Nazi Shanghai: John Rabe, ‘Schindler of China’ Who Saved 250,000

By JFK Miller, September 30, 2020

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As the winds of war gathered menacingly throughout Europe and across the Pacific, Hitler’s Third Reich extended its odious apparatus to the farthest outpost in the East… Shanghai. The Nazis were everywhere in Old Shanghai – in the clubs, in the streets and on the Bund. They were a monstrous collection of careerists and criminals, perverts and parvenus, fanatics and fakirs, gauleiters and goons. This is their story…

“If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it.” So wrote John Rabe, a German Nazi, in the diary he kept of the atrocities he witnessed in the Rape of Nanking. Rabe was an Old China Hand by the time the Japanese invaded Nanking, China’s capital in December 1937. 

Born in Hamburg, Rabe came to the Middle Kingdom in 1908 aged 26, and became Siemens’ ‘man in China’ in 1910, working in various cities, including Shanghai. From 1931 to 1938, he was Siemens’ representative in Nanking, now called Nanjing.

After Shanghai fell to the Japanese, Germany’s ally in the war, Rabe and a handful of other foreigners established the ‘Nanking Safety Zone,’ a demilitarized area in the western part of the city, to shelter Chinese civilians. Although Japanese soldiers continued to breach the zone and commit atrocities therein, they generally honored its neutrality, but only because of Rabe’s continued intercessions. 

Rabe and his group helped save an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 Chinese from the massacre. At one point, he sheltered some 600 Chinese in his own house, which he protected by hanging an enormous swastika outside as an ‘off limits’ sign to the Japanese. Rabe’s heroism was straightforward: “You simply do what must be done,” he wrote.

Throughout his 2,600-page diary, Rabe detailed the rape, torture, mutilation and murder committed by the Japanese army against innocent Chinese. It is estimated that as many as 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered during the six-week killing spree.

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Rabe could so easily have fled Nanking like many other foreigners, but he stayed to protect his Chinese staff and co-workers.

“I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me,” he wrote. In February 1938, while the massacre was still continuing, Rabe travelled to Germany, to alert the Nazi high command of the genocide. But after sending Hitler the information, including photographs and an amateur film of the atrocities, Rabe was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo and forbidden to raise the matter again.

After the war, Rabe was denounced by the Allies for his Nazi party membership. Although he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, the trial took a toll on his health and savings and he died in poverty in Berlin in 1950.

“Rabe was a kind of Oscar Schindler, but in Nanjing,” says Frank Hollmann, Shanghai Correspondent of Main-Post, a German daily newspaper. “Yes, he was a Nazi. But what you have to understand is that he joined the party at a time when it was seen as a kind of national resurrection of Germany. 

“Although Rabe was totally admiring of Hitler, from the beginning of the movement he hadn’t been in Germany, so all he could know about the Nazis was from some news clips in a time without Internet and television and so on.”

A film based on Rabe’s diary was released in 2009. The Sino-German movie, simply called John Rabe, stars Ulrich Tukur (The Lives of Others) in the title role, as well as Steve Buscemi. Director Florian Gallenberger said he’d never heard of Rabe before reading the script. 

“I have to admit to my great shame that before starting this project I didn’t know anything about John Rabe,” Gallenberger said at the movie’s premiere. “It’s taken more than 70 years for John Rabe to get the recognition he deserves.”


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