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John Heinrich Detlef Rabe (November 23, 1882 – January 5, 1950) was a German businessman and Nazi Party member 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 Nanjing, the Chinese capital at the time, when the city fell to the Japanese troops.

John Rabe
John Rabe.jpeg
Born(1882-11-23)November 23, 1882
DiedJanuary 5, 1950(1950-01-05) (aged 67)
EmployerSiemens AG
Known forSaving civilian lives during the Nanking Massacre
Political partyNazi Party
Spouse(s)Dora Rabe
RelativesGrandfather of Dr. Thomas Rabe

Early life and careerEdit

Born in Hamburg on November 23, 1882, 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 Nanjing.[1] Rabe suffered from diabetes by the time he was working in Nanjing, which required him to have his regular dose of insulin.[2] At the time of the Japanese attack on Nanjing, Rabe was a staunch Nazi and the party's local head, as a Deputy Group Leader in the Nazi Party.[3]

Establishment of the Nanjing Safety ZoneEdit

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.[4] 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."[5] The zones were located in all of the foreign embassies and at Nanking University.

The International Committee was inspired by the establishment in November of a neutral zone in Shanghai, which protected 450,000 civilians.[3]

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, Nanjing Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanking to move into the Safety Zone and then fled the city. On December 13, 1937— the fall of Nanjing— 500,000 non-combatants remained in the city.[3]

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

Nanking MassacreEdit

According to Rabe, the Nanking Massacre killed 50,000 to 60,000 civilians. Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. Modern estimates vary, but some put the number of murdered civilians as high as 300,000.[6][7] Rabe's attempts to appeal to the Japanese by using his Nazi Party 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.[8]

Diary entriesEdit

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.[9]

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–[10]

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.[11]

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![12]

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 ...[13]

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 every day. 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!"[14]

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."[15] 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.[16]

Return to GermanyEdit

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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[18] 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.[citation needed]


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.[19]

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.[19]

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$ 2 000 ($ 21,000 in 2019). 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.[19]

Death and legacyEdit

John H D Rabe's first tombstone, exhibited in Nanjing
Rabe's grave in Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Cemetery in Berlin-Charlottenburg, re-erected in 2013

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 was invited to send a Peace Servant.[citation needed]

War diariesEdit

His war-time diaries were 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 filmEdit

John Rabe has been portrayed in numerous films:

See alsoEdit

  • James Gareth Endicott, a strident socialist and missionary who served during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
  • Dwarkanath Kotnis, an Indian physician who served and died during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
  • 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.
  • Georg Rosen, consular employee of the German Foreign Office who helped create the Nanking Safety Zone.
  • Jakob Rosenfeld, an Austrian Jewish physician who served during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and also as Minister of Health under Mao Zedong.
  • Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat to Lithuania who helped 6,000 Jews leave the country and go to Japanese territory.


  1. ^ John Rabe Homepage: Curriculum Vitae Archived 2009-06-10 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ John Rabe, Erwin Wickert (1998). The Good Man of Nanjing: the Diaries of John Rabe. A.A. Knopf. p. 254.
  3. ^ a b c Dunning, Brian. "Skeptoid #480: The Nazi of Nanking". Skeptoid. Retrieved 29 April 2017.
  4. ^ Bennett, Ralph Kinney (October 1998), "They Will Not Be Forgotten", Reader's Digest, p. 53.
  5. ^ Rabe, John, "Letter to Hitler", Rabe's diary, archived from the original on 2012-04-23
  6. ^ Slavomir Zidarov: John Rabe und seine Tagebücher in der gegenwärtigen Debatte um das Nanjing-Massaker, 2013
  7. ^ Ruth Hallo: John Rabe und seine Rezeption in China (Berichte aus der Geschichtswissenschaft), Shaker Verlag, Herzogenrath 2002
  8. ^ John Rabe Archived 2013-07-22 at the Wayback Machine, moreorless
  9. ^ Woods, John E. (1998). The Good Man of Nanjing: the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 67.
  10. ^ Nihon Senso-shi Shiryo 9, Kawade-shobo Shinsya, Tokyo. 1973, p. 120 [Nanking Anzen-ku To-U An No. 1 Bunsho (Z1)]
  11. ^ Woods, John E. (1998). The Good Man of Nanjing: the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 77.
  12. ^ Woods, John E. (1998). The Good Man of Nanjing: the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 271.
  13. ^ Woods, John E. (1998). The Good Man of Nanjing: the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 274.
  14. ^ Woods, John E. (1998). The Good Man of Nanjing: the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 186.
  15. ^ Japan Echo Inc (2007). "Japan echo". 34 (1–6). Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ "Biography". John Rabe's Nanjing Diaries. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
  18. ^ a b "Shelter Under The Swastika: The John Rabe Story". NPR. June 14, 2010.
  19. ^ a b c Chang, Iris, The rape of Nanking: the forgotten holocaust of World War II, pp. 191–94.
  20. ^ Cineuropa: news 27 April 2009: Awards – Germany


  • Erwin Wickert (editor). (1998). The Good German of Nanjing: The Diaries of John Rabe, Knopf. ISBN 0-375-40211-X
  • Original German: (1997). John Rabe. Der gute Deutsche von Nanking. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart. ISBN 3-421-05098-8

External linksEdit