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Initially I was reluctant to call this blog Forgotten hero for the fact that this man was an active member of the Nazi party and was a follower of Hitler. However having looked at the lives he saved at risk of his own life there is no other way but to call this man a Hero. Also he became a member of the NSDAP when he was living outside of Germany and he would not have been exposed to the day to day crimes committed by the Nazi regime.
John Heinrich Detlev Rabe was a German businessman and Nazi Party member who is best known for his efforts to stop the atrocities of the Japanese army during the Nanking (Nanjing) Occupation and his work to protect and help the Chinese civilians during the event. The Nanking Safety Zone, which he helped to establish, sheltered approximately 200,000 Chinese people from slaughter during the massacre. He officially represented Germany and acted as senior chief of the European–American establishment that remained in Nanjing, the Chinese capital at the time, when the city fell to the Japanese troops.
When the invading Japanese Army overran the Nationalist Chinese capital in December 1937, soldiers embarked on a two-month rampage of looting, rape and killing that left tens of thousands of Chinese civilians dead in what became known as the Rape of Nanking.
Born in Hamburg on November 23, 1882, Rabe pursued a career in business and went to Africa for several years. In 1908 he left for China, and between 1910 and 1938, he worked for the Siemens AG China Corporation in Mukden, Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai and later Nanjing. Rabe suffered from diabetes by the time he was working in Nanjing which required him to have his regular dose of insulin
Many Westerners were living in the Chinese capital city of the time, as Nanking was until December 1937, conducting trade or on missionary trips. As the Japanese army approached Nanking (now Nanjing) and initiated bombing raids on the city, all but 22 foreigners fled the city, with 15 American and European missionaries and businessmen forming part of the remaining group.On November 22, 1937, as the Japanese Army advanced on Nanking, Rabe, along with other foreign nationals, organized the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created the Nanking Safety Zone to provide Chinese refugees with food and shelter from the impending Japanese slaughter. He explained his reasons thus: “… 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.” The zones were located in all of the foreign embassies and at Nanking University.
Mr. Rabe was ordered by Siemens to leave for the safer grounds of Wuhan, a few hundred miles west on the Yangtze River. But he refused. Instead, he became chairman of a group of about two dozen German and American missionaries, doctors and professors who established a neutral zone in Nanjing as a haven for Chinese refugees.
Rabe was elected as its leader, in part because of his status as a member of the Nazi party and the existence of the German–Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact. This committee established the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone attempted to persuade the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area. They were partly successful.
On December 1, 1937, Nanjing Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanking to move into the Safety Zone and then fled the city.
Rabe also opened up his properties to help 650 more refugees.
The Nanking Massacre killed 50,000 to 60,000 civilians according to John Rabe, while Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. His attempts to appeal to the Japanese by using his Nazi Party membership credentials only delayed them; but that delay allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to escape. The documentary Nanking credited him for saving the lives of 250,000 Chinese civilians. Other sources suggest that Rabe rescued between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people.
In his diary Rabe documented Japanese atrocities committed during the assault upon and occupation of the city. On December 13, 1937, he wrote:
It is not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of destruction. We come across corpses every 100 to 200 yards. The bodies of civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs. These people had been presumably fleeing and were shot from behind. The Japanese march through the city in groups of ten to twenty soldiers and loot the shops … I watched with my own eyes as they looted the café of our German baker Herr Kiessling. Hempel’s hotel was broken into as well, as almost every shop on Chung Shang and Taiping Road.
In his interactions with Japanese authorities, Rabe first took a conciliatory tone. On December 14, 1937, Rabe handed a letter of thanks to the Japanese army commander stating that the people in the Safety Zone were all safe and not one shot had been fired. The following is a part of his letter of thanks.
Dec. 14, 1937,
Dear commander of the Japanese army in Nanking, We appreciate that the artillerymen of your army didn’t attack to the Safety Zone. And we hope to contact with you to make a plan to protect general Chinese citizens who are staying in the Safety Zone… We will be pleased to cooperate with you in anyway to protect general citizens in this city. –Chairman of the Nanking International Committee, John H. D. Rabe.
On December 17, 1937 he wrote in a very different tone:
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 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.
