World War II still stands today as the most destructive conflict the world has witnessed, with over fifty countries across every continent (with the exception of Antarctica) engaging for six years in a struggle which ended with an estimated 80 million deaths—the highest in history.
However, this massive death toll would have been higher still if it had not been for a number of unfathomably brave individuals who through their incredible daring saved thousands of lives in both the Pacific and European theatres. Holland’s Corrie ten Boom and Miep Gies (the latter most widely known for sheltering the Frank family) hid entire Jewish families in secret compartments within their homes. Sweden’s Raoul Wallenburg supplied life-saving forged passports to Jews in Hungary, while Abdol Hossein Sardari ran a similar operation in Iran. Oskar Schindler’s German factories saved thousands from certain death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Portugal’s Aristides de Sousa Mendes do Amaral e Abranches and El Salvador’s Colonel Jose Arturo Castellanos Contreras protected thousands of Jews and other at-risk populations from the Nazi regimes by issuing them visas, and Japan’s vice consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, went as far as to throw handwritten visas out of train windows.
Even amongst heroes such as these, however, Germany’s John Rabe still stands out considerably. A German businessman who moved to Nanjing (then the capital of China) with his family in 1931 while working for a branch of the Siemens company, Rabe was one of the few foreign nationals who refused to leave the city as the Japanese approached. Yet this stubborn refusal to flee, while impressive in of itself, isn’t what differentiates Rabe.
What makes Rabe so unusual is his status as head of the Nazi Party in Nanjing—and more importantly, the way which he wielded his position as a high ranking official and citizen of an Axis Power to create the Nanjing Safety Zone, which is estimated to have saved 200,000 people.
The plans for the Safety Zone began in earnest in fall of 1937, as most of the expatriate population and a significant portion of the Chinese population began to flee the city in the wake of escalating Japanese air raids. Yet Rabe, as evidenced by his diary entries from this period, felt an obligation to remain not only to protect the interest of the Siemens company but also because he felt that to flee would be to betray the trust of the Chinese people. An excerpt from his entry on the 21st of September reads:
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…Under such circumstances, can I, may I, cut and run? I don’t think so. Anyone who has ever sat in a dugout and held a trembling Chinese child in each hand through the long hours of an air raid can understand what I feel (…) Times are bitterly hard here in the country of my hosts, who have treated me well for three decades now. The rich are fleeing, the poor must stay behind. They don’t know where to go. They don’t have the means to flee. Aren’t they in danger of being slaughtered in great numbers? Shouldn’t one make an attempt to help them? Save a few at least? And even if it’s only our own people, our employees?
In October, as the Japanese raids intensified, Rabe was chosen unanimously as the chairman of the Safety Zone Committee. A month later, in a desperate attempt to obtain German assistance in negotiating the creation of a neutral haven for civilians with the Japanese government, he sent a telegram to a highly surprising recipient: Adolf Hitler.
In the context of today’s world, in which the full, terrible history of the Holocaust has been revealed, appealing to Adolf Hitler for aid in a human rights cause would seem to be an act of absolute lunacy. It is essential to note that at the time John Rabe wrote to the Fuhrer, the horrific events that today are considered to comprise the majority of the Holocaust were still in their infancy. At this point in time, the Nuremberg Race Laws had been enacted against the German Jewish population, along with a number of other discriminatory laws which prevented Jewish people from receiving national health insurance and legal qualifications, serving in the military, owning land or practicing certain professions. However, the full extent of the Nazi Party’s aims in terms of both territorial expansion and the infamous ‘Final Solution’ had yet to be realized. Austria, the first country to fall, was not invaded until spring of 1938, and the first deportation of Jewish people occurred in winter of 1940. It is unclear that as to whether Rabe was aware of the pending developments in his home country—but in the unlikely event that he was, it stands to reason that he would have been too preoccupied with his own survival and protecting the tens of thousands of people who had entrusted him with their safety to divert his focus to the European theatre.
Rabe never did receive a reply from Hitler, but the lack of Nazi support for Nanjing did not deter his allegiance, and he remained steadfastly loyal to the Party, going so far as to declare later in 1938 that “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.” (Although as mentioned previously, it remains unclear as to what he believed that system to be).
Rabe’s alliance with the Nazi Party may actually have been the most important factor in his saving hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens from the Japanese. While Rabe’s German citizenship undoubtedly granted him certain immunities given that his home country was considered an ally to fellow Axis Power Japan, his open displays of his allegiance—such as flying the Nazi flag at his home and wearing a swastika—served as a greater protective talisman, allowing him to defy the Japanese in ways which would have been suicidal for anyone else. George Fitch, who was working with the Young Man’s Christian Association, recalled that when the Japanese soldiers would attempt to question Rabe’s actions, he would present the Nazi armband and ask, to great effect, whether or not they understood its meaning.
Rabe’s fearlessness and dogged determination allowed him to successfully counter threats from the Japanese, but also overcome the sheer logistical difficulty of housing hundreds of thousands of refugees within an area of only a few square miles. Although the Organizing Committee had originally been intended to reserve the Safety Zone for the most destitute refugees, the population quickly expanded to more than 250,000 people in December as the city proper fell. The remaining citizens of Nanjing were so desperate to enter the zone that they slept in the streets, clustering about the American embassy and pitching camp wherever they could find space. In an incredibly courageous attempt to stop the horrific rapes plaguing Nanjing, Rabe began to patrol through the ruined city, driving away Japanese soldiers from their victims and at times even going so far as to tear them away himself. Within his own property, he granted sanctuary to hundreds of Chinese women and remained constantly alert for signals of Japanese soldiers, rushing out to chase them off his property at the first sign of alarm. Despite the interminable chaos of life in the Safety Zone and the constant horror of the atrocities he witnessed—people being burned alive, raped, and mercilessly slaughtered—Rabe did not cease in his efforts until he was called back to Berlin in 1938.
Following his return to Germany, despite his direct involvement in the preservation of thousands of Chinese citizens and his continued calling for aid against the atrocities committed by the Japanese forces, Rabe was arrested by both the Soviet and British forces for his involvement with the Nazi Party—a tragically ironic turn of events given the scale of his humanitarian efforts. After finally winning his denazification trial in 1946, Rabe died in 1949 after surviving his last years almost solely on aid sent by the Chinese government and those citizens who knew what he had done.
At the time of his death, John Rabe was an obscure individual to the Western world, entirely destitute, and held in contempt by the Allied forces who mistakenly believed his Nazi Party membership placed him in the same category of men who stood trial at Nuremberg. However, his legacy as the ‘Oskar Schindler of China’ remains an absolutely essential part of World War II history. Rabe’s manipulation of that very status as a member of the Nazi Party, along with his ceaseless bravery, ultimately led to him saving tens of thousands of people—and approaching him from this light enables us to attain a more complex and nuanced understanding of political structure and power during this pivotal era of world history.