Last modified 25 September 2011.
First published 3 January 2003
AKA 'The Good Nazi', AKA 'The Good Man of Nanking', AKA 'The Living Buddha of Nanking'.
Country: Germany, China.
Cause: The rescue of more than 250,000 Chinese from slaughter during the 'Rape of Nanking'.
Background: The final collapse of the Chinese Imperial Government at the start of the 20th Century brings a 30-year period of instability to China during which the Guomindang (Nationalist Party), headed by Chiang Kai-shek, battle the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), headed by Mao Tse-Tung, for ultimate control.
Across the East China Sea, Japan becomes progressively more nationalistic and militaristic, seeing in China an opportunity to expand on territory occupied in Manchuria (now Dongbei Pingyuan, north of Korea) and Shandong Province (across the Yellow Sea from Korea) after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and during the First World War. More background.
Mini biography: Born on 23 November 1882 in Hamburg, Germany. His father is a sea captain. Rabe pursues a career in business, serving as an apprentice with a merchant in Hamburg then working in Africa.
1908 - Rabe travels to China.
1910 - He is employed in the Beijing office of the Siemens China Corporation.
1927-29 - Japanese troops are sent to China to obstruct attempts by the Guomindang to unify the country. In June 1928 officers in the Kwantung (Guandong) Army, the Japanese Army unit stationed in Manchuria, begin an unauthorised campaign to precipitate a war with China. Both the Japanese high command and the Chinese refuse to take the bait.
1931 - In September conspirators in the Kwantung Army stage the 'Manchurian Incident', blowing up a section of track on the South Manchuria Railway then blaming Chinese saboteurs.
With the Japanese Government powerless to intervene, the Kwantung Army mobilises, taking nearby Mukden (now Shenyang) then, in January 1932, attacking Shanghai, south of their territory in Shandong Province.
A truce is called in March 1932. The Japanese then establish the puppet state of Manchukuo, centred on Manchuria and headed by the last Chinese emperor, Puyi.
Meanwhile, in November 1931, Siemens transfers Rabe to their office in Nanking (now Nanjing), the capital of Nationalist China. Now the company's senior representative in China, Rabe sells telephones, turbines and electrical equipment to the Guomindang government.
1932 - The Japanese military effectively takes control of the Japanese Government in May when the prime minister is assassinated. Manchukuo is formally recognised by the military-controlled regime.
1933 - In Germany the Nazi Party seizes power on 30 January when their leader Adolf Hitler is appointed chancellor. The Nazis quickly take control of the entire state apparatus. Rabe will join the party, becoming head of the local party branch in Nanking.
1936 - In November Japan and Germany sign the 'Anti-Comintern Pact', an agreement to fight the spread of communism. Italy joins a year later.
1937 - The Second Sino-Japanese War breaks out on 7 July following a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beijing. Chinese forces evacuate Beijing on 28 July.
The Japanese overrun Tianjin (100 km southeast of Beijing) on 30 July then attack Shanghai on 13 August. After a three-month siege, Shanghai falls and the Guomindang forces withdraw to the northwest towards their capital Nanking. The Japanese pursue.
The foreign community and much of the Nanking's Chinese population, including the government, are evacuated from the city during November. Rabe is ordered by Siemens to leave. He sends his family away but refuses to go himself.
Instead he stays behind with several dozen other foreign nationals (mostly German and American missionaries, scholars, doctors and businessmen) to establish a temporary 'Safety Zone' to provide Chinese refugees with food, clothing and shelter during the confusion that is anticipated when the Japanese enter the Nanking. Rabe is made head of the 15-member international committee that is founded on 22 November to administer the zone.
Twenty-five hostels are established in an area measuring around seven square kilometres in the western district of the city, with centres located in all of the foreign embassies and at the University of Nanking. Rabe also opens his own property, which will shelter about 650 refugees.
On 1 December the international committee is authorised by the mayor of Nanking to take over the administration of the city once he and his staff are evacuated.
