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The Nazi of Nanking

This most unlikely of guardian angels saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under History & Pseudohistory, Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid Podcast #480
August 18, 2015
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John Rabe
John Rabe

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:

If I had spent 30 years in Japan and were treated just as well by the Japanese people, you can be assured that, in a time of emergency, such as the situation China faces now, I would not leave the side of the people in Japan.

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:

I respectfully ask National Group Leader Lahrmann to send on the following telegram:

First to the Führer

Undersigned Deputy Group Leader Nanking, chairman of local International Committee, asks his Führer kindly to intercede with the Japanese government to grant permission for creation of a neutral zone for noncombatants, since imminent battle for Nanking otherwise endangers the lives of over 200,000 people.

Second to general consult Kriebel

Urgently request support of my petition to the Führer for his intercession with the Japanese government concerning creation of a neutral zone for noncombatants, since dreadful bloodbath otherwise inevitable in imminent battle for Nanking

Heil Hitler!

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:

  • John Magee, an Episcopalian missionary and Red Cross committee chairman. He had a movie camera and took extensive films documenting the atrocities.

  • George Fitch, head of the Nanking YMCA, who also shot films and smuggled his and Magee's out of Nanking by sewing them into the lining of his coat during an escape worthy of any spy thriller. He was able to get the films safely into western hands.

  • Minnie Vautrin, called "the living goddess of Nanking", a dean at Ginling College and the only faculty member who didn't flee. For months she single-handedly defended hundreds of girls at the college from the Japanese rape gangs, not always successfully. One night over 100 girls were raped inside the college, inside the Safety Zone. Vautrin finally succumbed, suffering a nervous breakdown, and taking her own life after returning to the United States.

  • Dr. Robert Wilson at Nanking University Hospital, the only surgeon in the city. Throughout the massacre he was brought hundreds of patients each day, many horribly maimed by bayonets and fire.

  • James McCallum of the United Christian Missionary Society, who appointed himself volunteer ambulance driver and had many hair-raising escapes.

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:

Mein Führer!

The majority of my friends in China are of the opinion that you have not been provided a detailed report about the actual events in Nanking.

In sending you the enclosed copy of a lecture I have given, which however is not intended for the broader public, I am fulfilling a promise made to my friends in China that I would inform you about the sufferings of the Chinese populace.

My mission will have been fulfilled if you would be kind enough to let me know that the enclosed copy of my lecture was presented to you.

I have since been notified that I am to abstain from delivering other lectures of the sort or to show any pictures dealing with the subject. I shall obey this order, since it is not my intention to work against German policy and German government offices.

Let me assure you of my allegiance and honest devotion.

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:

To supplement our diet, we ate acorn-meal soup, from acorns that Mutti harvested last fall. For days now, ever since our supply ran out, we've been eating nettles.

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:

I didn't want to see any Japanese hang, although they deserved it... There must be some atonement, some just punishment; but in my view the judgment should be spoken only by their own nation.

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:

In contrast to Germany, where it is illegal for teachers to delete the holocaust from their history curricula, the Japanese have for decades systematically purged references to the Nanking massacre from their textbooks.

In 1990 Ishihara Shintaro, a leading member of Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party said "People say that the Japanese made a holocaust there, but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie."

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 author Iris Chang, 1968-2004.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Nazi of Nanking." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 18 Aug 2015. Web. 24 Oct 2016. <>


References & Further Reading

Askew, D. "The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone: An Introduction." Sino-Japanese Studies. 1 Apr. 2002, Volume 3: 3-22.

Chang, I. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Hu, H. American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Various. "A Digital Archive of Documents & Photographs from American Missionaries Who Witnessed the Rape of Nanking." Special Collections. Yale Divinity School Library, 1 Jan. 1997. Web. 6 Aug. 2015. <>

Wickert, E., Woods, J. The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Yamamoto, M. Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity. Westport: Praeger, 2000.


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