So you’re a middle-aged German business man, working for Siemens A.G. in Nanking, China in 1938. You’re a member in good standing of the Nazi Party (though you haven’t lived in Germany for almost 30 years) and you begin to see war crimes and atrocities with your own eyes.
What do you do – especially taking into consideration that the war crimes are being perpetrated by the military of a country on friendly terms with your own?
This was the situation of John Rabe, born in Hamburg in 1887 and living in China since 1908.
“Many Westerners were living in the Chinese capital city of the time, as Nanking was until December 1937, conducting trade or on missionary trips. As the Japanese army approached Nanking and initiated bombing raids on the city, all but 22 foreigners fled the city, with 15 American and European missionaries and businessmen forming part of the remaining group. On November 22, 1937, as the Japanese Army advanced on Nanking, Rabe, along with other foreign nationals, organized the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created the Nanking Safety Zone to provide Chinese refugees with food and shelter from the impending Japanese slaughter.
He explained his reasons thus: “… there is a question of morality here…I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me, and it is touching to see how they believe in me.” The zones were located in all of the foreign embassies and at Nanking University.
Rabe was elected as its leader, in part because of his status as a member of the Nazi party and the existence of the German–Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact. This committee established the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone attempted to persuade the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area. They were partly successful.
On December 1, 1937, Nanjing Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanking to move into the Safety Zone and then fled the city.
Rabe also opened up his properties to help 650 more refugees.”
As the Japanese army drew closer to Nanjing, panicked Chinese civilians fled in droves, not only because of the dangers of the anticipated battle but also because they feared the deprivation inherent in the scorched earth strategy that the Chinese troops were implementing in the area surrounding the city.
The Nanjing garrison force set fire to buildings and houses in the areas close to Xiakuan to the north as well as in the environs of the eastern and southern city gates.
Prince Yasuhiko Asaka of the Imperial household was the nominal commander on the scene – Prince Asaka is alleged to have issued an order to “kill all captives”, thus providing official sanction for the crimes which took place during and after the battle. Some authors record that Prince Asaka signed the order for Japanese soldiers in Nanking to “kill all captives”. Others assert that lieutenant colonel Isamu Chō, Asaka’s aide-de-camp, sent this order under the Prince’s sign manual without the Prince’s knowledge or assent. Nevertheless, even if Chō took the initiative, Asaka was nominally the officer in charge and gave no orders to stop the carnage.
Eyewitness accounts of Westerners and Chinese present at Nanking in the weeks after the fall of the city say that, over the course of six weeks following the fall of Nanking, Japanese troops engaged in rape, murder, theft, arson, and other war crimes.
The Nanking Massacre killed 50,000 to 60,000 civilians according to John Rabe, while Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. His attempts to appeal to the Japanese by using his Nazi Party membership credentials only delayed them; but that delay allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to escape. The documentary Nanking credited him for saving the lives of 250,000 Chinese civilians. Other sources suggest that Rabe rescued between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated that, in an addition to children and the elderly, 20,000 women were raped. A large portion of these rapes were systematized in a process in which soldiers would go from door to door, searching for girls, with many women being captured and gang raped. The women were often killed immediately after being raped, often through explicit mutilation or by penetrating vaginas with bayonets, long sticks of bamboo, or other objects. Young children were not exempt from these atrocities and were cut open to allow Japanese soldiers to rape them.
“It is not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of destruction. We come across piles ofcorpses every 100 to 200 yards. The bodies of civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs. These people had been presumably fleeing and were shot from behind.”
Rabe wrote numerous letters to the Japanese military command as well as the Japanese Embassy complaining bitterly about the atrocities committed by the rampaging troops and demanding that no Japanese soldiers be allowed inside the protected civilian zones.
When subtly threatened by senior military commanders he played his Nazi Party badge which carried a weight with the Japanese that the other westerners still in Nanking didn’t.
Rabe returned to Germany in 1938 bringing with him documentary evidence of the Nanking war crimes and began to speak aloud of it to anyone who would listen. Rabe showed films and photographs of Japanese atrocities in lecture presentations in Berlin and wrote to Hitler to use his influence to persuade the Japanese to stop any further inhumane violence. As a result, Rabe was detained and interrogated by the Gestapo and his letter was never delivered to Hitler.
Siemens got him released from Gestapo clutches and posted him to Afghanistan, probably for his own good. He had not been in Germany for a long time.
After the war, Rabe was arrested first by the Soviet NKVD and then by the British Army. Both, however, let him go after intense interrogation. He worked sporadically for Siemens, earning very little. He was later denounced for his Nazi Party membership by an acquaintance. He was stripped of the work permit that he had previously been given by the British Zone, and had to undergo a very lengthy de-nazification process (his first attempt was rejected and he had to appeal) in the hope of regaining the permission to work. He had to pay his own legal defense costs, which depleted his savings.
Unable to work to support his family and with the savings spent the family survived in a one-room apartment by selling his Chinese art collection, but this did not provide enough to avoid malnutrition. He was formally declared “de-Nazified” by the British in June 3, 1946 but thereafter continued to live in poverty. The family lived on wild seeds that the children would eat with soup, and on dry, stale bread.
“In 1948, the citizens of Nanking learned of the very dire situation of the Rabe family in occupied Germany and they quickly raised a very large sum of money, equivalent to $2000 ($20,000 in 2016). The city mayor himself went to Germany, via Switzerland where he bought a large amount of food for the Rabe family. From mid 1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking also sent a food package each month, for which Rabe in many letters expressed deep gratitude.”
On January 5, 1950, Rabe died of a stroke. In 1997 his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjingwhere it received a place of honor at the massacre memorial site.
In 2005, Rabe’s former residence in Nanking was renovated and now accommodates the “John Rabe and International Safety Zone Memorial Hall”, which opened in 2006.
“Rabe continued to play negotiator and interlocutor with the Japanese, provider and protector to the poor Chinese, and pleading representative to any power he hoped could intercede for his people. The committee saw to the feeding, medical care and winter housing of somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese souls for six weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people would have likely died in that bloody winter without their Nazi. I don’t know if a staunch Nazi can be a good man, but by the end of it all in late January, he was a hero.”
By the time he left China, the people of Nanking called him the living Buddha.
Warning – Very Explicit