The Japanese ground assault on Nanking begins on 10 December after the Chinese troops assigned to defend the city refuse to withdraw. When Nanking finally falls on 13 December, just hours after the Chinese forces have fled, the Japanese begin a bloodthirsty massacre that will last for six weeks.
Rabe and other members of the international committee meet the Japanese as they enter the city and attempt to explain the situation within the safety zone, asking that its boundaries be respected. However, their appeal will have limited effect.
"If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it," Rabe writes in his diary on that day. "They (Japanese soldiers) smash open windows and doors and take whatever they like. ... I watched with my own eyes as they looted the café of our German baker Herr Kiessling. ... Of the perhaps one thousand disarmed soldiers that we had quartered at the Ministry of Justice, between 400 and 500 were driven from it with their hands tied. We assume they were shot since we later heard several salvos of machine-gun fire. These events have left us frozen with horror."
The 'Rape of Nanking' (Nanking Datusha in Chinese) results in the indiscriminate murder of between 200,000-350,000 Chinese civilians and surrendered soldiers. It is the worst single massacre of unarmed troops and civilians in the history of the 20th Century.
Japanese troops loot and burn the city and surrounding towns, destroying more than a third of the buildings. Chinese captives are tortured, burnt alive, buried alive, decapitated, bayoneted and shot en masse.
Between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women and girls of all ages are raped. Thousands are murdered after their ordeal. Thousands more are forced into sexual slavery. It is one of the worst cases of mass rape in history.
About 250,000 Chinese find refuge in the safety zone, which quickly becomes a permanent rather than temporary facility. Among the refugees are Chinese soldiers who were unable to leave the city during the general retreat. The Japanese demand that they be handed over and forcibly enter the safety zone on several occasions to apprehend suspects.
Rabe and his fellow zone administrators attempt to stop the atrocities occurring in the city while working to ensure that the refugees within the safety zone are fed and nursed. They also petition international governments to intervene and document the events for the world media.
Rabe uses his Nazi credentials to prevent the atrocities wherever possible. He writes repeatedly to Hitler asking that something be done to stop the killing. Along with other members of the international committee he records the actions of the Japanese troops and passes on reports to the Japanese embassy, which is also lobbied to intervene. Rabe also records his experiences in his diary.
"Groups of three to ten marauding soldiers would begin by travelling through the city and robbing whatever there was to steal," he writes at one point. "They would continue by raping the women and girls and killing everything and everyone that offered any resistance, attempted to run away from them, or simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. During their misdeeds, no difference was made between adults and children. There were girls under the age of eight and women over the age of 70 who were raped and then, in the most brutal way possible, knocked down and beat up. We found corpses of women on beer glasses and others who had been lanced by bamboo shoots. I saw the victims with my own eyes - I talked to some of them right before their deaths and had their bodies brought to the morgue at Kulo Hospital so that I could be personally convinced that all of these reports had touched on the truth.
"You would have thought it impossible, but the raping of women even occurred right in the middle of the women's camp in our zone, which held between 5,000 and 10,000 women. We few foreigners couldn't be at all places all the time in order to protect against these atrocities. One was powerless against these monsters who were armed to the teeth and who shot down anyone who tried to defend themselves. They only had respect for us foreigners - but nearly every one of us was close to being killed dozens of times. We asked ourselves mutually, 'How much longer can we maintain this 'bluff'?'"
On 19 December Rabe writes, "Six Japanese climbed over my garden wall and attempted to open the gates from the inside. When I arrive and shine my flashlight in the face of one of the bandits, he reaches for his pistol, but his hand drops quickly enough when I yell at him and hold my swastika armband under his nose. Then, on my orders, all six scramble back over the wall. My gates will never be opened to riffraff like that. … The 300 to 400 refugees here in my garden - I no longer know how many there really are - Have used straw mats, old doors, and sheets of tin to build huts for a little protection from the snow and cold."
