Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

John Rabe: the Nazi who saved 250,000 Chinese lives

It's a well-known fact that heroes can come from the most unlikely of places, and even those we judge to be irredeemable are capable of moments of empathy, compassion and humanity. Looking back at the Second World War, many people would dismiss anyone from Nazi Germany as a monstrous murderer, when the reality is far more nuanced. Those living under Adolf Hitler's dictatorship were disgusted by the atrocities committed in the name of the Third Reich, and there were even a few Nazi party members who were exonerated after the Nuremberg trials.

One such example is John Rabe, who saved an estimated 250,000 lives during the Invasion of Nanjing. While seemingly supporting the same regime that butchered millions of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals and gypsies, he took it upon himself to save lives while simultaneously risking his life.

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall Credit: Getty

Originally from Germany, he lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving from Mukden to Peking to Tientsin to Shanghai and finally settling Nanjing. However, he was fiercely patriotic, and it was this patriotism that convinced him to join the Nazi party. Rabe thought that Hitler's economic reforms were good for Germany; helping the beleaguered nation to recover in the wake of the humiliating treaty of Versailles.

By 1937, he was Deputy Group Leader of the Nanjing Nationalist Socialist Party and worked at Siemens, where he was considered the top man in the city. But the 1930s were a frightening decade for the Chinese population. In 1937, the fascist and highly aggressive imperial Japan, under the leadership of the Emperor Hirohito, invaded China, after a dispute between the two countries over Marco Polo bridge escalated into a full-scale conflict.

The Chinese had number and resources on their side, but the Japanese war machine was highly disciplined and utterly zealous. Moreover, the Japanese fought so brutally, that even staunch nazis like Rabe were disturbed by their violent reprisals. No civilian was safe from butchery at the hands of the Japanese army, least of all women and children. Any notion of honourable warfare was rendered completely farcical.

A sign showing the number of victims of the Nanjing massacre. Credit: Getty

But 1937, Nanjing was the last remaining major city still under Chinese control, but then this bastion also fell. The Japanese stormed the city, riding roughshod over the defences, and were given orders to suppress the population without restraint. There were fears that even Germans, who were allied with the Japanese, would not be safe.

At one point, a Japanese major, who was an acquaintance of Rabe, begged him to flee the city. He replied: "If I had spent 30 years in Japan and were treated just as well by the Japanese people, you can be assured that, in a time of emergency, such as the situation China faces now, I would not leave the side of the people in Japan." He was one of only 22 foreigners brave enough to stay in the city.
Rabe was struck by the violence he saw in the streets, and despite his Nazi party membership, he endeavoured to do everything he could to save innocent Chinese citizens from torture, abuse and slaughter. He kept a diary in which he took careful and meticulous notes regarding the horrors he witnessed first-hand. He and the other 22 expats decided to take matters into their own hands.

They created the International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone with the intent of rescuing refugees, by petitioning Japan to station it near the Ginling Women's Arts & Sciences College, the American embassy, and Rabe's own personal home; as well as Nanjing University and government buildings. This demilitarised plot of about three and a half square miles in the centre of the city provided fleeing refugees with food, shelter, medical aid and a small degree of sanitation.

Rabe felt indebted to the Chinese, and to the country he had lived in for the past thirty years. He wrote: "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." To aid those who were escaping persecution, Rabe used his Nazi party credentials to appeal to German and Japanese officials, often delaying and obfuscating the Japanese military bureaucracy in order to buy time to the retreating civilians. Were it not for his meddling, it's estimated that 250,000 people would have been unable to escape serious harm.

Rabe also wrote numerous letters in which he directly criticised the Japanese for their war crimes. On December 17, Rabe wrote in his own diary: "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."

He also wrote a telegram to the head of the Nazi party in China, requesting that he "intercede with the Japanese government to grant permission for the creation of a neutral zone for noncombatants, since imminent battle for Nanjing otherwise endangers the lives of over 200,000 people. Second to general consult Kriebel Urgently request support of my petition to the Führer for his intercession with the Japanese government concerning creation of a neutral zone for noncombatants, since dreadful bloodbath otherwise inevitable in imminent battle for Nanjing."

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall Credit: Getty

On his return to Germany in February of 1938, Rabe gave a number of lectures in Berlin in which he discussed the inhumane Japanese tactics, and showed films and photographs. He wrote personally to Hitler to use his influence to persuade the Japanese to reign in the violence. Because of his impudence, he was detained and interrogated by the Gestapo. Hitler never saw the letter. Rabe was later released and was banned from lecturing on the subject.

After the war, he struggled to find employment because of his Nazi affiliations and was shocked by the true extent of the holocaust. Even today, it is still contested by historians as to how much he already knew about the genocide going on in his country. At one point he and his family were so poor that they were only saved thanks to the intervention of some of the Nanjing survivors, who never forgot the sacrifices Rabe made to protect them.

Rabe died of a stroke in 1950, and in 1997, his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjing, where he was laid to rest at the massacre site. Today, Rabe is remembered in the Chinese museum commemorating the massacre, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. It seems unbelievable that a member of the same political party responsible for the holocaust could be so affronted, but his personal appeals speak for themselves. His story proves that whoever you are, whatever your background, you are still capable of overcoming prejudice in the name of good.