It’s a difficult thing to heap praise on a Nazi, but with German businessman John Rabe, it’s hard not to. Rabe was sent to Nanjing (then called Nanking) to work for the German corporation Siemens AG. There were many foreigners living in Nanking at the time, as it was the capital of Nationalist China.
By the time the Japanese Army was sent to capture Nanking in 1937, the high-ranking Nazi party boss had been in the country for nearly 30 years and was ready to flex that power. As the Japanese rained death on the city, there was one area left untouched by the devastation along with hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Rabe was a die-hard Nazi. He joined the National Socialist movement in its earliest days, but he was not prepared for the massacres and atrocities committed by the German-allied Japanese forces. When it became clear the Japanese were going to capture Nanking, Rabe organized an International Safety Zone inside the city – despite being told to leave by Japanese officials.
There’s no time for war, John Rabe has sh*t to do.
For his dedication to the Chinese people of the city, the Japanese were humbled. They respected his loyalty to the people he lived alongside for three decades. An angry Japanese mayor, installed after the capture of the city, railed Rabe for staying, wondering why he would ever choose to stay. Rabe replied that he was treated well and respectfully by the Chinese people and he wouldn’t leave their side in an emergency.
“He took a step back, mumbled some words about Samurai obligations, and bowed deeply,” Rabe said of the mayor.
In every photo of John Rabe, his face says “take your bullsh*t elsewhere.”
This average-sized, bespectacled, bow-tied man was a force to be reckoned with. He was determined to protect his Chinese workers and keep them safe. More than that, he established a two-and-a-half-mile international safety zone in the embassy area that housed an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilian refugees. For two days, Rabe ushered civilians into his own house and urged them to be quiet. He even sent a telegram to Hitler himself to persuade the Japanese to recognize and protect the Safety Zone.
But even that couldn’t entirely stem the tide of the Japanese atrocities. As the streets and ponds of Nanking filled with corpses, John Rabe decided to do the one thing he could beyond protecting the International Safety Zone: Go out into the streets and personally protect civilians.
Did you see that coming? I didn’t.
Rabe would chase Japanese soldiers away from women being raped, going so far as to physically remove them from a room. He was completely unarmed, with only his signature Nazi swastika armband to protect him. He was appalled at the Japanese treatment of the Chinese civilians. Homes were burned, women were gang-raped, mutilated, and killed, and businesses were looted.
The Japanese troops feared the Nazis in Nanking, so much so that Rabe was able to chase them away from nearly every situation while protecting the hundreds of thousands of civilians in his Safety Zone. Because of Rabe, scores of Chinese civilians survived what became known as the “Rape of Nanking,” and he is remembered and revered in the city to this day, the city where his remains are buried.