What would you think of a man who supported the greatest mass-murder machine in human history? A man who was proud to stand by a genocidal dictator who nearly destroyed Europe; a man proud to call himself a Nazi? Would you find him sickening, evil? Maybe not if he was John Rabe. A high-ranking Nazi, Rabe was an ardent supporter of Adolf Hitler. But he was also something else. He was perhaps the greatest humanitarian you’ve never heard of.
Known as the ‘Good Nazi of Nanking’, Rabe was the Third Reich’s man in China when the capital fell to Japan’s German-aligned forces. Faced with the Imperial Army’s genocidal actions he did something wholly unexpected. He tried to save the lives of every Chinese civilian in the city. Over six incredible weeks, John Rabe stood at the epicenter of a bloodbath, single-handedly protecting Nanking’s residents from a whirlwind of rape and murder. He’s today credited with saving 250,000 lives… and he did all this while still staying loyal to Adolf Hitler. Today, we delve into the fascinating story of history’s good Nazi.
The Birth of a Savior – the Death of a Dynasty
When John Rabe was born in Hamburg on November 23, 1882, it was into a world that was on the cusp of dramatic change. Just a year before, the rising state of Germany had delivered a surprise knockout blow to France in the Franco-Prussian War. For Rabe’s contemporaries, that meant growing up at a time of unbridled optimism.
Not that Rabe saw much of it. Taken out of school at a young age when his ship captain father suddenly died and stuck in an unhappy apprenticeship, young John was a boy always hoping to escape Germany and see the world.
And he did. In 1903, 21-year old Rabe set out for the Portuguese African colony of Lourenacois Marques (now Maputo in Mozambique). It seems he planned to stay there long term, but an outbreak of malaria forced him to return to Hamburg after just 3 years.
For John, this was a blessing in disguise. Back in Hamburg, he met up with an old school crush named Dora, and was delighted to discover she was now into him, too. The two courted, fell in love, and became the sickening German version of those loved up couples who can’t spend a single second apart. If John had been a slightly more average man, that could have been it.
But John wasn’t average. Despite looking like a man cursed by a witch to forever resemble a certified accountant, John Rabe had an adventurer’s soul. Three years in Africa simply hadn’t been enough. So, in 1908, he presented Dora with a plan. The two of them would move to Shanghai. Rather than ask her new lover if he’d gone mad, Dora replied with the early 20th Century Germanic equivalent of “Hell yeah!” Neither of them could have known they’d chosen to move to a kingdom on the verge of catastrophe.
On November 15, 1908, the Dowager Empress Cixi breathed her last in the Imperial Gardens of Beijing. The power behind the throne in China since 1875, her passing left the Qing dynasty dangerously unstable. Already left reeling by the recent Boxer Rebellion, the family that had ruled China for over 250 years had now lost its matriarch. Cixi was replaced on the throne by two year old Puyi. Spoiler alert: don’t bother memorizing that name.
As the aftershocks of Cixi’s death rumbled through Chinese society, John and Dora were entering a new era of their own. In 1909, the young couple married. In 1910, John got a position as a clerk in Siemens’ offices in Beijing. It was a position that would allow him to rise up quickly through the ranks, becoming a pillar of the German expat community. It was also a position that would give him a front row seat as China exploded.
“May You Live in Interesting Times”
There’s an old Chinese curse that goes “may you live in interesting times.” Well, times in China were certainly about to get interesting.
On October 10, 1911, the city of Wuchang exploded in rebellion against the boy emperor Puyi. This lit the fuse on roughly a bazillion other powderkegs, and in no time at all half of China was in revolt. Known as the Xinhai Revolution, it ended when six year old Puyi abdicated in January 1912, ending the Qing dynasty.
For a revolution that closed the door on 2,000 years of Imperial rule, the Xinhai Revolution went remarkably smoothly. China was declared a republic, and Yuan Shikai became its head. Like most other German expats, John and Dora Rabe were almost totally unaffected by the sudden changeover of power. However, the same couldn’t be said for the next problem to afflict China: World War One.