On December 17, Rabe wrote a letter as chairman to Kiyoshi Fukui, second secretary of the Japanese Embassy. The following is an excerpt:
In other words, on the 13th when your troops entered the city, we had nearly all the civilian population gathered in a Zone in which there had been very little destruction by stray shells and no looting by Chinese soldiers even in full retreat… All 27 Occidentals in the city at that time and our Chinese population were totally surprised by the reign of robbery, raping and killing initiated by your soldiers on the 14th. All we are asking in our protest is that you restore order among your troops and get the normal city life going as soon as possible. In the latter process we are glad to cooperate in any way we can. But even last night between 8 and 9 p.m. when five Occidental members of our staff and Committee toured the Zone to observe conditions, we did not find any single Japanese patrol either in the Zone or at the entrances!
Having received no answer to his request, Rabe wrote again to Fukui the following day, this time in an even more desperate tone:
We are sorry to trouble you again but the sufferings and needs of the 200 000 civilians for whom we are trying to care make it urgent that we try to secure action from your military authorities to stop the present disorder among Japanese soldiers wandering through the Safety Zone… The second man in our Housing Commission had to see two women in his family at 23 Hankow Road raped last night at supper time by Japanese soldiers. Our associate food commissioner, Mr. Sone, has to convey trucks with rice and leave 2,500 people in families at his Nanking Theological Seminary to look after themselves. Yesterday, in broad daylight, several women at the Seminary were raped right in the middle of a large room filled with men, women, and children! We 22 Occidentals cannot feed 200,000 Chinese civilians and protect them night and day. That is the duty of the Japanese authorities …
On the February 10, 1938, Rabe wrote in his diary:
Fukui, whom I tried to find at the Japanese embassy to no avail all day yesterday, paid a call on me last night. He actually managed to threaten me: “If the newspapers in Shanghai report bad things, you will have the Japanese army against you”, he said… In reply to my question as to what I then could say in Shanghai, Fukui said “We leave that to your discretion.” My response: “It looks as if you expect me to say something like this to the reporters: The situation in Nanking is improving everyday. Please don’t print any more atrocities stories about the vile behavior of Japanese soldiers, because then you’ll only be pouring oil on fire of disagreement that already exists between the Japanese and Europeans.” “Yes”, he said simply beaming, “that would be splendid!”
John Rabe gave a series of lectures in Germany after he came back to Berlin on April 15, 1938, in which he said, “We Europeans put the number [of civilian casualties] at about 50,000 to 60,000.” Rabe was not the only figure to record the Japanese atrocity. By December 1937, after the defeat of the Chinese soldiers, the Japanese soldiers would often go house-to-house in Nanking, shooting any civilians they encountered. Evidence of these violent acts come from diaries kept by some Japanese soldiers and by Japanese journalists who were appalled by what was transpiring.
It is not clear whether Mr. Rabe embraced the oppression of Jews and other groups in Nazi Germany. He lived outside Germany during the time of Hitler’s rise to power, and there is no record of the extent of his activities in the Nazi Party after he returned to Germany in 1938.But I doubt very much that he agreed with Hitler’s final solution. There is no doubt in my mind he was seduced by the idea of a German empire, like many Germans were.
Upon his return to Germany in February 1938, Mr. Rabe wrote a letter to Hitler, asking him to persuade Japan to stop the atrocities. But he was arrested by the Gestapo, interrogated for three days and ordered to keep silent on the subject.
From there Mr. Rabe’s life headed into a downward spiral. Between 1938 and 1945, Mr. Rabe worked on and off for the Siemens Company, including a brief stint in Afghanistan.
As World War II intensified, Mr. Rabe wrote increasingly in his diary about hunger and the ravages of war; he and his family in Berlin had to eat nettles and acorn soup.
Because Mr. Rabe was one of the about 9 percent of Germans who were members of the Nazi party, he had to petition to be de-Nazified by the Allies after the war in order to hold a job. His first petition was denied, and Mr. Rabe had to appeal.
Ultimately, in June 1946, Mr. Rabe was granted de-Nazification status because of his humanitarian acts in China. But the investigation proved draining, and he died of a stroke in 1950.
In 1997 his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjing (as it is now) where it received a place of honor at the massacre memorial site.
In 2005, Rabe’s former residence in Nanking (as it then was) was renovated and now accommodates the “John Rabe and International Safety Zone Memorial Hall”, which opened in 2006.