On 24 December he writes, "I have had to look at so many corpses over the last few weeks that I can keep my nerves in check even when viewing these horrible cases. It really doesn't leave you in a 'Christmas' mood; but I wanted to see these atrocities with my own eyes, so that I can speak as an eyewitness later. A man cannot be silent about this kind of cruelty!"
And on 30 January, "My car is stopped on Hankow Road by a group of about 50 Chinese, who asked me to rescue a woman whom a Japanese soldier had led away to rape. … I find the house completely looted, the floor covered with all sorts of debris. In one of the open rooms is a coffin on a bier, and in the room adjoining, lying on a floor covered with straw and junk, I see the soldier, who is about to rape the woman. I manage to pull the soldier out of the room and into the entryway. When he sees all the Chinese and my car, he pulls away and disappears somewhere in the ruins of nearby buildings. The crowd stands at the door, murmuring, but quickly disperses when I tell them to, so as not to attract more Japanese soldiers."
The 1,200-page diary is forgotten after the Second World War, but will later resurface to furnish proof that the atrocities at Nanking did in fact occur.
It is estimated that more than 250,000 are saved by the actions of Rabe and the other zone administrators, who are subjected to constant threats and intimidation, including violence, from the Japanese.
The atrocities at Nanking set an example that leaves the Chinese population terrorised and passive to further Japanese advances.
1938 - On 28 February Rabe leaves Nanking, travelling to Shanghai then on to Germany, where he works to alert the government and people to the events in China. He presents lectures in Berlin, showing photographs, reports and an amateur film of the Japanese violence.
However, when he writes to Hitler asking him to use his influence to persuade the Japanese to end the atrocities, Rabe is arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo (secret state police) for three days.
He is released from custody following intervention from Siemens but is barred from lecturing or writing on the Rape of Nanking again. He is, however, allowed to keep his documentary evidence, excluding the film, which is confiscated.
Rabe will continue to work for Siemens, which posts him briefly to the relative safety of Afghanistan.
1939 - The Japanese attempt to invade Mongolia in May but are badly defeated by combined Soviet-Mongolian forces.
1940 - Japan joins the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy in September, signing the 'Tripartite Pact', an agreement to carve up the world following victory in the Second World War.
In China, the Japanese make Nanking the capital of their Chinese puppet state.
1941-45 - Japan and the Soviet Union sign the 'Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact' in April, removing the threat to Japan of invasion by the Soviets and allowing the Japanese military to concentrate its war efforts on the southward drive into China and Southeast Asia. On 1 December the Japanese decide to broaden the war to the Pacific.
When the Japanese air force bombs the United States naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December the US and Britain declare war on Japan.
However, the decision to attack the US proves fatal for the Japanese. After initial naval and battlefield successes an overstretched and increasingly desperate Japanese military is slowly driven back.
The US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively, killing about 120,000 people outright and fatally injuring over 100,000 more.
On 8 August the Soviet Union declares war on Japan and launches a surprise attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria.
Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrenders unconditionally on 15 August 1945.
Japan is occupied by Allied military forces. The Japanese Army and navy ministries are abolished, arms and military equipment are destroyed and war industries are retooled for civilian output. Japan pledges never go to war again and surrenders its colonial holdings, including China.
About 15 million people have been killed in the Asia and Pacific regions during the Second World War, including over 11 million Chinese and nearly two million Japanese. The Second Sino-Japanese War has claimed at least 20 million Chinese.
Following the defeat of the Japanese, civil war between the Guomindang and CCP resumes in China. Mao's communists take Beijing without a fight in January 1949 and control the entire country by the end of the year. Chiang Kai-shek and his troops flee to the island of Taiwan and proclaim Taipei as the temporary capital of China.
In post-war Germany, Rabe is denounced for his Nazi Party membership and arrested by the first the Russians and then the British. However subsequent investigations exonerate him of any wrongdoing.
