The Nazi Leader Who, in 1937, Became the Oskar Schindler of China

How John Rabe helped Chinese survive Japan's horrific World War II invasion and became "the living Buddha of Nanking"

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Chinese civilians held as captives of Japanese troops during the Nanking Massacre, which killed 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians / Wikimedia

In the history of every war, there are al­ways a few rare individuals who emerge as beacons of hope for the persecuted. In the United States the Quakers freed their own slaves and helped establish the Underground Railroad. In Europe during World War II, Os­kar Schindler, a Nazi, expended his fortune to save twelve hundred Jews from the Auschwitz gas chambers, and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, saved more than one hun­dred thousand Jews by giving them false passports. Who can forget Mies Giep, the Austrian woman who together with others hid the young Anne Frank and her family in an Amsterdam attic?

Dark times paralyze most people, but some very few, for reasons most of us will never understand, are able to set aside all caution and do things even they could not imagine themselves doing in ordinary times.

Perhaps the most fascinating character to emerge from the his­tory of the Rape of Nanking is the German businessman John Rabe. To most of the Chinese in the city, he was a hero, "the living Buddha of Nanking," the legendary head of the International Safety Zone who saved hundreds of thousands of Chi­nese lives. But to the Japanese, Rabe was a strange and unlikely savior. For he was not only a German national -- a citizen of a country allied with Japan -- but the leader of the Nazi Party in Nanking.

johnrabehelmet.jpgRabe at his desk in Nanking /

In 1996 I began an investigation into the life of John Rabe and eventually unearthed thousands of pages of diaries that he and other Nazis kept during the Rape. These diaries led me to conclude that John Rabe was "the Oskar Schindler of China."

Prior to the 1937 Rape of Nanking, Rabe had led a relatively peaceful though well-traveled life. The son of a sea captain, he was born in Hamburg, Germany, on November 23, 1882. After completing his apprenticeship in Hamburg he worked a few years in Africa and then in 1908 moved to China, where he found employ­ment at the Peking office of the Siemens China Company. In 1931 he transferred to the Nanking office, selling telephones and electrical equipment to the Chinese government. Bald and bespectacled, dressed in conservative suits and bow ties, he looked like a typical, middle-aged Western businessman in the city. Soon he became a pillar of the German community in Nanking, administering his own German school for elemen­tary and junior high school students.

As the years went by, Rabe became a staunch supporter of Nazism and the representative town leader for the Nazi Party in Nanking. In 1938 he would tell German audiences that "I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but, as an organizer of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent."

When most of his fellow German nationals, on the advice of friends and embassy officials, departed China long before the Japanese military reached the gates of the city, Rabe chose to stay and was soon elected the head of the Safety Zone. In fact, even when Japanese embassy officials met with him and suggested more strongly that he leave, he remained. Dispatched by his su­periors to protect Rabe during the fall of Nanking, Japanese Ma­jor Oka asked him: "Why in the devil did you stay? Why do you want to involve yourself in our military affairs? What does all this matter to you? You haven't lost anything here!"

Rabe paused for a moment, then gave Oka his answer. "I have been living here in China for over 30 years," Rabe said. "My kids and grandchildren were born here, and I am happy and successful here. I have always been treated well by the Chi­nese people, even during the war. 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."

This answer satisfied the Japanese major, who respected the concept of loyalty. "He took a step back, mumbled some words about Samurai obligations, and bowed deeply," Rabe wrote of the incident.

But Rabe had an even more personal reason not to walk away and protect himself -- he felt responsible for the safety of his Chinese employees, a team of Siemens mechanics who maintained the turbines in the city's main power plant, the telephones and clocks in every ministry, the alarms in the po­lice stations and the banks, and an enormous X-ray machine at the central hospital. "What I only had a premonition of then," Rabe wrote, "-- but what I now know -- is that all of them would have been killed or severely injured if I had left their side."

But his biggest concern was not for his own personal safety or well-being but for the establishment of the Safety Zone. The committee members wanted the zone to be free of all military activity, but the Japanese army refused to recognize it as neu­tral territory.

Presented by

Iris Chang, a journalist and historian, published in 1997 what became a definitive but controversial history of Japan's occupation of Nanking. Though she died in 2004, her life and work were the subject of two biographies and a documentary film. The Rape of Nanking remains widely discussed and read, most recently in a new paperback edition out in January 2012.

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