OK! Time to backtrack for a quick historical explainer. For about 300 years before the Rabes arrived, China had been the most powerful nation in the East. Then, in 1853, a guy called Commodore Perry led a fleet of ships into Edo Bay outside Tokyo and threatened to blast the city into rubble unless Japan opened up its economy. The result was the opening of Japan under the Meiji Government. Good news for American trade. Very bad news for China.
This new Japan quickly became a regional powerhouse. As China lumbered along in ossified twilight, Japan started throwing its weight around like a sumo wrestler receiving electroshock therapy. In 1895, Japan even whupped Beijing in the First Sino-Japanese War.
This was an epic humiliation for China. And it got even more epic when Germany took advantage of China’s weakness to occupy Qingdao in 1897, setting up German Shandong.
When WWI finally rolled around, China was naturally eager to reclaim this stolen territory. Unfortunately, Tokyo wasn’t done humiliating them.
In late 1914, Japan and Britain joined forces to invade Shandong, kicking the Germans out. One of Tokyo’s conditions for joining the fight was that China wouldn’t be allowed to get involved. The Allies agreed. With China castrated as effectively as a eunuch, Japan gobbled up more territory, taking South Manchuria.
In the war’s aftermath, the Allies pressed China to officially cede Shandong and South Manchuria to Japan. Japan was further empowered, and China further humiliated.
Perhaps in response, 1919 saw China kick out its German expats, including John and Dora Rabe. Despite having lived in China for over a decade, they were now personas non-grata.
But it couldn’t last. The death of President Yuan Shikai back in 1916 had by 1919 triggered a collapse of Chinese society known as the Warlord Era, with China Balkanizing into competing states constantly at war with one another. The cities desperately needed foreign expertise to stop themselves from imploding. Before 1919 was even out, John and Dora Rabe had been begrudgingly invited back in.
The 1930s – The Nazi of Nanking
The Warlord Era came to a close in 1928 when nationalist troops led by Chiang Kai-shek succeeded in reunifying China by force. They established a new capital in Nanking, beginning something called the “Nanking Decade”. It was a time of prosperity not seen in China since before WWI. The economy boomed, stability reigned, and people’s lives improved.
Among them was John Rabe. Throughout the Warlord Era, this quiet German businessman had plugged away with typical Central European efficiency, rising through the ranks of Siemens’ Asian division even as China crumbled around him. In the boom times of the Nanking Decade, Siemens made Rabe managing director of its China division. Delighted, John and Dora moved to Nanking in 1931.
But 1931 was also the year that the wheels started to come off the new era. On September 18, Japanese forces used the pretext of a terrorist attack in South Manchuria to invade Manchuria proper, setting up a pro-Japanese puppet state under our old friend Emperor Puyi.
Rather than fight this new aggression, the Chinese did something that probably seemed smart at the time, but in retrospect looks kinda stupid. They took their case to the League of Nations.
Set up in the wake of WWI, the League was meant to settle inter-nation disputes without the need for war. In practice, though, it was weak and toothless. When it concluded the Japanese had been wrong to invade Manchuria, the Tokyo delegation stormed off. Rather than cool tensions, the League had actually raised them.
But things wouldn’t explode yet. Back in Nanking, John Rabe was becoming the most-important Westerner in China. In 1934, he opened a German school on his property and made himself chairman. This brought him into contact for the first time with the Nazi Party.
That same year, Adolf Hitler had become Germany’s unchallenged dictator, emphasis on the first syllable. In this dark new world, being a public German figure meant being a Nazi, even if you lived in China. But this wasn’t a problem for Rabe. He already loved Nazism.
Historians struggle to reconcile the humanitarian John Rabe with the fascist John Rabe. Although he joined the party late, in 1934, Rabe quickly became one of Hitler’s biggest cheerleaders. He wrote of the regime:
“I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but, as an organizer of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent.”
Remember, this is a man who had many Chinese friends. Who considered China his home. And here he was, throwing his support behind a system that considered the Chinese inferior.
