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John Rabe
John Rabe
John Rabe
Born (1882-11-23)November 23, 1882
Hamburg, German Empire
Died January 5, 1950(1950-01-05) (aged 67)
Nationality German
Occupation Businessman
Known for Saving civilian lives during the Nanking Massacre
Political party Nazi Party (later renounced his membership)
Spouse(s) Dora Rabe
Relatives Grandfather of Dr. Thomas Rabe

John Heinrich Detlev Rabe (November 23, 1882 – January 5, 1950) was a German businessman who is best known for his efforts to stop the atrocities of the Japanese army during the Nanking Occupation and his work to protect and help the Chinese civilians during the event. The Nanking Safety Zone, which he helped to establish, sheltered approximately 200,000 Chinese people from slaughter during the massacre. He officially represented Germany and acted as senior chief of the European–American establishment that remained in Nanking, the Chinese capital at the time, when the city fell to the Japanese troops.

Early life and career

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Rabe pursued a career in business and went to Africa for several years. In 1908 he left for China, and between 1910 and 1938, he worked for the Siemens AG China Corporation in Mukden, Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai and later Nanking.[1] Rabe suffered from diabetes by the time he was working in Nanking which required him to have his regular dose of insulin.[2]

Establishment of the Nanking Safety Zone

The former residence of John Rabe in Nanjing, located in the Nanking Safety Zone during Nanjing Massacre

Many Westerners were living in the Chinese capital city of the time, as Nanking was until December 1937, conducting trade or on missionary trips. As the Japanese army approached Nanking (now Nanjing) and initiated bombing raids on the city, all but 22 foreigners fled the city, with 15 American and European missionaries and businessmen forming part of the remaining group.[3] On November 22, 1937, as the Japanese Army advanced on Nanking, Rabe, along with other foreign nationals, organized the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created the Nanking Safety Zone to provide Chinese refugees with food and shelter from the impending Japanese slaughter. He explained his reasons thus: "... there is a question of morality here...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."[4] The zones were located in all of the foreign embassies and at Nanking University.

Rabe was elected as its leader, in part because of his status as a member of the Nazi party and the existence of the German–Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact. This committee established the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone attempted to persuade the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area. They were partly successful.

On December 1, 1937, Nanking Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanking to move into the Safety Zone and then fled the city.

Rabe also opened up his properties to help 650 more refugees.

The Nanking Massacre

The Nanking Massacre killed hundreds of thousands of people, while Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. His attempts to appeal to the Japanese by using his Nazi membership credentials only delayed them; but that delay allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to escape. The documentary Nanking credited him for saving the lives of 250,000 Chinese civilians. Other sources suggest that Rabe rescued between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people.[5]

Diary entries

In his diary Rabe documented Japanese atrocities committed during the assault upon and occupation of the city. On December 13, 1937, he wrote:

It is not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of destruction. We come across corpses every 100 to 200 yards. The bodies of civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs. These people had been presumably fleeing and were shot from behind. The Japanese march through the city in groups of ten to twenty soldiers and loot the shops ... I watched with my own eyes as they looted the café of our German baker Herr Kiessling. Hempel's hotel was broken into as well, as almost every shop on Chung Shang and Taiping Road.[6]

In his interactions with Japanese authorities, Rabe first took a conciliatory tone. On December 14, 1937, Rabe handed a letter of thanks to the Japanese army commander stating that the people in the Safety Zone were all safe and not one shot had been fired. The following is a part of his letter of thanks.

Dec. 14, 1937,

Dear commander of the Japanese army in Nanking, We appreciate that the artillerymen of your army didn't attack to the Safety Zone. And we hope to contact with you to make a plan to protect general Chinese citizens who are staying in the Safety Zone... We will be pleased to cooperate with you in anyway to protect general citizens in this city. –Chairman of the Nanking International Committee, John H. D. Rabe–[7]

On December 17, 1937, he wrote in a very different tone:

Two Japanese soldiers have climbed over the garden wall and are about to break into our house. When I appear they give the excuse that they saw two Chinese soldiers climb over the wall. When I show them my party badge, they return the same way. In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital... Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling Girls' College alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they're shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.[8]

On December 17, Rabe wrote a letter as chairman to Kiyoshi Fukui, second secretary of the Japanese Embassy. The following is an excerpt:

