started digging trenches and setting up field telephones inside the safety zone, which automatically put it at risk of Japanese attack. Chinese officers promised that they would leave, but the situation dragged out, causing impatience among the organizers of the zone. Until the last Chinese soldier had left, they could not put up flags around it, designating it as a truly demilitarized area.

The Japanese refused to officially acknowledge the safety zone, but vowed to respect it. A lukewarm attitude on their part could hardly be considered surprising, but intriguingly some Chinese officers also exhibited direct hostility against the zone. “Every inch of soil that the Japanese conquer should be fertilized with our blood,” an angry officer told Rabe. “Nanjing must be defended to the last man. If you had not established your Safety Zone, people now fleeing into the Zone could have helped our soldiers.” They wanted to leave nothing of use to the Japanese. This included complete destruction of the area inside the safety zone as well. Some nationalistic Chinese officers were also opposed, on principle, as they saw an essentially foreign-administered region in the middle of their capital as an intolerable violation of Chinese sovereignty.

The zone was not the only effort to help alleviate the pain and suffering caused by war. After the outbreak of the battle over Shanghai, the Chinese Red Cross had stepped in where military medicine had failed and set up a number of first-aid teams and emergency hospitals, while also ensuring that wounded soldiers were put up in existing medical facilities. In October, it established a 3,000-bed hospital on the campus of the National Central University, with a staff of 300 doctors and nurses and 400 orderlies. By the end of October, the hospital had 1,200 patients, and carried out more than 50 operations a day, mostly amputations.

However, as the Japanese approached Nanjing, doctors and nurses were transported west up the Yangtze. The entire Red Cross hospital was evacuated, and at the American Mission Hospital, an initial staff of nearly 200 doctors, nurses and trained workers had been reduced to just 11 by the onset of winter. Some were ordered out of Nanjing, while others left on their own initiative, without warning. Wilson, the Harvard-trained surgeon, described in a letter how he had carried out a complicated operation on a bombing victim with the help of an experienced Chinese nurse who doubled as an x-ray technician. “Incidentally that nurse left this afternoon,” he added, “and now we have no one in the operating room.”

With medical facilities close to collapse, a group of foreigners took the initiative to try to improve conditions, and there were small victories. A committee headed by Rev. John Magee, an American-born Episcopal missionary, secured a sizable amount from Chiang Kai-shek and set up a temporary dressing station in the school buildings of the American Church Mission. Overall, it was slow, unrewarding work in a field that many Chinese officials considered redundant. In an attempt to help the injured soldiers who were still piling up on the platforms, a group of foreign volunteers asked the Chinese authorities for ambulances. They were told that ambulances were indeed available, but there was no gasoline and no money to buy it.

Also very active in Shanghai, Nanjing, and elsewhere in East Asia at the time was the Red Swastika Society (世界红卍字会, shìjiè hóngwànzìhuì), a Buddhist/Daoist equivalent of the Red Cross or Red Crescent.

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Nanjing Capital Boomtown, 1930s

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 304-328:

It had been the decision of the Chinese Nationalists, ten years earlier, to move the capital from Beijing to Nanjing. Governing the vast country would be easier that way, or so the policy makers hoped. Nanjing was centrally located, with roughly equal distances to the north and south borders, and it was well served by three railroads and a network of highways. It was in close proximity to the economically vibrant eastern seaboard—China’s link to the outside world—with only 200 miles between it and the nation’s primary commercial center, Shanghai. The trip could be done within a day by car, train or, more often, by boat down the mighty Yangtze.

To be sure, picking Nanjing as the new capital was more than a matter of practical convenience. The founder of the republic, the late Sun Yatsen, had argued that it was essential to move the seat of government away from Beijing, because “the light of the 20th century” would never be able to penetrate the Forbidden City where generations of Qing Dynasty rulers had contented themselves with being caretakers of a stagnant society, seemingly unable to cope with the requirements of the modern world.

