The overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 that brought about the founding of the Republic of China did not also bring with it stability or long periods of peace. Despite the presence of a central government in Beijing, warlordism was still rife throughout the nascent country – especially in the North of China, which was bankrupted by the military adventures of the regional warlords. Frustrated by the chaotic administration, the Kuomintang Nationalist party of Sun Yat Sen, along with the Communist party, established a rival government in the Southern city of Guangzhou; after Sun’s death, Chiang Kaishek threw out the Communists, began his Northern Expedition campaign against the incumbent government in Beijing, and thus precipitated years of conflict between the Nationalists, the Communists, and the warlords, and eventually with the Empire of Japan.
During the First World War, the Republic of China had strong ties with Germany, but was pressured by the Allies to declare war on her. They did not, however, and these diplomatic and economic ties endured after the war and throughout the Weimar Republic, with Chinese students frequently travelling to Germany in order to attend university there. One such student was He Fengshan, known also as Ho Feng-Shan, a bright and diligent student who obtained a doctorate in political economics from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in 1932.
Upon his return to the Republic of China, He Fengshan began a diplomatic career, and took up his first overseas posting in Turkey in 1935. After a period of successful employment in Turkey, He Fengshan was in 1937 subsequently appointed First Secretary at the Chinese legation in Vienna, Austria. That position did not last long, however: on 12 March of the following year, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. The soldiers who entered Austria were welcomed as liberators, and were cheered as they paraded through the streets of Vienna. The legation where He Fengshan worked was turned into a consulate, and He Fengshan was appointed Consul-General – a position that conferred upon him the power to grant visas, and one that he would hold until he left Europe in 1940.
The persecution of Jews in Germany had begun long before the Anschluss with Austria: designed to economically and socially cripple German Jews, the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 decreed that German Jews were in fact stateless, and levied a 90% tax on all Jews who emigrated. Yet still many German Jews fled, to the extent that, in July 1938, the Evian Conference was held in order to address the increasing number of Jewish refugees attempting to escape Nazi Germany. Delegates from 32 nations met in France, with the aim of reaching an agreement on taking further Jewish refugees. But no agreement was reached amongst the nations of Europe, Australia, and the Americas; only Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic accepted an increased number of refugees. The failure to reach a consensus effectively abandoned the Jews of Europe to the Einsatzgruppen death squads and the lager of the Final Solution.
There were some 200,000 Jews in Austria in 1938. Vienna had long been a notoriously fertile breeding area for anti-Semitism, and campaigns of persecution against Austrian Jews began immediately after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany; they needed little encouragement. The anti-Semitic Nuremburg Laws took effect in Austrian law from May of that year, and Austrian Jews too were declared stateless. Subjected to acts of cruelty and persecution, Jews in Austria were soon driven from public life. The persecution of Jews accelerated on the night of 9 November1938 – the Night of the Broken Glass – when all synagogues and prayer houses in Vienna were destroyed, Jewish-owned shops looted and business closed down, and thousands of Jews transported to Dachau concentration camp.
The Kristallnacht pogrom signalled perhaps the beginning of the Final Solution. Life for Austrian and German Jews was intolerable during this time, and for many the only way to escape Nazism was to leave Europe altogether. He Fengshan, working as the Consul-General of the Republic of China in Vienna, was not oblivious to the persecution of the Austrian Jews. In the first three months of holding office, he issued 1,200 visas to Austrian Jews, allowing them to escape Europe and reach Shanghai. He later said that he did so for “humanitarian reasons”, and each visa issued was done so against the orders of his superior, Chen Jie, who hoped to strengthen ties between the Republic of China and Germany. He Fengshan would later receive a demerit against his name for his insubordination.
Word of sympathetic, visa-issuing embassies and officials spread quickly amongst the imperiled Jews of Europe, and in Austria it was no different. At this ealy stage of the Final Solution, Jews taken to concentration camps could be released if their relatives were able to produce visas or tickets for travel to other countries, and the clamour for visas grew ever more desperate. It is known that one such visa issued by He, to the brother of his friend Karl Doron, allowed for his release from Dachau, and He continued to issue visas to Jews until he was ordered to return to China in 1940. It is not known how many visas He Fengshan issued whilst the Consul-General in Vienna, but it is likely to be in the many thousands.
For his actions in Austria, He Fengshan stands as one of two Chinese nationals in Yad Vashem, recognised as righteous among the nations.