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

During a staff conference the night of December 14, the committee learned that the Japanese had rounded up 1,300 men in a Safety Zone camp near the headquarters to shoot them. "We knew that there were a number of ex-soldiers among them, but Rabe had been promised by an officer that af­ternoon that their lives would be spared," George Fitch, the YMCA representative, wrote in his diary of the incident. "It was now all too obvious what they were going to do. The men were lined up and roped together in groups of about 100 by soldiers with bayonets fixed; those who had hats had them roughly torn off and thrown to the ground -- and then by the lights of our headlights we watched them marched away to their doom."

For the next few days Rabe watched helplessly as the Japanese dragged thousands more soldiers from the zone and executed them. The Japanese killed thousands of innocent men who happened to have calluses on their fingers, foreheads, or feet --  men who were ricksha coolies, manual laborers, and police of­ficers. Rabe later witnessed the Red Swastika Society, a charitable Buddhist organization in the city, pull more than 120 corpses from a single pond. (In a later report, Rabe pointed out that several ponds in Nanking actually disap­peared because they were so filled with corpses.)

Finally, with only his status as an official of an allied nation for protection, Rabe did what now seems the unthinkable: he be­gan to roam about the city, trying to prevent atrocities himself.

Whenever he drove through Nanking, some man would in­evitably leap out and stop the car to beg Rabe to stop a rape in progress -- a rape that usually involved a sister, a wife, or a daughter. Rabe would then let the man climb into the car and direct him to the scene of the rape. Once there, he would chase Japanese soldiers away from their prey, on one occasion even bodily lifting a soldier sprawled on top of a young girl. He knew these expeditions were highly dangerous ("The Japanese had pistols and bayonets and I ... had only party symbols and my swastika armband," Rabe wrote in his report to Hitler), but nothing could deter him -- not even the risk of death.

Rabe was appalled by the rape in the city. In the streets he passed scores of female corpses, raped and mutilated, next to the charred remains of their homes. "Groups of 3 to 10 ma­rauding soldiers would begin by traveling through the city and robbing whatever there was to steal," Rabe wrote in his report to Hitler.

Determined to save Chinese lives, Rabe sheltered as many people as he could, turning his house and office into sanctuar­ies for Siemens employees and their families. Rabe also har­bored hundreds of Chinese women on his property, permitting them to live in tiny straw huts in his backyard. With these women Rabe developed a warning system to protect them from Japanese rapists. Whenever Japanese soldiers scaled the wall of his yard, the women would blow a whistle and send Rabe running out into the yard to chase the offenders away. This happened so frequently that Rabe rarely left his home at night, fearful that Japanese intruders would commit an orgy of rape in his absence.

Fortunately, his status as a Nazi caused several Japanese sol­diers to hesitate before committing further mayhem -- at least in his presence. George Fitch, the local YMCA secretary, wrote that "when any of them objects [Rabe] thrusts his Nazi arm­band in their face and points to his Nazi decoration, the high­est in the country, and asks them if they know what that means. It always works!" The Japanese soldiers appeared to respect -- at times even fear -- the Nazis of Nanking. While the Japanese privates did not hesitate to beat up the Americans, charge at them with bayonets, or even to push one American missionary down a flight of stairs, they exercised considerable restraint in their dealings with Rabe and his countrymen. Once, when four Japanese soldiers in the midst of raping and looting saw Eduard Sperling's swastika armband, they screamed "Deutsche! Deutsche!" and ran away. On another oc­casion, the swastika probably saved Rabe's life. One evening Japanese soldiers broke into his property, and Rabe confronted them with his flashlight. One of them reached for his pistol, as if to shoot Rabe, but stopped when he realized it would be "bad business to shoot a German subject."

If the Japanese respected Rabe, the Chinese refugee commu­nity revered him. To them he was the man who rescued daugh­ters from sexual slavery and sons from machine-gun fire. Rabe's very presence sometimes touched off riots in Safety Zone camps. During one of his visits to the zone, thousands of Chinese women flung themselves to the ground before him, weeping and begging for protection, declaring they would rather commit suicide on the spot than leave the zone to be raped and tortured.

Rabe tried to keep hope alive for his refugees in the midst of their terror. He hosted little birthday celebrations for the chil­dren born to refugee women living in his backyard. Each new­born received a gift: $10 for baby boys and $9.50 for baby girls. (As Rabe explained in his report to Hitler -- "Girls in China aren't worth as much as boys.") Typically, when a boy was born, he received Rabe's name, and if a girl was born, she re­ceived his wife's name, Dora.

Rabe's courage and generosity ultimately won the respect of the other members of the International Committee, even those fundamentally opposed to Nazism. George Fitch wrote to his friends that he would "almost wear a Nazi badge" to keep fel­lowship with Rabe and the other Germans in Nanking. Even Dr. Robert Wilson, a man thoroughly repulsed by Nazism, sang Rabe's praises in letters to his family: "He is well up in Nazi circles and after coming into such close contact with him as we have for the past few weeks and discover[ing] what a splendid man he is and what a tremendous heart he has, it is hard to reconcile his personality with his adulation of 'Der Fuhrer.' "

Excerpted from Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II (Basic Books).

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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