John Rabe and the Nanjing Massacre Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

John Rabe and the Nanjing Massacre

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The year: 1937. The place: Nanjing (Nanking)1, the capital of Guomindang China2. The problem: the encircling Imperial Japanese Army. Bayonets, machine guns, and terror. Rape, pillage, and mayhem.

The question: what weapon do you use to oppose mass murder?

  • Armed resistance.
  • World opinion.
  • A very large Nazi flag.

If you chose the last option, you are on the same page as John Rabe, also known as 'The Good German of Nanjing'. The bald, bespectacled businessman used his Party membership – and a very large flag, every pfennig he could scrape together, and the last ounce of his courage – to save an estimated quarter-million of his fellow humans from certain destruction. This is his story.

The Rape of Nanjing

The 'Rape of Nanjing' – in Japanese history books, 'The Nanjing Incident' – was not well known until the mid-1990s, when Iris Chang published her seminal study, The Rape of Nanking. Japanese historians dispute Chang's figure of 300,000 slaughtered. War crimes officials at the end of World War II placed the figure at 190,000, and executed four Japanese soldiers for their part in the massacre. That the massacre took place is indisputable: in spite of the fact that Japanese forces confiscated and destroyed some of the films made, some - please be warned, quite disturbing - photographic evidence remains, some of it no doubt taken by the invaders as documentation and for souvenirs.

The facts: in September, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, bent on the conquest of China, succeeded in ousting the Guomindang government from its capital of Nanjing. The mayor and city officials fled. Left alone in this city, whose population had swelled to a million with refugees fleeing the Japanese, were fewer than two dozen Westerners, business people and missionaries. Under the leadership of Siemens executive John Rabe, these foreigners organised a safety zone into which Chinese civilians streamed, as outside, the Japanese army systematically raped women and murdered Chinese soldiers and civilians using machine guns, bayonets, and swords. Rabe's membership in the Nazi Party was put to good use, as he flew the flag of Japan's German ally over the compound in which men, women, and children huddled to escape the massacre.

The systematic nature of the killing was open knowledge in Japan. The English-language newspaper, The Japan Advertiser, had this to say, on 7 December, 1937, quoting a Japanese paper, the Tokyo Nichi-Nichi Shinbun:

The winner of the competition between Sub-lieutenant Toshiaki Mukai and Sub-lieutenant Iwao Noda to see who would be the first to kill 100 Chinese with his Yamato sword has not been decided, the Nichi Nichi reports from the slopes of Purple Mountain, outside Nanking. Mukai has a score of 106 and his rival has dispatched 105 men, but the two contestants have found it impossible to determine which passed the 100 mark first. Instead of settling it with a discussion, they are going to extend the goal by 50. Mukai's blade was slightly damaged in the competition. He explained that this was the result of cutting a Chinese in half, helmet and all. The contest was 'fun', he declared, and he thought it a good thing that both men had gone over the 100 mark without knowing that the other had done so.

In recent times, these accounts have been questioned. There have been lawsuits from the families of the two officers involved, both of whom were executed after the war. The conclusion of courts and historians has been that the accounts are exaggerated on one point: these two Japanese officers, while they did indeed kill more than 100 men each with a sword, did not do so in battle. Most of their victims were unarmed Chinese prisoners, as one of them later admitted.

What Price Party Membership?

John Rabe (1882-1950), a Hamburg-born businessman employed by Siemens AG, had worked in China since 1910. When the Nazi Party took over in his homeland of Germany, Rabe became a Party member and the leader of the local chapter.

How much did an expatriate German understand the aims and methods of a political party in operation half a world away? It is unclear. Even reading John Rabe's postwar denazification interviews would probably not answer all the questions that arise. Do we blame people for being caught up in a movement that looked attractive after the disorganisation and misery of the 1920s? Hard to say. Rabe seems to have shared many of the ideas of his time – a paternalistic attitude toward Asians, a sense of his own nation's superiority, and patriotism. He is reported to have remarked in a speech:

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.
Heroes & Killers of the 20th Century

A collaborator in the scheme to save the Chinese, Dr Robert O Wilson, the son of missionaries, was puzzled by Rabe. He found the German a 'splendid man' with a 'tremendous heart', but could not understand his admiration of the Führer.

Whatever he believed about Nazism, Rabe acted on behalf of the Chinese, organising food and shelter, using his status – and his flag – to protect the refugees, and writing vain petitions to Hitler with the apparent conviction that if the Führer only knew what was going on, he would immediately bring pressure to bear on the Japanese to end the mass slaughter.

Rabe also kept a diary.

The Diary of John Rabe

What do you use to stop a massacre? You might use a Nazi flag. What do you do to bear witness? You might keep a diary.

Rabe's diary covering the six-week horror in Nanjing remained undiscovered until Rabe's grandchildren, reading about the massacre in Chang's book, realised they owned the original document. Rabe's observations in a time of terror are now publicly available, and paint a ghastly picture.

Two Japanese soldiers have climbed over the garden wall and are about to break into our house. When I appear they give the excuse that they saw two Chinese soldiers climb over the wall. When I show them my party badge, they return the same way. 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 College Girls 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.
– John Rabe, Diary, 17 December, 1937

By February, 1938, the Japanese had established control of the Nanjing area, dissolved the refugee camps, and sent the foreigners away. Atrocities by troops lessened. Rabe was recalled to Germany, where he was questioned by his employers and by the Gestapo, and told not to discuss events in China.

At the end of the war, Rabe was questioned again – by the Allies. He could not deny that he had been a Party member. He was eventually officially denazified.

Rabe died of a stroke in 1950. He was bitterly poor, as the relief parcels he had been receiving from the grateful Chinese no longer came, due to the Communist takeover in China. Rabe had paid full price for his heroism. Figuring out who to blame was going to be someone else's problem.

For Further Information

John Rabe's house in Nanjing is a museum now. A visit there bears witness to horror and courage.

John Rabe's diaries are available as The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1998.

A German/Chinese film by Florian Gellenberger, John Rabe, tells the story of the massacre using excerpts from Rabe's diary entries.

A 2009 film, City of Life and Death, directed by Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan, has been controversial for a number of reasons, some of them political. (Lu and Gellenberger filmed in China at approximately the same time, even competing for props such as vintage Japanese tanks.)

The story of the massacre is memorably told in The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, Basic Books, 1997.

1Before 1982, when the Pinyin system of transcribing the Chinese language was adopted, Nanjing was known as Nanking. The two names will be used here interchangeably, as older sources refer to Nanjing as Nanking.2The Guomindang (pre-Pinyin 'Kuomintang') formed the ruling government of China at this time. The party was founded in 1912, and originally led by Dr Sun Yat-sen. The Guomindang were opposed by the Communist Party led by Meo Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), who gained control of China in 1949. The Guomindang government went into exile on the island of Taiwan.

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