One of these was a businessman named John Rabe who found himself in Nanking, China when the Japanese invaded that country in 1937 and began one of the most horrific atrocities in human history, brutally raping and murdering some 60,000 Chinese civilians. The rampage came to be known as the Rape of Nanking. At its height Rabe courageously managed to save at least two hundred thousand Chinese from torture and death.
Here's part of his story:
Many Westerners were living in the Chinese capital city of the time, as Nanking was until December 1937, conducting trade or on missionary trips. As the Japanese army approached Nanking (now Nanjing) and initiated bombing raids on the city, all but 22 foreigners fled the city, with 15 American and European missionaries and businessmen forming part of the remaining group.In his diary Rabe documented Japanese atrocities committed during the assault upon and occupation of the city. On December 13, 1937, he wrote:
On November 22, 1937, as the Japanese Army advanced on Nanking, Rabe, along with other foreign nationals, organized the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created the Nanking Safety Zone to provide Chinese refugees with food and shelter from the impending Japanese slaughter.
He explained his reasons thus: "... there is a question of morality here...I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me, and it is touching to see how they believe in me." The zones were located in all of the foreign embassies and at Nanking University.
Rabe was elected as its leader, in part because of his status as a member of the Nazi party and the existence of the German–Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact. This committee established the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone attempted to persuade the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area. They were partly successful.
On December 1, 1937, Nanjing Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanking to move into the Safety Zone and then fled the city. Rabe also opened up his properties to help 650 more refugees.
Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. His attempts to appeal to the Japanese by using his Nazi Party membership credentials only delayed them; but that delay allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to escape. [S]ources suggest that Rabe rescued between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people.
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.On December 17, 1937 he added:
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.Rabe wrote to the Japanese commanding officer Fukui the following day:
We are sorry to trouble you again but the sufferings and needs of the 200 000 civilians for whom we are trying to care make it urgent that we try to secure action from your military authorities to stop the present disorder among Japanese soldiers wandering through the Safety Zone... The second man in our Housing Commission had to see two women in his family at 23 Hankow Road raped last night at supper time by Japanese soldiers. Our associate food commissioner, Mr. Sone, has to convey trucks with rice and leave 2,500 people in families at his Nanking Theological Seminary to look after themselves. Yesterday, in broad daylight, several women at the Seminary were raped right in the middle of a large room filled with men, women, and children! We 22 Occidentals cannot feed 200,000 Chinese civilians and protect them night and day. That is the duty of the Japanese authorities ...At one point Japanese soldiers held a contest to see who could behead the most Chinese with their swords. They carried out this grisly sport until they had to stop from exhaustion.
Rabe gave a series of lectures in Germany after he came back to Berlin on April 15, 1938, in which he said, "We Europeans put the number [of civilian casualties] at about 50,000 to 60,000." Rabe was not the only figure to record the Japanese atrocity. By December 1937, after the defeat of the Chinese soldiers, the Japanese soldiers would often go house-to-house in Nanking, shooting any civilians they encountered. Evidence of these violent acts come from diaries kept by some Japanese soldiers and by Japanese journalists who were appalled by what was transpiring.He managed to leave Nanking and return to Germany in 1938 working in Berlin until the end of the war. After the war he was arrested first by the Soviets and then by the British but was released by each until he was denounced by an acquaintance for being a Nazi. He was subsequently unable to work to support his family.
[T]he family survived in a one-room apartment by selling his Chinese art collection, but this did not provide enough to avoid malnutrition. He was formally declared "de-Nazified" by the British in June 3, 1946 but thereafter continued to live in poverty. The family lived on wild seeds that the children would eat with soup, and on dry bread until that was no longer available either.Rabe, who was a diabetic, died in 1950 of a stroke. In 1997 his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjing where it received a place of honor at the massacre memorial site.
In 1948, the citizens of Nanking learned of the very dire situation of the Rabe family in occupied Germany and they quickly raised a very large sum of money, equivalent to $2000 ($20,000 in 2017). The city mayor himself went to Germany, via Switzerland where he bought a large amount of food for the Rabe family. From mid 1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking also sent a food package each month, for which Rabe in many letters expressed deep gratitude.
Several movies have been made about what Rabe and the Christian missionaries who assisted him did in Nanking, one of which is titled simply John Rabe. It's worth watching.
We'll look at a second "good Nazi" tomorrow, but meanwhile let's pose this question: Who is the better man, one who professes to love mankind but who never does much to help people, or a man who belonged to a party which promoted hatred but who risked everything to help those who needed him? Life is complicated. So, sometimes, is right and wrong.