It had been a society still stuck in medieval ways, turning unfortunate boys destined for court duty into eunuchs and binding the feet of its upper-class girls, while allowing the vast majority of its people to live in abject poverty and executing its criminals in spectacularly cruel fashions, using methods such as the ancient technique of death by a thousand cuts. The Nationalist revolutionaries who had overthrown the last emperor a quarter century earlier had wanted to cut the links to this ugly past and begin all over again in Nanjing.

Nanjing, the largest city in Jiangsu province, had spent the past decade in a frenzy of construction in a bid to catapult itself into the modern age, and by 1937 it was beginning to look like a genuine capital. Landmarks that would have attracted attention in any city in the world emerged in rapid succession. The Foreign Ministry, completed in 1934 with the help of New York architect Henry K. Murphy, was more modernistic than Washington’s State Department, wrote American journalist Julius Eigner, who visited the city on behalf of National Geographic.

The Ministry of Communications, erected a year later from drawings prepared by a Russian architect, was Nanjing’s most impressive construction, combining a roof suggestive of imperial palaces with an unmistakably western design. The Ministry of Railways, “perhaps the best laid out and the most attractive of all of the government quarters erected so far,” according to Eigner, was frequently used for high-level government meetings. Commercial interests had followed in the government agencies’ footsteps. By 1937, most Chinese banks had set up local branches in the city, and over the course of a decade real estate prices in the business district had grown by 700 percent.

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Qualities of Japanese Soldiers in China, 1930s

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1427-1458:

Most Japanese soldiers lived up to the high expectations placed on their shoulders at home and abroad. Physically, they tended to be short by western standards, but they were strong and capable of enduring immense hardship. This was as a result of rigorous training combined with draconian discipline, underpinned by the threat and liberal use of corporal punishment. The training was so efficient that a Japanese soldier entering the reserve never ceased to be a soldier again. In the early months of the war, American correspondent John Goette met a Japanese private in his late 30s who had just been called up from his civilian occupation as a dentist. “Hundreds of thousands like him had made a swift change from civilian life to the handling of a rifle on foreign soil,” he wrote. “Twenty years after his conscript training, this dentist was again a soldier.”

An added element in the training of Japanese soldiers was indoctrination, which came in the form of repetition of the virtues—self-sacrifice, obedience and loyalty to the emperor—which the soldiers had learned since childhood. The result was mechanic obedience on the battlefield. “Even though his officers appear to have an ardor which might be called fanaticism,” a U.S. military handbook remarked later in the war, “the private soldier is characterized more by blind and unquestioning subservience to authority.” The downside was that soldiers and junior officers were not encouraged to think independently or take the initiative themselves. They expected to be issued detailed orders and would follow them slavishly. When the situation changed in ways that had not been foreseen by their commanders—which was the norm rather than the exception in battle—they were often left perplexed and unable to act.

It could be argued that the Japanese military had few other options than to train its soldiers in this way, since to a large extent it drew its recruits from agricultural areas where there was limited access to education. It was said that for every 100 men in a Japanese unit, 80 were farm boys, ten were clerks, five factory workers, and five students. Nevertheless, reading was a favorite pastime among Japanese soldiers. Military trains were littered with books and magazines, mostly simple pulp fiction. When the trains stopped at stations, even the locomotive’s engineer could be observed reading behind the throttle. Some of them were prolific writers, too. A large number of Japanese in the Shanghai area had brought diaries and wrote down their impressions with great perception and eloquence. Some officers even composed poems in the notoriously difficult classical style.

Many Japanese soldiers grew large beards while in China, but in a twist that was not easy to understand for foreigners, they could sometimes mix a fierce martial exterior with an almost feminine inner appreciation of natural beauty. Trainloads of Japanese soldiers would flock to the windows to admire a particularly striking sunset. It was not unusual to see a Japanese soldier holding his rifle and bayonet in one hand, and a single white daisy in the other. “Missionaries have found,” wrote U.S. correspondent Haldore Hanson, “that when bloodstained Japanese soldiers break into their compounds during a ‘mopping up’ campaign, the easiest way to pacify them is to present each man with a flower.”

