Above: John Rabe after receiving the German Red Cross.
The Battle of Nanking took place from October of 1937 to December of that same year, and saw the Japanese Army invade the Chinese City of Nanking. The fall of the city would usher in a six week period of barbarism on behalf of that that army now referred to as the "Rape of Nanking". From these events would emerge an international cast of heroes. Americans like Minnie Vautrin, John Magee and Dr. CS Trimmer; and Germans like Eduard Sperling, Georg Rosen, and importantly John Rabe.
John Rabe was a businessman for Siemens Electric, who was stationed in China throughout the first World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. He was present during the battle and occupation of Nanking, forming an international safety zone to save the lives of countless thousands of Chinese citizens. Rabe was also present during the Bolshevik invasion and occupation of Germany toward the end of the Second World War. In both instances he experiences the horrors of a brutal and vengeful enemy occupation.
John Rabe was born November 23rd 1882, in Hamburg to a seas Captain and his wife. At a young age he became involved in the world of international business, and spent some time learning the trade in Africa. In 1908 he left for China, and was hired by the Siemens firm two years later. Rabe would spend almost the next 30 years running Siemens power plants in Shanghai, and eventually Nanking, where Rabe would lease a nice two story home near many of the foreign embassies.
Above: Nanking 1937.
While living in China Rabe became fluent in English and made a number of American friends. He never mastered the Chinese language, but had a profound respect for the Chinese people. Rabe had developed a certain trust and familiarity with his employees, becoming a father figure to many of his workers and their families. He was well known for his unfaltering sense of humor. During the first World War Germany and China were enemies. The Chinese authorities could have imprisoned him or confiscated his belongings. Instead Mr. Rabe was treated well by the Chinese government during this time, and even allowed to continue performing his job for Siemens. Rabe would never forget this friendly treatment.
The nation of Japan had for a long time been planning an economic or military expansion into Asia proper. Members of the Kwantung Army, a Japanese military occupation force stationed in Asia, sought to force China and Japan into conflict. Events like the Mukden Incident of September 1931, where Kwantung men staged the sabotage of a track of Japanese railway urged the two nations closer and closer into conflict. All of this culminated in what is referred to as the "Marco Polo Bridge Incident". On the 8th of the morning of July 1937, Japanese officers demanded entry into the gates of Wanping to to search for a soldier, allegedly missing from the previous night's practice maneuvers. When Chinese authorities refused to allow Japanese troops to enter the town, a firefight developed and quickly escalated into a battle. A battle which the Japanese won.
Above: Rabe in his Nanking office during the siege.
As a result the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in July of 1937, and events quickly turned in favor of the Japanese, forcing thousands of Chinese soldiers into retreat and rearguard actions. The leader of China, General Chiang Kai-shek, ordered Shanghai (then in Japanese hands) to be assaulted in order to relieve pressure on his northwestern front. While these elite German-trained Chinese forces made headway initially, by November 11th they were in full rout. The Japanese Armed Forces took many casualties in these encounters, but their superior quantities of modern military equipment such as artillery, armored vehicles, aircraft and naval support. Lead them to victory time and time again. This deciding fact then paved the way for the siege of the previous Chinese capital city Nanking (or Nanking).
After securing (mostly) the parameter around the city, and reducing resistance in the surrounding regions, Japanese troops began the siege proper on December 9th. After the Chinese refusal to surrender the city, an assault was ordered. At 2:00 p.m. on December 9th, men of the 36th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Kanazawa Division attacked the southern facing Guanghau Gate. After days of intense and costly fighting for both sides, especially the Japanese. Men of the Sabae Regiment finally occupied Guanghau Gate in the early hours of December 13th. While intermittent fighting would continue in and around the city for a short while after, this effectively ended the battle of Nanking.
Above: Japanese tanks and infantry preparing for the final assault on Guanghua gate (seen in the background), Nanking 1937.
It is noteworthy that on December 10th Japanese General Iwane Matsui of the Shanghai Expeditionary Army issued an order to his men "The entrance of the Imperial Army into the capital of a foreign nation is a historic event. The attention of the world will be focused on you. You are to observe military regulations to the letter, to set an example for the future." Also stating "Anyone who loots or starts a fire, even accidentally, will be severely punished." As we will see, if his men had followed that order. They would have probably avoided the ignominious reputation which we bestow upon them today.