In other words, on the 13th when your troops entered the city, we had nearly all the civilian population gathered in a Zone in which there had been very little destruction by stray shells and no looting by Chinese soldiers even in full retreat... All 27 Occidentals in the city at that time and our Chinese population were totally surprised by the reign of robbery, raping and killing initiated by your soldiers on the 14th. All we are asking in our protest is that you restore order among your troops and get the normal city life going as soon as possible. In the latter process we are glad to cooperate in any way we can. But even last night between 8 and 9 p.m. when five Occidental members of our staff and Committee toured the Zone to observe conditions, we did not find any single Japanese patrol either in the Zone or at the entrances![9]

Having received no answer to his request, Rabe wrote again to Fukui the following day, this time in an even more desperate tone:

We are sorry to trouble you again but the sufferings and needs of the 200 000 civilians for whom we are trying to care make it urgent that we try to secure action from your military authorities to stop the present disorder among Japanese soldiers wandering through the Safety Zone... The second man in our Housing Commission had to see two women in his family at 23 Hankow Road raped last night at supper time by Japanese soldiers. Our associate food commissioner, Mr. Sone, has to convey trucks with rice and leave 2,500 people in families at his Nanking Theological Seminary to look after themselves. Yesterday, in broad daylight, several women at the Seminary were raped right in the middle of a large room filled with men, women, and children! We 22 Occidentals cannot feed 200,000 Chinese civilians and protect them night and day. That is the duty of the Japanese authorities ...[10]

On the February 10, 1938, Rabe wrote in his diary:

Fukui, whom I tried to find at the Japanese embassy to no avail all day yesterday, paid a call on me last night. He actually managed to threaten me: "If the newspapers in Shanghai report bad things, you will have the Japanese army against you", he said... In reply to my question as to what I then could say in Shanghai, Fukui said "We leave that to your discretion." My response: "It looks as if you expect me to say something like this to the reporters: The situation in Nanking is improving everyday. Please don't print any more atrocities stories about the vile behavior of Japanese soldiers, because then you'll only be pouring oil on fire of disagreement that already exists between the Japanese and Europeans." "Yes", he said simply beaming, "that would be splendid!"[11]

John Rabe gave a series of lectures in Germany after he came back to Berlin on April 15, 1938, in which he said, "We Europeans put the number [of civilian casualties] at about 50,000 to 60,000."[12] Rabe was not the only figure to record the Japanese atrocity. By December 1937, after the defeat of the Chinese soldiers, the Japanese soldiers would often go house-to-house in Nanking, shooting any civilians they encountered. Evidence of these violent acts come from diaries kept by some Japanese soldiers and by Japanese journalists who were appalled by what was transpiring.[13]

Return to Germany

On February 28, 1938, Rabe left Nanking. He first traveled to Shanghai and then back to Germany. He took with him a large number of source materials documenting the atrocities committed by the Japanese in Nanking.

Rabe showed films and photographs of Japanese atrocities in lecture presentations in Berlin and wrote to Hitler to use his influence to persuade the Japanese to stop any further inhumane violence. As a result, Rabe was detained and interrogated by the Gestapo and his letter was never delivered to Hitler.[citation needed] Due to the intervention of Siemens AG, Rabe was released. He was allowed to keep evidence of the massacre, excluding the film, but was not allowed to lecture again or write on the subject.[citation needed] Rabe continued working for Siemens, which posted him briefly to the safety of Siemens AG of Afghanistan. Rabe subsequently worked in the Berlin headquarters of the company until the end of the war.


After the war, Rabe was arrested first by the Soviet NKVD and then by the British Army. Both, however, let him go after intense interrogation. He worked sporadically for Siemens, earning very little. He was later denounced for his Nazi Party membership by an acquaintance. He was stripped of the work permit that he had previously been given by the British Zone, and had to undergo a very lengthy de-nazification process (his first attempt was rejected and he had to appeal) in the hope of regaining the permission to work. He had to pay his own legal defense costs, which depleted his savings.[14]

Unable to work to support his family and with the savings spent the family survived in a one-room apartment by selling his Chinese art collection, but this did not provide enough to avoid malnutrition. He was formally declared "de-Nazified" by the British on June 3, 1946 but thereafter continued to live in poverty. The family lived on wild seeds that the children would eat with soup, and on dry bread until that was no longer available either.[14]

In 1948, the citizens of Nanking learned of the very dire situation of the Rabe family in occupied Germany and they quickly raised a very large sum of money, equivalent to $US 2000 (US$ 20,000 in 2022). The city mayor himself went to Germany, via Switzerland where he bought a large amount of food for the Rabe family. From mid 1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking also sent a food package each month, for which Rabe in many letters expressed deep gratitude.[14]

Death and legacy

John H D Rabe tombstone in Nanjing

On January 5, 1950, Rabe died of a stroke. In 1997 his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanjing (as it is now) where it received a place of honor at the massacre memorial site.

