‘I saw a Japanese soldier lying completely naked on a young girl, who was crying hysterically. I yelled at this swine, in any language it would be understood, ‘Happy New Year! and he fled from there, naked and with his pants in his hand.’ This is John Rabe - who was born 130 years ago today - writing in his diary on 1 January 1938, during the weeks of the Rape of Nanking. The diary was only discovered some 60 years later, and inspired an American historian to dub Rabe the Oskar Schindler of China for his heroic efforts to protect Nanking’s residents from Japanese atrocities.
Rabe was born in Hamburg, Germany, on 23 November 1882. His father was a sailor. Rabe was apprenticed to a merchant, and in time assigned to a post in Africa. In his mid-20s, he went to China and then, from 1910, was employed by Siemens in its Beijing office. When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, the foreign community and much of the Chinese population, including the government, were evacuated from Nanking, where Rabe was living. Although Siemens ordered him to leave too, he declined (although his family did leave).
With other foreign nationals, Rabe established a temporary safety zone for Chinese refugees. Subsequently, he was made head of an international committee to administer the zone. During what became known as the Rape of Nanking, the efforts of this committee managed to save many lives, possibly hundreds of thousands. In 1938, Rabe travelled to Germany, where he undertook a series of lectures, using photos and an amateur film, to publicise the extent of Japanese violence in China. At one point he was arrested by the Gestapo, and only released (under censorship) after an intervention by Siemens. He was posted to Afghanistan briefly.
After the Second World War, Rabe, a member of the Nazi party, was obliged to go through denazification procedures. He appears to have left Siemens employ in 1945, and, thereafter, lived in poverty until his death in 1950. There is plenty of biographical information about Rabe online, thanks to, among others, Wikipedia, a New York Times article, Learn to Question, and Emily Paras’s Can a Nazi be a Hero?. There are also many websites with details about the Rape of Nanking, not least at the Nanking Atrocities website.
It was Iris Chang, an American historian researching the Nanking events, who discovered John Rabe’s diaries. In her famous book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II published in 1998, she wrote: ‘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”. The diaries were translated by John E. Woods, edited by Erwin Wickert and published in the late 1990s as The Good German of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe by Little Brown in London (and The Good Man of Nanking by A. A. Knopf in New York).
Chang also discovered diaries written by Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who was in Nanking at the time - see more on her diaries in the 2010 Diary Review article - In darkness and fear.
A few extracts from Rabe’s diaries can be found online at Wikipedia, in Chang’s book (at Googlebooks), and at the Nanking atrocities website.
13 December 1937
‘It is not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of destruction. We come across corpses every 100 to 200 yards. The bodies of civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs. These people had been presumably fleeing and were shot from behind. The Japanese march through the city in groups of ten to twenty soldiers and loot the shops [. . .] I watched with my own eyes as they looted the café of our German baker Herr Kiessling. Hempel’s hotel was broken into as well, as almost every shop on Chung Shang and Taiping Road.’
15 December 1937
‘No sooner am I back in my office at Committee Headquarters, than my boy arrives with bad news - the Japanese have returned and now have 1,300 refugees tied up. Along with Smythe and Mills I try to get these people released, but to no avail. They are surrounded by about 100 Japanese soldiers and, still tied up, are led off to be shot. [. . .] It’s hard to see people driven off like animals. But they say that Chinese shot 2,000 Japanese prisoners in Tsinanfu, too. We hear by way of the Japanese Navy that the gunboat U.S.S. Pany, on which the officials of the American embassy had sought safety, has been accidentally bombed and sunk by the Japanese.’
17 December 1937
‘Two Japanese soldiers have climbed over the garden wall and are about to break into our house. When I appear they give the excuse that they saw two Chinese soldiers climb over the wall. When I show them my party badge, they return the same way. 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.’
24 December 1937
‘I have had to look at so many corpses over the last few weeks that I can keep my nerves in check even when viewing these horrible cases. It really doesn’t leave you in a “Christmas” mood; but I wanted to see these atrocities with my own eyes, so that I can speak as an eyewitness later. A man cannot be silent about this kind of cruelty!’
28 December 1937
‘He [Fukui Kiyoshi of the Japanese embassy] also informs me that our Zone has now been surrounded by Japanese guards, who will see to it that no prowling soldiers are allowed into the Zone. I’ve now had a better look at these guards and discovered that they did not stop and interrogate a single Japanese soldier. I even saw soldiers carrying looted items out of the Zone, and with absolutely no questions asked by the guards. What sort of protection is that?’
1 January 1938
‘The mother of a young attractive girl called out to me, and throwing herself on her knees, crying, said I should help her. Upon entering [. . .], I saw a Japanese soldier lying completely naked on a young girl, who was crying hysterically. I yelled at this swine, in any language it would be understood, ‘Happy New Year!’ and he fled from there, naked and with his pants in his hand.’
10 February 1938
‘Fukui, whom I tried to find at the Japanese embassy to no avail all day yesterday, paid a call on me last night. He actually managed to threaten me: “If the newspapers in Shanghai report bad things, you will have the Japanese army against you”, he said. [. . .] In reply to my question as to what I then could say in Shanghai, Fukui said “We leave that to your discretion.” My response: “It looks as if you expect me to say something like this to the reporters: The situation in Nanking is improving everyday. Please don’t print any more atrocities stories about the vile behavior of Japanese soldiers, because then you’ll only be pouring oil on fire of disagreement that already exists between the Japanese and Europeans.” “Yes”, he said simply beaming, “that would be splendid!” ’