Most of Nanking's European population fled with the falling of the first bombs and shells. John Rabe and a handful of Americans and Germans stayed behind; however, to help care for the Chinese who could not leave. Rabe and his friends were first concerned with how Chinese troops would behave as they retreated through the suburbs and commercial districts. Disturbances did occur, but only occasionally ans sporadically. Rabe was encouraged by his peers to become chairman of a civilian safety zone, where combatants were not allowed, and bystanders could receive aid and shelter. This meant coming to an agreement between both Chinese and Japanese military and political authorities. The Nanking "International Safety Committee" did get the Japanese to agree to not attack the zone, but the refusal of Chinese commanders to respect the borders of the zone caused some serious crisis. The zone was packed with civilians and Chinese resistance there would have guaranteed a deadly Japanese response.
Above: Chinese prisoners are rounded up for torture and liquidation.
Soldiers of the 6th, 9th, 16th, and 116th Divisions entered the gated walls of Nanking on December 13th. The six week long orgy of theft, vandalization, murder, torture, and rape which took place soon thereafter has been since referred to as the "Rape of Nanking". Contemporary figures estimate some 300,000 Chinese died during that period, many through acts of extreme and prolonged torture. A famous incident during this time involved a contest held between two officers, to see who could behead the most prisoners in the shortest time. After the two men had each just exceeded 100 heads apiece, the referee said that he had lost track of the time, and the contest was began anew another day. Countless women of all ages were raped during this period as well, many of them constantly over the course of weeks. Many of these women were sexually mutilated with tools, swords and random objects, and usually died from their wounds. As much as 60% of the city was systematical burned to the ground, and looting took place on a grande scale. Even the German embassy was looted. Although Siemens had ordered him to leave the city, Rabe stayed behind to help care for the employees and families under his supervision.
During this massacre John Rabe and his associates did everything they could to defend the Chinese population. Rabe opened up his own walled property for 650 or so people to stay. Rabe consistently negotiated with an apologetic Japanese diplomatic core, and with a totally uncooperative Japanese military elite, to try and guarantee the safety of those under his wing. On one occasion Rabe's own house was broken into 20 separate times during the day while he was attending to committee duties, the Japanese soldiers looking for loot or opportunities for sexual assault. Rabe and his friends became incensed at the irresponsible behavior of the occupational troops. While the Americans who stayed behind had much trouble garnishing respect from the Imperial troops (and were sometimes badly assaulted). The ferocious demeanor of the Germans often struck terror into the hearts of the occupiers.
Above: Nanking 1937 during Japanese occupation.
Rabe marked the borders of the safety zone with flags bearing the Swastika, and had NSDAP party armbands made for himself and his few remaining German nationals. They patrolled the grounds at night with Luger pistols in their belts, and scoured the city for anything useful during the day. Japanese soldiers, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups, constantly tried to break into the safety zone to rape and pillage. Many a Chinese woman had the experience of waking in the middle of the night to a Japanese soldier ordering "If you scream I will kill you, now lay still". Only then to have the door burst open by a towering, bellowing German. Who promptly grabs the dangerous man by the collar, throws him out on the street, and sends him scrambling back over the walls he came from.
Through these constant actions and many more, the Chinese under Rabe's care grew to love him. John Rabe became known to those in Nanking as the "Living Buddha", and they honored him with fireworks during New Years celebration. The Chinese citizens risked their own lives outside the relative safety of the zone during the day and night, to make sure Rabe had a supply of eggs every morning for breakfast. There are even accounts of families bringing Rabe to their house during a child's birth, because they believed only his presence would guarantee the birth would be a successful one (much to Rabes chagrin!). Additionally, Rabe made sure that all of his employees received their rightful pay. Even during periods when there was little or no work to be done at the Siemens plant.
Above: HMS Bee.