Many Japanese soldiers also carried cameras into battle, and as was the case with the Germans on the Eastern Front, their snapshots came to constitute a comprehensive photographic record of their own war crimes. Journalist John Powell remembered his revulsion when he saw a photo of two Japanese soldiers standing next to the body of a Chinese woman they had just raped. He had obtained the image from a Korean photo shop in Shanghai where it had been handed in to be developed. “The soldiers apparently wanted the prints to send to their friends at home in Japan,” he wrote. “Japanese soldiers seemingly had no feelings whatsoever that their inhuman actions transgressed the tenets of modern warfare or common everyday morals.”

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Reputation of the Chinese Army at Shanghai, 1937

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 743-755, 2386-2403:

Chinese officers died in large numbers from day one. One regiment lost seven company commanders in the same short attack. There were several explanations for the high incidence of death among the senior ranks. One was an ethos among some officers to lead from the front in an attempt to instill courage into their men. However, even leading from the rear could be highly risky in urban combat, where the opposing sides were often just yards removed from each other and where the maze-like surroundings provided by multi-story buildings and narrow alleys could lead to a highly fluid situation, so that the enemy was just as likely to be behind as in front. In addition, soldiers on both sides deliberately targeted enemy officers, perhaps more so than in other conflicts, because stiff leadership hierarchies placed a premium on being able to decapitate the opposing unit.

First and foremost, however, the massive fatality rates among officers and, to an even larger extent, the rank and file were the result of Chinese forces employing frontal attacks against a well-armed entrenched enemy. The men who, as a result, were dying by the hundreds were China’s elite soldiers, the product of years of effort to build up a modern military. They formed the nation’s best hope of being able to resist Japan in a protracted war. Nevertheless, on the very first day of battle, they were being squandered at an alarming, unsustainable rate. After just a few hours of offensive operations with very little gain to show for them, Chiang Kai-shek decided to cut his losses. “Do not carry out attacks this evening,” he commanded Zhang Zhizhong in a telegram. “Await further orders.”

The Chinese Army’s performance during the initial stage of the fighting in Shanghai changed the world’s perception of the nation’s military capabilities. China, which had lost every war for the past century, invariably to nations much smaller than itself, had suddenly taken a stand. “There is most emphatically no resemblance whatever discernable between the Chinese army of yesterday and the confident, well-disciplined men whom I saw,” wrote Hubert Hessell Tiltman, after his visit to the Chinese frontline. “They are facing incredible hardships with a courage which deserves the most flattering tribute that a pen can write.”

At Shanghai, the Chinese Army had seen more bitter fighting than anyone could have anticipated, and it had lost manpower that had taken years to build up. However, it had won prestige and respect, even among its Japanese adversaries. “The era of timid and despicable Chinese is gone,” a Japanese soldier told his compatriots back home. “Some of them are quite courageous.” Even the withdrawal on September 12 was greeted with sympathy and admiration in capitals around the world. The feeling was that the Chinese Army had distinguished itself with its “magnificent . . . resistance against the overwhelming weight of Japanese metal,” Reuters reported from London.

The Chinese Army was a riddle to many of the foreigners who saw it in action. Its soldiers often did not live up at all to western ideas about what hardened veterans ought to be like. “They looked as though a high wind would blow them away,” wrote a foreign correspondent after seeing members of the elite 88th Division from up close. “A few carried oiled-paper umbrellas. One actually carried a canary in a cage. Many walked hand in hand. It seemed preposterous that these thin, tattered boys . . . were heroes of the Chinese Republic!” Nevertheless, these boys with their paper umbrellas were able to carry out amazing feats in battle.

Perhaps it was their stoicism and ability to endure hardship that made the difference.

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German Military Advisors in China, 1930s

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1225-1291:

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.”

I was quite surprised to see photographs in this book of Chinese soldiers wearing German steel helmets and belts with stick grenades. Other Chinese units wore the British-style helmet called Salatschüssel (‘salad bowl’) by the Germans.

