World War II

John Rabe Was The Nazi Who Saved Countless Chinese Lives

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We don't live in a world of black and white, good and evil. More often, things come in shades of gray. Perhaps no figure better encapsulates that fact than John Rabe, the Nazi party member who saved innumerable lives during the Nanking Massacre.

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Premonitions Of A Massacre

Having lived in Hamburg and worked in Africa, John Rabe was already well traveled when he moved to China in 1908. He got a job at the Siemens China Company selling phones and electrical equipment to the Chinese government, and soon became an important figure in Nanking's German community, where he started his own elementary and junior high school. As political tides turned in the decades to follow, Rabe became a passionate supporter of the Nazi party, even though he had never even visited Germany when Hitler was in power. When it became clear that war with Japan was looming, most of the German nationals in China fled—but Rabe stayed. By then, he had called Nanking home for more than 30 years and raised two generations of family there. What's more, a war with Japan put his own employees in danger. He knew he had to stay. He was soon elected head of the Safety Zone, a neutral area free from military activity designated to protect Chinese civilians.

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At least, that's what he wanted. The Japanese army refused to recognize the Safety Zone as neutral territory, so Rabe—naively, you might think—sent a message to Adolf Hitler asking if he might convince the Japanese government to grant a neutral zone. He never got a reply. When the Japanese army stormed Nanking in December 1937, the Safety Zone was quickly overrun with refugees. According to Iris Chang's The Rape Of Nanking, "By the time the city fell, the Safety Zone—its borders lined by white flags and sheets marked with the red cross symbol within a red circle—was a swarming 'human beehive' of 250,000 refugees."

The John Rabe house in China

A Symbol Of Evil, Used For Good

Rabe knew that his affiliation with the Nazi party could help protect him—and, by proxy, Chinese civilians—from Japanese soldiers. He used the Nazi flag to protect his property from bomber pilots and ground troops, and at the same time sheltered more than 600 Chinese refugees in his house and garden. As the brutality got worse in the following months, Rabe left his property and took to the streets, convincing Chinese soldiers to lay down their arms and hide as civilians in the Safety Zone (though, tragically, the Japanese army eventually betrayed Rabe and rounded up every plainclothes soldier in the camp for execution, taking with them any civilian who looked like he could be a soldier. The death toll ranged in the thousands). Rabe even roamed the city stopping rapes and murders in progress, always using his Nazi armband to command respect.

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As many as 300,000 Chinese were killed in what's now known as The Rape of Nanking, but without the help of John Rabe, it surely could have been thousands more. In 1946, Rabe was granted de-Nazification status, although not by any change of heart. He had to apply for the status in order to hold a job, and "he was humiliated," according to a New York Times interview with his granddaughter. Nazi or not, he earned great respect from his colleagues. George Fitch, Nanking's YMCA secretary and co-member of the Safety Zone Committee, wrote that in honor of Rabe's bravery, he would "almost wear a Nazi badge."

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