It was in this context that between 20 and 30 foreigners chose to stay in Nanjing, despite the impending danger, to do what ever they could to help the locals. One of these men was John Rabe.
Who was John Rabe?
Born in Hamburg in 1882, John Rabe (known in Chinese as Ai Labei) had lived in China for 29 years, and worked for Siemens for 27 of them. He was the leading figure in the German community in the city, and was the head of the local branch of the Nazi Party.
In late November 1937, as the Japanese were advancing, these foreigners who remained established the Nanjing Safety Zone, to protect as many citizens as possible, and it consisted of areas of the city north west of Xinjeikou and West of Golou. Much of this area consisted of the University and foreign embassies, along with the private homes of many of the foreigners themselves.
Due to John Rabe’s Nazi connections, he was subsequently elected to lead the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, since Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had close relations, and so it was felt that he could use his position as a Nazi official to influence the Japanese to not commit such atrocities.
The setting up of this safety zone is agreed by different sources to have potentially saved up to 250,000 lives, and in Rabe’s own home and garden, he welcomed around 600 refugees.
Although the Japanese declared that they would not attack any area that was not occupied by Chinese soldiers, (which was true of the Safety Zone), the Japanese did violate this declaration from time to time by kidnapping and murdering refugees who had fled inside. Nevertheless, the atrocities here were far less than in the rest of the city, and Rabe hung the flag of Nazi Germany over his house to warn the Japanese of his international connections.
Rabe’s diary entries, like those of other foreigners, provide horrific accounts of what happened and how the Japanese authorities from the Embassy tried to threaten him to lie about the situation in Nanjing. It was in February of 1938 that Rabe left for Germany to try to inform the west of this monstrous crime.
Thus, in Germany, he gave lectures, showed film footage and wrote a letter to Adolf Hitler convincing the latter to use his influence to convince the Japanese to stop their crimes against Chinese Civilians. For the latter action, he was detained by the Gestapo and the letter never passed on. It was only for the intervention of Siemens that he was released.
With the victory of the Allies in the Second World War and their subsequent occupation of Germany, Rabe, as a former Nazi, was denied the right to work, and had to undergo a long and painful De-Nazification process whose legal fees depleted his savings and forced him and his family into poverty. His family was thus forced to move into a one-room apartment, sell their Chinese Art Collection, and live off wild seeds to make soup just to stay alive.
Hearing of his and his family’s suffering, the people of Nanjing quickly razed the 2018 equivalent of $20,000 to help him, and the then Mayor of Nanjing personally travelled to Germany to buy food for him, and quickly a food package was sent each month, until the the city changed hands in the Chinese Civil War.
Visiting his former home
|John Rabe’s Nanjing home and memorial given
to him by Nanjing University. Taken two
weeks ago in November 2018.
His former family home, build in 1932 by the University, still stands on the west side of Zongshanlu next to Zhujianglu subway station. It has since become a museum, and the university’s own memorial hall.
What I saw when I visited his house over a week ago confirmed how his image in mainland China has changed immensely in the last decades – before the warming of relations between Mainland China and the West in the 1970s, the foreigners in Nanjing were, if anything, seen by the Communists as collaborators with the Japanese, due partly to the general western treatment of China over the previous century.
Now that has changed entirely, and back in April when I visited the main Memorial Hall for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre, the role of American, Danish and German foreigners and particularly John Rabe, in saving so many lives, was greatly emphasised.
And in Rabe’s former home, the dramatic improvement in relations between China and the West was greatly evident. Soon after I arrived, perhaps one hundred school children turned up with their teachers to be shown round the house by the Austrian guide who was in China as part of his National Service to bolster relations between his homeland and China.
German-Speaking visitors toured the home alongside Chinese visitors – a hero who had once been forgotten, if not snubbed, is now increasingly well remembered in the country whose citizens he had saved. What was particularly noteworthy was that recent commemorations of him involved not just attendance by German and Chinese diplomats and politicians, but also representatives from the modern-day branch of Siemens in China.
And so as his name is now more widely known in China itself, I also believe that it is high time that this hero be more widely known in the wider world too, just as Oskar Shindler is.