In 2005, Rabe's former residence in Nanking (as it then was) was renovated and now accommodates the "John Rabe and International Safety Zone Memorial Hall", which opened in 2006. The Austrian Service Abroad has been invited to send a Peace Servant.[citation needed]

War diaries

His war-time diaries are published in English as The Good German of Nanking (UK title) or The Good Man of Nanking (US title) (original German title: Der gute Deutsche von Nanking).

Portrayals in film

John Rabe has been portrayed in numerous films:

  • In Mou Tun Fei's 1995 film Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre. Minnie Vautrin and George Ashmore Fitch are also depicted.
  • In Wu Ziniu's 1995 film Don't Cry, Nanking, actor Ulrich Ottenburger played Rabe, although his name was changed to "John Robbins."
  • In Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's 2007 documentary film Nanking, actor Jürgen Prochnow played Rabe.
  • In Lu Chuan's 2009 film City of Life and Death, actor John Paisley played Rabe.
  • In Florian Gallenberger's film John Rabe, also released in 2009, Ulrich Tukur played John Rabe.[15]

See also

  • Iris Chang, author of "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II".
  • James Gareth Endicott, a strident socialist and missionary who served during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
  • Japanese war crimes
  • Dwarkanath Kotnis, an Indian physician who served and died during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
  • film
  • Nanjing Massacre
  • Robert O. Wilson, an American physician who treated victims brought to the Nanking Safety Zone.
  • John Magee, an American priest and missionary who documented the Rape of Nanking.
  • Bernhard Arp Sindberg, a Danish workman, who saved thousands in a factory, under The Rape of Nanking.
  • John Rabe House
  • Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman who saved thousands of Jews in Hungary by posing as a Spanish diplomat.
  • Georg Rosen, consular employee of the German Foreign Office who helped create the Nanking Safety Zone.
  • Jakob Rosenfeld, an Austro-Hungarian physician who served during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and also as Minister of Health under Mao Zedong.
  • Oskar Schindler, German industrialist who similarly saved over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
  • Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who assisted with the Nanking Safety Zone.
  • Irene Gut Opdyke, a Polish nurse who gained recognition for aiding Polish Jews persecuted by the Nazis and for saving twelve people.
  • Gilberto Bosques, the Mexican Schindler. A diplomat who issued visas to approximately 40,000 people, mostly Jews and Spaniards.
  • Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during the Second World War, who facilitated the escape of thousands of Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis, to safety in Japan.


  1. John Rabe Homepage: Curriculum Vitae
  2. John Rabe, Erwin Wickert (1998). The good man of Nanking: the diaries of John Rabe. A.A. Knopf. p. 254. 
  3. Ralph Kinney Bennett, They Will Not Be Forgotten, p. 53, Reader's Digest, October 1998
  4. Rabe, John. "John Rabe's letter to Hitler, from Rabe's diary"
  5. John Rabe, moreorless
  6. Woods, John E. (1998). The Good man of Nanking, the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 67. 
  7. Nihon Senso-shi Shiryo 9, Kawade-shobo Shinsya, Tokyo. 1973, page 120[Nanking Anzen-ku To-U An No. 1 Bunsho (Z1)]
  8. Woods, John E. (1998). The Good man of Nanking, the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 77. 
  9. Woods, John E. (1998). The Good man of Nanking, the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 271. 
  10. Woods, John E. (1998). The Good man of Nanking, the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 274. 
  11. Woods, John E. (1998). The Good man of Nanking, the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 186. 
  12. Japan Echo Inc (2007). "Japan echo".,000+to+60,000&dq=John+Rabe+We+Europeans+put+the+number++at+about+50,000+to+60,000. 
  13. Donald G. Dutton (2007). The psychology of genocide, massacres, and extreme violence: why "normal" people come to commit atrocities. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 64–65. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Iris Chang, The rape of Nanking: the forgotten holocaust of World War II, Pages 191 to 194
  15. Cineuropa: news 27 April 2009: Awards - Germany


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