On 10 December 1937, the Japanese army invaded Nanjing. It would not take long before Japanese troops embarked on the now infamous Rape of Nanjing – eight weeks of looting, rape and killing that left tens of thousands of Chinese civilians dead.
The unlikely rescuer of thousands of Chinese during those dark, terrible weeks was Siemens branch manager and local Nazi party official, John Rabe.
Fearing the consequences of invasion, Rabe (pronounced Rah-bay) and a small group of westerners had, one month earlier, set up an ‘International Committee for the Nanking Security Zone’. The zone was a four-square kilometre safe area in the western part of the city, which included foreign embassies and Nanjing University, in which food and shelter could be provided for Chinese civilians. John Rabe was elected chairman of the committee in the hope that a Nazi might influence the Japanese military command.
Rabe did indeed manage to persuade the Japanese government not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and were also partially successful in persuading the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area.
When the invasion was launched, Siemens ordered Rabe to leave the city; he chose to stay and defiantly opened his premises to 650 refugees. During the weeks that followed, Rabe and the committee’s efforts would provide refuge for some 200,000 Chinese non-combatants.
Rabe recorded his personal account of the atrocities in a 1,200-page diary. He tells of people who were shot, doused with gasoline and burned alive. In an entry dated 17 December, he writes:
“In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital… Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling Girls College alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they’re shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.”
The diary also contains Rabe’s reflections about the personal choice he has made: “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.”
John Rabe left Nanjing in 1938 and returned to Germany in February. Still an enthusiastic Nazi, he gave a lecture in Germany shortly after his return, in which he explained that: “Although I feel tremendous sympathy for the suffering of China, I am still, above all, pro-German and I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but, as an organizer of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent.”
Rabe’s faith in the Nazi system was not however to be reciprocated. He wrote to Hitler, begging him to persuade Japan to stop the violence. The letter was intercepted by the Gestapo; Rabe was arrested, interrogated and ordered to keep silent on the subject. His documents and photographs of the massacres were destroyed.
Rabe spent the remaining war years working for Siemens. After the war, he was arrested – first by the Soviets and then by the British. He was denounced for his Nazi party membership, stripped of his work permit and made to undergo a lengthy de-Nazification process in the hope of regaining permission to work. Unable to work and with his savings depleted, Rabe and his family were reduced to poverty and malnutrition. Finally, in June 1946, he was declared ‘de-Nazified’ for his humanitarian acts in China. The investigation had proved draining, and Rabe died of a stroke in 1950.
It is only in recent years has John Rabe’s story become known and his contribution fully appreciated. In 1997, his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjing where it was given a place of honour at the massacre memorial site. In 1998, his diaries were translated into English and published in US under the title, The Good Man of Nanking. Most of those who have written about Rabe draw a parallel with Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who protected Jews, in recognition of his courage and humanity in the face of cruelty.
For Rabe himself, the choice had been a simple one. In a diary entry dated 10 December 1937, he writes: “If you can do good, why hesitate?”