During times of war, man demonstrates the utmost cruelty toward his fellow man. However, during these violent times, there also emerges a few good souls who demonstrate caring and compassion toward other human beings.
A majority of us have read or heard about Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and former member of the Nazi party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during World War II. There was also a man named Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese government official who served as vice consul in Lithuania, credited with having helped 6,000 Jews. There is one more name that deserves to be added to the list, that is the name of John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member, who is best known for sheltering an estimated 200,000 Chinese from slaughter during the Battle of Nanjing (Second Sino-Japanese War).
Born in Hamburg, Germany on November 23, 1882, John was a loyal Nazi and served as the Deputy Group Leader of the Nationalist Socialist Party in Nanjing. He journeyed to China in 1908 and was employed by Siemens AG China Corporation in 1911. His employment with Siemens enabled him to travel to several cities within China prior to settling in Nanjing in 1931. At the time there were many Westerners residing in Nanjing either conducting trade or involved in missionary work.
When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out and the Japanese Army approached Nanjing, all but twenty-two foreigners fled the city. On November 22, 1937 as the Japanese Army advanced on Nanjing, Rabe, along with the remaining foreigners, organized the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created the Nanking Safety Zone (Nanjing was formerly known as Nanking). The safety zone was established in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city where Chinese military forces did not exist, 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 partially successful.
On December 1, 1937, the Nanjing Mayor ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanjing to relocate to the Safety Zone. After issuing the order, the Mayor fled the city. When Nanjing fell to the Japanese forces on December 13, 1937, there were 500,000 civilians that had remained in the city.
According to Rabe, the violence which resulted from the Japanese forces overtaking the city caused the deaths of 50,000 to 60,000 civilians. Today, the estimates vary greatly depending on sources, but some have placed civilian casualties as high as 300,000.
On February 28, 1938, Rabe departed for Germany. He brought with him films and photographs documenting the ferocity of the Japanese forces. He proceeded to give lectures in Berlin and wrote a letter to Hitler to try to persuade him to use his influence to prevent further violence. As a result, Rabe was detained and interrogated by the Gestapo and his letter was never delivered to Hitler. With the intervention of Siemens AG, Rabe was eventually released and forbidden to lecture or write about the topic of Nanjing.
After the war, Rabe was arrested first by the Soviets and then by the British. He was released after an intense interrogation process. He was later denounced for his Nazi Party membership by an acquaintance and stripped of his work permit. Unable to work to support his family and with his savings depleted, Rabe’s family survived in a one-room apartment by selling their Chinese art collection.
In 1948, the citizens of Nanjing learned of the family’s destitution and they raised an equivalent of US$ 2 ,000 to aid them. From mid-1948 until the Communist takeover, the citizens of Nanjing also sent a care package of food each month.
John Rabe died of a stroke on January 5, 1950. His tombstone was relocated from Berlin to Nanjing in 1997, where it stands today at the massacre memorial site.
John Rabe’s story presents a paradox. He is remembered as a great humanitarian despite remaining a loyal member of the Nazi Party. In the end it is important to remember that it is not about race, culture, religion, political beliefs, or any other factor used to divide man. It is about accepting the fact that we are all human and we should treat our fellow man with kindness and compassion. Only when we recognize that we are all one family inhabiting this planet together will peace truly be achieved.