Rabe is "de-Nazified" by the Allies in June 1946 but lives in poverty. Monthly food parcels and money sent from grateful colleagues in China partly sustain Rabe and his family, but after the Guomindang is defeated by the communists in 1949 the deliveries stop.
1946 - At war crime trials held in Tokyo from May 1946 until November 1948, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convicts over 4,000 Japanese officials and military personnel. Of the 28 "class-A" defendants brought to trial only two, General Matsui Iwane (the commander-in-chief of the Japanese forces responsible for the Rape of Nanking) and Hirota Koki (the Japanese foreign minister at the time), are convicted for the Nanking atrocities. Both are sentenced to death and executed.
War crime trials are also held in Nanking, although only four Japanese Army officers, including Tani Hisao, a lieutenant-general who personally participated in acts of murder and rape, are tried for crimes relating to the Nanking massacre. All four are sentenced to death and executed.
1950 - Rabe dies of a stroke.
Japan continues to downplay or deny the crimes against humanity committed by its military during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Second World War.
A new secondary school history textbooks released by Japan's Ministry of Education at the start of 2005 describes the massacre at Nanking as an "incident" with relatively few causalities. The invasion of China is called an "advancement". References to the mass rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls are not included.
The release of the revised textbook sparks up underlying tension between China and Japan. Demonstrators mob Japanese government buildings and businesses within China, calling on Japan to admit to and apologise for its war crimes.
In August 2006 a Chinese court orders two Japanese historians to pay damages of US$210,000 to a survivor of the massacre after they accuse her of fabricating evidence. The ruling, which carries no weight in Japan, is largely symbolic.
In Nanking, Rabe's old house is developed into a memorial by the Nanjing University, with support from Siemens. It is due to open in August 2006, just a few months before the 70th anniversary of the massacre.
In recognition of the anniversary, a spate of movies about the massacre are produced.
The television documentary 'Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking', is made by a Canadian team and released in 2007. 'Nanking', a US-made documentary on the massacre and the efforts of Westerners like Rabe to save the victims, screens in China in mid-2007.
'The Children of Huang Shi' by director Canadian Roger Spottiswoode opens in 2008. The film follow the experiences of a British journalist caught in the conflict. 'Purple Mountain', a Chinese, US and British co-production is also released in 2008. The film provides personal accounts of the Japanese occupation of China
'City of Life and Death' (aka 'Nanking Nanking') by Chinese director Lu Chuan opens in China in April 2009. 'John Rabe' by German director Florian Gallenberge also opens in 2009. The film dramatises Rabe's story.
Meanwhile, Japanese officials continue to question the extent of the massacre. In June 2007 about 100 parliamentarians from Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party publicly state that documents from the Japanese Government archive indicate that only about 20,000 people were killed.
Comment: Can a Nazi be a hero? The whole world seems to believe that Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler was a hero because of his work to save the lives of 1,200 Jews. John Rabe played the key role in saving the lives of more than 250,000 Chinese. On this comparison alone, Rabe must rank as a major hero of the 20th Century.
He was, however, by all accounts a far more dour figure than the charismatic Schindler, and far more sincere in his commitment to Nazi ideals. Speaking at one the lectures he delivered in 1938, Rabe is reported to have said, "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 organiser of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent."
It is likely that he meant it.
After the war Rabe is said to have maintained that he never heard news of Nazi outrages while he was in China and only remained a member of the party to secure the subsidy he received from the German Government to finance a German School in Nanking.
Rabe's colleagues appear to have been impressed by his character but puzzled by his political beliefs. Robert O. Wilson, a missionary and doctor who worked in China in the 1930s, wrote of Rabe:
"He is well up in Nazi circles and after coming into such close contact as we have for the past few weeks and discover(ing) what a splendid man he is and what a tremendous heart he has, it is hard to reconcile his personality with his adulation of 'Der Fuhrer.'"
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