The Nazi of Nanking
This most unlikely of guardian angels saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives.
It was 1937, and the world's most aggressive army was closing in on the last major city in the world's most populous country. One might expect an event of such magnitude to escape distortion in history books, but Japan's conquest of Nanking in China turned out to challenge many expectations and stereotypes. As many as 300,000 civilians were murdered in the Nanking Massacre, and nearly as many more were saved by the most unlikely of angels: the local head of the Nazi party. In this story, one whose brutality makes it alien and unthinkable to us, can we find some relevant insight into ourselves and our tendency toward prejudice?
The story of the Nazi of Nanking begins at the intersection of the life of a German businessman and Japan's growing imperialism in Asia in the 1930s. Whereas World War II began for Americans in 1941, for Asians it began a decade earlier when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. Their control spread and tightened until late 1937 when all the last major cities in China fell to the Japanese war machine. The final bastion was the newly named capital of Nanking (now called Nanjing) with a population of 1 million. Over several months of air raids, 500,000 evacuated, leaving 500,000 noncombatants still there when the city finally fell on December 13, 1937. Over the next few months, half of these, and possibly more, were murdered by Japanese soldiers.
The other prong of our story, John Rabe, was born in Germany in 1882 and moved to China at the age of 26 as a clerk for the German engineering firm Siemens. Siemens provided much of the telephone and electrical infrastructure to Nanking. In a career spanning decades, Rabe was finally appointed managing director of the Nanking office. He was Siemens' top man in Nanking. As the founder and administrator of a German school, he was the German expatriate community's top man. And as a Deputy Group Leader in Germany's National Socialist party and ranking representative in Nanking, he was the Nazis' top man too.
And this is a good place to pause and reconsider a possible prejudice: that any given Nazi party official was necessarily an evil man. For a staunch Nazi Rabe was. "I believe not only in the correctness of our political system," said Rabe, "but as an organizer of the party, I am behind the system 100%." He was a tireless advocate for his workers, German and Chinese alike. During the massacre, a Japanese major tried to persuade Rabe to leave Nanking for his own safety. Rabe answered:
And so these two prongs of our story met, primarily in a six week period stretching into the first month of 1938. Japanese troops swarmed the city and commenced an orgy of murder, rape, arson, and destruction unsurpassed in world history for its cruelty and sheer scope. Unknown tens of thousands of women, as young as 8 and as old as 80, were gang raped to death. Many of the estimated 300,000 murder victims were bayoneted, burned alive, and beheaded. Pause to consider those numbers, and to reflect: what evidence could possibly prove a holocaust of such magnitude?
The credit for that must go to the late author Iris Chang, and ultimately to the tiny band of heroes her research brought to light. Chang, a first generation Chinese-American, had heard of the Nanking massacre from her parents but was surprised to discover almost nothing written about it. She spent most of the 1990s researching and interviewing survivors and descendants for her 1997 bestseller The Rape of Nanking. Among the many irreplaceable historical treasures rediscovered by her research were the diaries of John Rabe and his fellow humanitarians in Nanking, comprising a collection now held at the Yale Divinity School library. Rabe's diaries had been stored away and forgotten by his descendants until Chang's inquiries prompted their retrieval, and the sensation of a Nazi, an ally of Japan, fighting to save the innocent victims of the aggression, swept the world.
As the Japanese army approached, only 22 foreigners had elected to stay in Nanking. Inspired by the November establishment of a neutral zone in Shanghai that protected 450,000 civilians, some of them formed the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. They petitioned Japan to allow the zone in a sliver of the city that included foreign owned properties such as Ginling Women's Arts & Sciences College, the American embassy, and Rabe's own personal home; as well as Nanking University and Chinese government buildings. Hopeful that Germany's alliance with Japan would give them leverage against the invaders, they elected Rabe their head. As the fall of Nanking became imminent, Rabe cabled the head of the Nazi party in China:
Rabe received no response, and the committee ultimately established the Safety Zone on no authority but their own. Japanese frequently entered to rape women or take people out for execution. One day 50 Safety Zone police were executed on suspicion of having allowed former Chinese soldiers to seek refuge inside. The committee members risked their lives daily trying to stop rapes and murders. One wrote "We are all surprised that none of us have been killed, and whether we all get out safely is yet a question."
Although Rabe has received the lion's share of the credit and attention, the efforts of his fellow western humanitarians were no less herculean. Among them:
Rabe had only his Nazi armband for protection, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. He was well known throughout Nanking and was often summoned during Japanese assaults on defenseless citizens. On the Chinese New Year, the people presented him with a long red silk banner which said "You are the living Buddha for 100,000 people". Iris Chang called him "the Oskar Schindler of China". So what became of him?
In February 1938, Siemens had grown sufficiently uncomfortable with the political role Rabe had assumed and recalled him to Berlin. Rabe assembled a public lecture and spoke at every opportunity to spread news of the atrocity, and attempted to persuade Germany to intervene. He put together documentation including movie film with the following letter to Hitler:
This time he did get a response. He was immediately arrested and questioned by the Gestapo, and the films were confiscated. Hitler anticipated needing Japan to provide a second front to the Americans should they enter the war. Adolf Hitler was not renowned as a great champion of underdog ethnic groups.
Rabe sat out the rest of the war in Berlin, and lost everything in the bombings and the Russian invasion. He was arrested and interrogated by both the Russians and the British. As a former Nazi party member, he was unemployable and lived in the most dire poverty. In 1946 he wrote:
Eventually the Chinese learned of his situation, and Nanking's mayor personally delivered large supplies of food to Rabe. China offered him free housing and a pension to return, but on the condition that he testify in war tribunals. Rabe wrote to his grandchildren:
John Rabe died in 1950. He never returned to China, and he never saw Japan acknowledge the massacre. Until Iris Chang's research, the documentation provided by Rabe and his compatriots was largely lost to the world, and Japan's erasure of the events from history went unchallenged. Chang wrote:
The separation of history from pseudohistory is one of the most important applications of scientific skepticism and critical thinking. Without it, we risk the trap warned of by Primo Levi in his words that greet visitors to Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: "It happened, therefore it can happen again." It is perhaps the same prejudice that allows a patriotic Japanese to doubt his country could ever engage in so terrible a massacre, that prompts us to assume that any Nazi official must have had evil on his mind. Challenge your assumptions, and temper them with learning; and remember the 300,000 victims of Nanking.
This episode is dedicated to the memory of author Iris Chang, 1968-2004.
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