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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 November 8, 2020
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I love writing about a wide variety of things, from the fascinating to the absurd.

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 the University of Nanking, which had 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 the committee formally organized on November 22, 1937. He was a Nazi Party member and German. It is believed then that he would be the most effective person to negotiate with the Japanese army.

Rape of Nanking

After the loss of Shanghai to the invading Japanese Army, the 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 ferries, bridges, roads, and such were sabotaged. Unfortunately, this also had the effect of bottling the civilians into the city of Nanking, then the capital of China. Furthermore, all surrounding villages were evacuated and some villages were leveled and burned, further adding to the flood of refugees into the city of Nanking.

On December 1st, 1937, the mayor of Nanking ordered all the citizens of Nanking to move into one of the refugee camps inside the safety zone, then evacuated with the National government, essentially leaving the Safety Zone Committee in charge of the city. While there were 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 was lost. The only question was how many casualties will be suffered by both sides.

Invading Japanese army surrounded Nanking by December 9th, 1937, destroyed 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 the Japanese Army headquarters in Shanghai, one to Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek (then evacuated to Wuhan) asking for a 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 safety zone if there were no Chinese soldiers there, though officially the Japanese army does not recognize the existence of the safety 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, the Japanese Army officially abolished the term "prisoners of war". All Chinese soldiers caught were to be executed.

While the Japanese army did not formally invade the safe zone, smaller teams did roam the safe zone and committed small-scale atrocities, many of which were documented by John Rabe and the safety committee, including rape, murder, arson, robbery, and more. Outside the safety 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. Allegedly, the Japanese commanding general Matsui told his aide that the army had lost control.

The atrocities eventually stopped when the bloodlust faded. The casualty figure varied depending on which source you cite, but it was estimated that 200,000 were killed in Nanking during the battle and after its fall. Some sources indicated that the figure could reach 350,000 or higher.

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

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

Return to Germany

John Rabe was able to leave China with film and documentation 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 showed him to be innocent of any wrongdoings and were declared de-nazi-fied by June 1946. However, he and his family lived in poverty. He traded away many of the artifacts he gathered in his career for food, and barely survived due to a monthly stipend and aid packet sent by a grateful Chinese government in the post-war years.

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 his 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.

The Discovery of John Rabe's diary leads 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.

© 2011 kschang

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