The best guess historians have is that Rabe, as an expat 5,000 miles from home, was unaware of National Socialism’s racism. At the same time, he was enthused by the “socialism” part, with its emphasis on protecting the dignity of the working man. Whatever the truth, Rabe soon rose up the ranks of the party to become the leading Nazi in Nanking.
It was a rise that would coincide with one of the worst atrocities in modern history.
The Rape of Nanking – Part One: Prelude
On July 7, 1937, a skirmish broke out on the Marco Polo Bridge between Chinese and Japanese forces. It was just one of many such clashes that happened following the occupation of Manchuria, but this time, something went wrong. The clash progressed into a battle. The battle progressed into a Japanese invasion, and the invasion… well, it progressed into a war.
That’s right. The Second Sino-Japanese War had just started. And it would make the First one look like a stroll in the park.
Right from the off, the Imperial Army steamrollered across China. In no time at all, they were converging on Nanking.
As bombers rained fiery death down on the city, all those with the money to flee fled. Among them were John and Dora Rabe, who joined a tide of Westerners streaming away for the relative safety of places like Peitaiho – now Beidaihe District.
But John and Dora were never ones to lay low and avoid danger. On September 21, they returned to Nanking. As John would later write in his diary, he didn’t just return to protect his property, but because he felt he had a duty to his Chinese employees.
Here we get to the really difficult part. Rabe didn’t return to help Nanking in spite of being a Nazi. He did it because he was one. As hard as it might be for us to stomach, it was the ideology of Nazism that made Rabe feel he had to stay, protecting his Chinese workers as the Fuhrer claimed to protect Germany’s working men.
By October, barely twenty Westerners remained in the city. As the Imperial Army closed in, Rabe called the other expats to his house. 14 responded, among them American doctor Robert O. Wilson. “We have to do something,” Rabe told them. That “something” was the Nanking Safety Zone.
Rabe’s plan was simple. Despite being completely unarmed, the 14 Westerners would unilaterally establish a two and a half square mile zone of neutrality in Nanking, centered on Rabe’s house and German school. Surrounded by white flags, it would protect as many Chinese civilians as necessary.
When word got to the advancing Imperial Army, it dispatched Major Oka to try and talk this crazy German out of staying. As Rabe later recalled, Oka came to him in person and asked:
“Why in the devil did you stay? Why do you want to involve yourself in our military affairs? What does all this matter to you? You haven’t lost anything here!”
Looking the major in the eye, John Rabe replied:
“I have been living here in China for over 30 years. My kids and grandchildren were born here, and I am happy and successful here… If I had spent 30 years in Japan and were treated just as well by the Japanese people, you can be assured that, in a time of emergency, such as the situation China faces now, I would not leave the side of the people in Japan.”
The loyalty in Rabe’s statement seems to have touched something in the Major’s soul. Oka agreed Rabe could stay in the Zone, and that no harm would come to him. Unfortunately, he said nothing about what would happen to any Chinese Rabe tried to shelter.
As fall gave way to a bitter winter, Rabe, Wilson and others plastered Nanking in posters telling citizens about the Zone. Rabe even personally sent a telegram to Hitler, asking him to request the Japanese acknowledge the Zone’s neutrality. You can guess how that went.
During the last days before Nanking fell, Rabe dramatically draped buildings in the Zone with vast Nazi flags, hoping to deter Japanese bombers. He had swastikas painted on walls, decked his car out in party regalia, and took to wearing his Nazi uniform in public.
At the last moment, Nanking’s mayor officially handed power over to Rabe and fled the city. Now all Rabe and the rest of the expats could do was wait.
On December 11, heavy shelling started. As the bombardment increased, the last Chinese in the capital flooded into the Zone. A quarter of a million people converged on Rabe’s property, sleeping in ditches, cramming themselves into tents, climbing across one another to be let in. It was a wave of human desperation unlike anything the Westerners had ever seen.