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China’s Hopes for U.S. or Soviet Intervention, 1937

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2002-2015:

At a deep cognitive level, there was a reason why Chiang Kai-shek and others around him wanted to believe that not just Soviet aid, but also direct Soviet participation in the hostilities was imminent. This was how they expected a war with Japan to pan out. The Chinese General Staff’s War Plan A, drafted in 1937, was based on the premise that a conflict with Japan would soon set off a larger conflict between Japan and either the Soviet Union or the United States. Therefore, the key aim for China was to hold out against the superior Japanese until it could be relieved by the arrival of a much more powerful ally, whether Russian or American. This plan was not as naive as it might seem, but was based on the calculation that neither Moscow nor Washington would want to see Japanese power grow too strong on the Asian mainland.

Some of Chiang’s commanders believed that it was partly in order to hasten outside intervention that the Chinese leader decided to make Shanghai a battlefield. It was true that Shanghai offered tactical advantages that the north Chinese plain did not, an argument that had been decisive in getting Chiang’s own generals to accept opening a new front there. However, these advantages would seem to be a small reward considering the risk involved in luring the enemy to occupy China’s most prosperous region. Much more crucially perhaps, Shanghai was an international city and a key asset for the world’s most powerful economies, who would not allow it to become Japanese territory, or so he believed. According to Li Zongren, one of China’s top generals, Chiang expanded the war to Shanghai because the importance of the city might lead to “mediation on the part of the European powers and the United States or even to their armed intervention.”

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Japanese Naval Academy Brutality, 1918

From Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara (Naval Institute Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 321-346:

Eta Jima is a small island facing the spacious harbor of the naval port of Kure, near Hiroshima, in the Inland Sea. Our course of studies at the Academy lasted four years. Except for summer vacations and a few short days of home leave, we lived on this island in complete isolation from the outer world.

Three days after my enrollment, as I was about to enter my dormitory, a third-year man shouted harshly at me, “Halt!” When I did, he hurried over and demanded angrily, “Why did you fail to salute me?”

I did not know what to answer, as I had not even seen him until after his command.

“Attention!” he roared. “Stand with your feet apart and be prepared. I’m going to knock out some of your laxity.”

He hit me in the face with his fist a dozen times. If I had been standing at attention, his first blow would have knocked me to the ground. This treatment came as a great shock to me. I trudged into my billet bruised and bleeding.

The next day at breakfast a senior discovered that my uniform was improperly buttoned, and I received another dozen blows on my swollen face. My second assailant was stronger than the first. My left ear kept ringing all the rest of the day.

When a plebe was singled out for discipline, all other students in his platoon were lined up and given one blow. All plebes were subjected to this unique system of discipline, from which there was no respite. Each Sunday the 180 freshmen were assembled on the parade ground and made to stand at attention for four or five hours under the broiling sun. Instructors and their upper classmen “assistants” kept watching and ordering us. The hours of this Sunday lesson were punctuated by almost continuous fist beatings.

After a few months of such treatment the newcomers became sheeplike in their obedience. Every man’s face bore evidence of the brutality we endured. My ear trouble became chronic, and I suffer from it to this day.

For some of the boys the rigors of this discipline did not seem to be too much of a shock. They had perhaps grown up in a similar environment. In some Japanese homes a stern father chastised his children liberally. In many provincial schools the boys were treated tyrannically by their teachers.

For me it was different. I was the proud son of a samurai family. No member of my family had ever tried to hit me. In my schooling harsh methods of discipline were never employed.

Perhaps I was spoiled to some extent. Perhaps I was not ready for a military career. At any rate, the Eta Jima discipline outraged and embittered me. Even today I remember those early days in the Academy with a bad taste in my mouth.

Certain of my seniors were sadistic brutes. They took singular delight in terrorizing freshmen. To this day I feel a revulsion at seeing these men, even though we have since shared the labors and miseries of war, and the same luck in surviving it.

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