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John Rabe: Oscar Schindler of the East, Savior of Nanking, China, Saved Tens of Thousands of Chinese as Siemens Employee

Updated on June 27, 2018

John Rabe, the Forgotten Savior of Nanjing

Most people have heard of Oscar Schindler, who was the subject of the famous movie Schindler's List. However, few have heard of John Rabe, who may have saved far more people than Oscar Schindler. Learn who John Rabe is, how he saved over two hundred thousand people, and was mostly forgotten for 50 years before being rediscovered.

John Rabe
John Rabe | Source

Leader of the Nanking Safety Zone

John Rabe was a rather unremarkable German engineer who had worked for Siemens AG in China since 1908, and worked in many Chinese cities before setting in Nanking, now known as Nanjing. (For historical reasons, the city will be referred to as "Nanking", but it's the same city)

When the Japanese Army invaded China, and eventually arrived at the borders of Nanking in November 1937, most non-Chinese residents had fled. Even the Chinese government had also fled. Historical accounts stated that less than 30 non-Chinese have remained, comprised of businessmen, missionaries, journalists, and a few doctors. When news of atrocities committed by the Japanese army conquering Shanghai reached Nanking, the non-Chinese decided they need to set up a safe zone along with the example set by Jacquinot de Besange, a Jesuit priest who had set up a safe zone in Shanghai and saved many Chinese residents who remained in Shanghai.

The group decided to name itself The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. The zone was set up around University of Nanking, which has a hospital (also known as Drum Tower Hospital), and some of the doctors in the committee worked there. The zone also included the American Embassy in Nanking. The zone eventually expanded to almost 4 square kilometers, and over a dozen different refugee camps. John Rabe was elected as the leader of The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, and committee formally organized on November 22, 1937. He is a Nazi Party member and German. It is believed then that he is the most effective person to negotiate with the Japanese army.

Rape of Nanking

After loss of Shanghai to the invading Japanese Army, leader of the Chinese government, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, had ordered a no-retreat scorched earth defense. In order to slow down the invading Japanese army, all transport methods including ships, roads, and such were sabotaged, but this also had the effect of bottling the civilians into the city of Nanking, then capital of China. Furthermore, all surrounding villages were evacuated and some villages were leveled and burned, further adding to flood of refugees into the city of Nanking. 

On December 1st, 1937, the mayor of Nanking ordered all the citizens of Nanking to moved into one of the refugee camps inside the safety zone, then evacuated with the National government, essentially leaving the Committee in charge of the city. While there are supposedly 100,000 Chinese soldiers ready to defend the city, most were untrained and under-equipped conscripts. There never was any doubt that the city is lost, the only question is how many casualties will be suffered by both sides.

Invading Japanese army have surrounded Nanking by December 9th, 1937, destroying all defenses outside the city walls, and have ordered the city to surrender or face annihilation. John Rabe boarded an American gunboat moored at Nanking to send 2 telegrams, one to Japanese Army HQ in Shanghai, one to Chiang Kai-Shek (then evacuated to Wu-Han) asking for 3 day cease-fire. When there was no reply from Chiang to the ceasefire, Rabe was able to convince the local Chinese commander to move all Chinese soldiers out of the safety zone. Rabe also managed to convince the Japanese commander to promise not to attack the zone if there are no Chinese soldiers there, though officially Japanese army does not recognize the existence of the safe zone.

Nanking City gates were breached on December 12th, 1937, and all formal defense quickly collapsed by nightfall. Soldiers deserted their posts and tried to blend into the civilian population. Japanese soldiers tried to root out the Chinese soldiers, and atrocities started to occur. Many months ago in August 1937, Japanese Army officially abolished the term "prisoners of war". All Chinese soldiers caught were to be executed.

While Japanese army did not formally invade the safe zone, smaller teams did roam the safe zone and committed smaller scale atrocities, many of which were documented by John Rabe and the safety committee, including rape, murder, arson, robbery, and more. Outside the safe zone, at least 1/3 of the city was burned, and hundreds of thousands were killed in an orgy of rape and killing over a week or more. Even the commanding general Matsui allegedly told his aide that the army had lost control.

The atrocities eventually stopped when the bloodlust faded. The casualty figure varies by the sources, but it is estimated that 200,000 were killed in Nanking during the battle and after its fall.Though some sources indicated that the figure could reach 350,000.

After the Rape of Nanking, John Rabe was instrumental in clearing Japanese bureaucratic red tape into allowing relief supplies reaching the refugees in the safe zone. It is estimated that he had saved anywhere between 50,000 to 250,000 lives.

In February 1938, a long list of violations were documented and sent to the Japanese Embassy in Nanking by the committee. Japanese Army responded by renaming the committee "Nanking International Rescue Committee", and abolishing the safe zone, ordering all residents to "go home". Furthermore, it had sent a cable to German government. As a result, John Rabe was "strongly encouraged" to return to Germany (rumored to be an order directly from Adolf Hitler himself). He left Nanking on February 28, 1938 and went back to Berlin.

Return to Germany

John Rabe was able to leave China with film and documents of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army in Nanking, and he made several lectures in Berlin using that material after his return. He even wrote a letter to Adolf Hitler asking him to talk to Japan to stop the atrocities. Unfortunately, this brought him to the attention of the Gestapo secret police, and he was arrested and interrogated. His employer Siemens intervened, and John Rabe was eventually released, but was forbidden to write or lecture about the Rape of Nanking. However, he was allowed to keep all his material.

His employer Siemens posted John Rabe briefly to Afghanistan, but returned him to Berlin where he worked until the end of World War II.

Fade Into Obscurity

John Rabe was briefly arrested for his Nazi Party membership by the Allies after the conclusion of the War, but investigations eventually shown him to be innocent of any wrongdoings and was declared de-nazi-fied by June 1946. However, he and his family lived in poverty. He traded away made of the artifacts he gathered for food, and barely survived by a monthly stipend and aid packet sent by a grateful Chinese government.

John Rabe died of a stroke in 1950, and remained virtually forgotten, until his daughter, in 1996, read a newspaper article about John Rabe, and realized she had the actual diaries in her possession.

John Rabe House / Memorial, Nanjing, China
John Rabe House / Memorial, Nanjing, China | Source

The World Remembers

The diaries of John Rabe was published as Der gute Deutsche von Nanking, (literally: The Good German of Nanking) in 1996 and an English translation (by John E. Woods) was published in the US in 1998 as "The Good Man of Nanking", and it is a treasure trove of information for scholars of that ugly episode of history.

In 1997, John Rabe's tombstone was moved to Nanjing where it was placed at the Massacre Memorial Site at a place of honor. In 2006, John Rabe's former residence in Nanjing was renovated and opened as a memorial hall for John Rabe and the safety zone.

Discovery of John Rabe's diary lead to a renewed search for other personal recollections of that period, which lead to the discovery of the diary by Minnie Vautrin, an educator in Ginling Girl's College, Nanking during that period.

Recent films like John Rabe have people rediscovering this hero of World War II. While John Rabe is not as famous as Oscar Schindler, he will never fade into history as long as he is remembered.


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