Two nights later, Rabe stood at a window with Dora, watching the columns of flames to the south. In his garden below, a crawling mass of humanity wailed and screamed and begged for their lives. As the screaming and the shelling grew louder, Rabe finally snapped. Donning a metal helmet, he strode into the garden and screamed at the refugees to shut up. It was all going to be fine! The Japanese would treat them fairly, he was sure of it!
But his words were lost on the din of gunfire. If they had carried, it’s unlikely anyone would have heeded them. It was December 13, 1937, and apocalypse was in the air. As the flames roared higher, the refugees huddled tight together. Whatever happened next, they knew it wouldn’t be fine.
The Rape of Nanking – Part Two: The Atrocity Exhibition
The morning of December 14, John Rabe awoke to a city blanketed in eerie calm. Donning his uniform, he ventured out into the cold and empty streets beyond the Zone, wondering what he would find.
The roads of Nanking were littered with corpses. Hundreds of civilians lay lifeless in the streets, shot in the back as they fled. Bodies of women had been mutilated, their vaginas penetrated by bayonet blades.
On a street corner, Rabe found a small contingent of Japanese troops looting a German café. When he tried to stop them, they laughed. Although they didn’t harm Rabe, they burned the café down, amused by his impotence.
As he returned from this unsettling expedition, Rabe passed a bedraggled bunch of 400 Chinese Army regulars trying to retreat. They were exhausted, stumbling, cut off from safety. The sight of them was so pitiful that Rabe told the soldiers they could take refuge in the Zone, on the condition they disarmed. He still felt certain the Imperial Army would respect the Zone’s neutrality.
That night, diplomat Katsuo Okazaki called on Rabe, who was still acting as Nanking’s mayor. He informed the German they’d received intelligence that soldiers were in the Zone. He told Rabe they’d have to be arrested, but assured him no harm would come to them. Unable to do anything else, Rabe agreed.
Over the next few days, Japanese fighters marched through the Zone, looking for Chinese soldiers. Their method of detection was to look for callouses on hands from firing rifles. To Rabe’s horror, thousands of young men were dragged from the Zone, the vast majority of them rickshaw drivers and workers who’d been wrongly identified. They were lined up just outside and machinegunned, their bodies dumped in ponds.
It was John Rabe’s first encounter with the brutality of the Imperial Army. It wouldn’t be his last. As the tense December days passed, rumors began to drift into the Zone of the atrocities being committed outside.
There were reports of Japanese soldiers going from house to house, looking for women to rape. Age was not an issue. There were reports of abused girls who were so young the soldiers slit their genitals open so they could fit inside them.
Boys were forced at gunpoint to rape their own mothers. Men to rape their own daughters. Women who’d been abused were sexually tortured to death, their genitals mutilated.
In the Zone, John Rabe listened to these reports with mounting horror. Again and again he petitioned the Japanese officers, who did nothing. He telegrammed Germany, demanding help. None came.
Just before Christmas, 1937, something in him seems to have snapped. Cut off from the rest of the world, in a city that had gone mad, Rabe came to an inescapable conclusion. If he wanted these atrocities to stop, he would have to stop them himself.
Now begins the inspiring chapter of John Rabe’s life, the moment when he did something so mad, so courageous, he can only be called a hero. With Nanking burning around him, Rabe dressed in his Nazi regalia and left the relative safety of the Zone. Completely unarmed, he set out to save the city’s residents.
It was insanity. Rabe might have been protected by the Imperial Army’s officers, but it was a loose protection. Out on the streets, he was just a man without a gun, staring down the bayonets of Japanese soldiers.
Yet, that’s what he did. Day after day. As the sun crawled up into the winter sky, Rabe would leave the Zone, listening out for cries of help, for telltale screams. He would follow these shrieks until he found the marauding soldiers, storm right up to them, shove his swastika armband in their faces and give them a brutal dressing down.
Amazingly, it worked. Terrified by this German barking orders at them, the soldiers fled. Rabe would then take the girl they’d been abusing, walk her to his car, and instruct the driver to take her to the Zone. Then he’d simply carry on walking, looking for the next woman in trouble. And the next. And the next.