After six weeks of hard work and negotiating between the Japanese and Safety Zone officials. John Rabe finally boarded the British gunboat HMS Bee and left Nanking on February 23rd. All the while sneaking a downed Chinese airman out of the country, disguising him as a business aid. Rabe arrived in Berlin on April 15th. He was greeted by Ernst Wilhelm Bohle and received the Red Cross by the German government for his brave and selfless acts in China. The Chinese government likewise awarded Rabe the Star of the Jade Order on blue, white, and red ribbon as a sign of their gratitude at a later date. Rabe conducted several seminars and meetings discussing his experiences with the Japanese army, the Chinese government, and Nanking civilian population. A deputy of Himmler is said to have attended one of these.
Because of the political atmosphere of the time and military needs, Rabe's reports were unfortunately classified. With a deadly World War brewing, the German government could not endorse any negative propaganda about their eastern (and strongest) ally, Japan. Rabe's family were allowed to keep his diaries and reports, with the understanding that they were to keep them within the family. Siemens soon put Rabe back to work and he spent some time during World War II in Afghanistan, performing company duties there. Herr Rabe was for a while in charge of correspondence with interred Germans and Siemens employees overseas, sending them literature and care packages to help keep their spirits up.
Above: Berlin 1945. Remains of the Tiergarten.
John Rabe was in Berlin when the Soviets arrived, and the cities occupants were almost immediately subjected to treatment very reminiscent of the Nanking Massacre. Rabe and his wife found themselves reliving the horror of brutal occupation all over again, this time in their homeland. Soviet rape squads went from house to house looking for victims, and many people were shot, arrested, evicted, deported and robbed. The riches of the land (including civilian property) were shipped off to the Soviet Union. At this time Rabes heart began to falter, and he had to spend much time in bed while his wife provided things like food and news at great risk to herself.
John Rabe was placed under interrogation repeatedly by the Soviets and by the Allied War Crimes Commission. His only crime was his political affiliation. Rabe had for a long time been a firm National Socialist, and even temporarily took the position of local NSDAP party leader in Nanking as a favor, while the regular man was out sick. While defending the civilians of Nanking Rabe frequently invoked the name of the Fuhrer, the Fatherland, and the NSDAP. It was these things he could rely on to give him not only the strength, but the authority to face off with a squad of heavily armed Japanese troops and come off the victor. Very few men of the Japanese occupying force had any desire to damage their nations alliance with the Third Reich, or to deal with the formidable presence of an aggressive German sporting a Swastika armband.
Above: John and his wife Dora Rabe.
Rabe spent much of his savings in legal costs. When all was said an done the Rabes had nothing, and indeed had been starving soon after the Soviet occupation of Berlin. They ate soup made of seeds, acorns, and nettles in an attempt to stave off the slow death of starvation. The Siemens office in Berlin was temporarily shut down, with the understanding that employees with former NSDAP membership would not be eligible to keep their jobs (due to threats by Allied and Soviet occupational forces). Rabe was "de-Nazified" after multiple appeals to the Allied military courts, but still was not allowed to return to work.
The Chinese government, upon hearing of Rabe's personal disaster in Germany, sprung into positive action. The Chinese government sent a large delegation of witnesses to petition in his defense. Against such a public and massive demonstration on behalf of John Rabe, even the Allied War Crimes Commission had to admit defeat. Still, the damage had been done and the Rabe family was left penniless and hungry. The Chinese government gifted Rabe the equivalent of $2000 (American) worth of financial assets so that he and his family could start anew. The mayor of Nanking himself traveled to Germany to buy food for the Rabes. Additionally, until the Communist takeover of Nanking citizens of that city sent Rabe and his family monthly care packages containing food and letters of thanks.
Above: Chinese memorial for John Rabe in Nanking.
In a way the story of John Rabe comes full circle, in that while he helped protect and feed countless thousands in distress. The representatives of that same people would later come to aid him and his family when they were in dire need. John Rabe died January 5th 1950 of a stroke. In 2005 his grave was moved from Berlin to Nanking, and given a prominent place within a larger memorial site. While modern China still may have its reservations about the west, John Rabe remains a positive link between these two civilizations. Because of Herr Rabe we have a richer understanding of what is rightfully called the "Rape of Nanking", and because of this same man there were many thousands of survivors to rebuild and start life again.
For more information about the life and experiences of John Rabe and the "International Safety Zone" members, I recommend his published diary entries "John Rabe: The Good Man of Nanking", as entertaining and educational reading.