It’s impossible to overstate how crazy this was. Rabe could have been killed hundreds of times. Yet there was something about his authority, something about the way he wielded his Nazi Party membership, that put the fear of God into the Imperial Army. Elsewhere, the Nazi swastika became a symbol of hate. In Rabe’s hands, it became a symbol of hope.
Yet Rabe was not just some silent angel, passing through the Hell of Nanking. He was a man capable of understanding the need for warmth, for humanity. He and Dora organized birthday parties for the children in the Zone, singing songs as death and his demons clawed at the doors. Unsurprisingly, most of the boys born in the Zone that winter were named John.
Rabe also managed to win over his fellow Westerners. Doctor Wilson was a staunch anti-Nazi, who considered anyone who joined the party evil. Yet even he grew to respect this one Nazi, even if he could never understand how Rabe could be so good while supporting a party that was so evil.
Six weeks after the Zone’s first refugees arrived, the end finally came. In the dying, bitterly cold days of January, the Imperial Army’s high command reasserted control over their forces in Nanking. They marched into the Zone and removed the refugees. A collaborator government was set up, and the rapes stopped. In a cruel irony, the Imperial Army triumphantly proclaimed they’d restored order to the city.
Today, it’s estimated that a minimum of 20,000 women were raped during the fall of Nanking. The widely accepted death toll ranges from 100,000 to 300,000. Prisoners of war were decapitated with swords, blown up with landmines, doused in petrol and set on fire. In Japan, many still deny the Rape of Nanking ever happened.
Less than a month after the Zone was dismantled, Rabe got a call from Siemens, ordering him home to Germany. Packing as many films and photos of the massacre as he could, he promised Wilson he’d spread word of the Rape of Nanking back in Europe. Then he boarded a plane with Dora, and left.
Gone But Not Forgotten
That was it for John Rabe. As soon as he touched down in Germany, he was arrested by the Gestapo for annoying their Japanese allies. Imprisoned, it was only the intervention of Siemens’ CEO that saved him. Reassigned to a lowly clerical position, Rabe spent the next few years struggling to make ends meet.
When WWII ended in mid-1945, his former standing within the Nazi Party saw him arrested again, this time by the Allies. Put on trial, Rabe was only saved this time around by testimony from Doctor Wilson. Left to rot in jail for a year, Rabe was finally declared ‘de-nazified’ in 1946 and released.
With the stain of Nazi membership clinging to his soul, the last years of John Rabe’s life saw him become unemployable. As the postwar ‘German Economic Miracle’ saw living standards rise in the defeated nation, John and Dora Rabe sank into helpless poverty. The only thing that kept them going in those harsh years were semi-regular food parcels covered in Chinese writing, their return address always Nanking.
Finally, in January 1950, John Rabe keeled over and died of a stroke. He was 68.
At the time he died, Rabe was a nobody. A source of shame back home in Germany, he’d been written out the Chinese history of Nanking by the newly installed Communist Party. Those who’d been in Nanking remembered him, but the rest of the world forgot.
In the 1990s, Iris Chang was researching the Nanjing Massacre. She uncovered Rabes’ diaries, alongside stacks of documents relating to his involvement in the Safety Zone. Piecing his incredible story together, she managed to return his name to the world.
Not long after, the Chinese government paid to have Rabe’s gravestone taken from Berlin and reinterred in Nanjing – the modern city John and Dora had known as Nanking. It was placed at the site of a gigantic memorial to the massacre. After half a century, Rabe had finally returned to the country he’d fought for, and had loved so much.
Nowadays, it’s estimated that Rabe’s actions in Nanking saved somewhere in the region of 250,000 lives, nearly everyone who made it into the Zone. By contrast, the far more famous Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 people. There is no doubt that Schindler was a hero. But Rabe was something more. He was a savior. As history’s good Nazi once wrote:
“If you can do some good, why hesitate?”
(death toll): https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/12/nanking-china-japan-iris-chang/548516/
(China in WWI): https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprisingly-important-role-china-played-world-war-i-180964532/
Chinese revolution links: https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-double-ten-day-687502