John Rabe

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John Rabe
John Rabe.jpeg
Born(1882-11-23)23 November 1882
Died5 January 1950(1950-01-05) (aged 67)
EmployerSiemens AG
Known forSaving about 200,000 Chinese civilians during the Nanking Massacre
Establishing the Nanking Safety Zone
Political partyNational Socialist German Workers' Party
Spouse(s)Dora Rabe
RelativesDr. Thomas Rabe (grandson)

John Heinrich Detlef Rabe (23 November 1882 – 5 January 1950) was a German businessman and Nazi Party member best known for his efforts to stop Japanese war crimes during its occupation of Nanjing (Nanking) and his work to protect and help Chinese civilians during the massacre that ensued. The Nanking Safety Zone, which he helped to establish, sheltered approximately 200,000 Chinese people from slaughter. He officially represented Germany and acted as senior chief of the European-U.S. establishment that remained in Nanjing, the Chinese capital at the time, when the city fell to the Japanese troops.

Early life and career[edit]

Born in Hamburg on 23 November 1882, Rabe pursued a career in business and worked in Africa for several years. In 1908 he left for China, and between 1910 and 1938 worked for the Siemens AG China Corporation in Mukden, Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai and later Nanking.[1] Rabe suffered from diabetes by the time he worked in Nanking, requiring him to take regular doses of insulin.[2] At the time of the Japanese attack on Nanking, Rabe was a staunch Nazi and the party's local head, serving as a Deputy Group Leader in the Nazi Party.[3]

Establishment of the Nanking Safety Zone[edit]

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

Many Westerners were living in Nanking, the Chinese capital city, until December 1937, conducting trade; others were there on missionary trips. As the Japanese army approached Nanking and initiated bombing raids on the city, all but 22 foreigners fled, with 15 American and European missionaries and businessmen forming part of the remaining group.[4] On 22 November 1937, as the Imperial 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 committee was inspired by the establishment in November of a similar neutral zone in Shanghai which had protected approximately 450,000 civilians.[3] Rabe was elected leader of the committee, in part because of his Nazi party status and the German-Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact. The 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. In this they were partly successful. On 1 December 1937, before fleeing the city, Nanking Mayor Ma Chao-chun ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanking to move into the Safety Zone. When Nanking fell on 13 December 1937, 500,000 non-combatants remained in the city.[3] Rabe also opened up his properties to help 650 more refugees.

Nanking Massacre[edit]

According to Rabe, the Nanking Massacre resulted in the deaths of 50,000 to 60,000 civilians. Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. Modern estimates of the Death toll of the Nanking Massacre vary but some put the number of murdered civilians as high as 300,000.[6][7] Rabe's appeals to the Japanese using his Nazi Party credentials often only delayed them but the delay allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to escape. The documentary Nanking credited Rabe with saving the lives of 250,000 Chinese civilians; other sources suggest he saved 200,000 to 250,000.[8] In his diary, Rabe documented Japanese atrocities committed during the assault on and occupation of the city.[9]

In a series of lectures he gave in Germany after his return, Rabe would say that "We Europeans put the number [of civilian casualties] at about 50,000 to 60,000".[10] Rabe was not the only person to record Japanese atrocities. By December 1937, after the defeat of the Chinese force, Japanese soldiers often went house-to-house in Nanking, shooting any civilians they encountered. Additional evidence of these violent acts came from the diaries kept by some Japanese soldiers and by Japanese journalists appalled at what occurred.[11]

Return to Germany[edit]

On 28 February 1938, Rabe left Nanking. He traveled first to Shanghai, returning to Berlin on 15 April 1938. He took with him a large number of source materials documenting Japanese atrocities in Nanking.[12] Rabe showed films and photographs of Japanese atrocities in lecture presentations in Berlin and wrote to Hitler, asking him to use his influence to persuade the Japanese to stop further violence. Rabe was detained and interrogated by the Gestapo; his letter was never delivered to Hitler.[13] Due to the intervention of Siemens AG, Rabe was released. He was allowed to keep evidence of the massacre (excluding films) but not to lecture or write on the subject again.[13] Rabe continued working for Siemens, which briefly posted him to the safety of Siemens AG in Afghanistan. Rabe subsequently worked in the company's Berlin headquarters until the end of the war.[citation needed]


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

Unable to work and with his savings spent, Rabe and his family survived in a one-room apartment by selling his Chinese art collection but it was not enough to stave off malnutrition. He was formally declared "de-Nazified" by the British on 3 June 1946 but continued to live in poverty. His family subsisted on wild seeds, his children eating soup and dry bread until those too ran out.[14] In 1948, Nanking citizens learned of the Rabe family's dire circumstances and quickly raised a sum of money equivalent to $2,000 USD ($22,000 in 2021). The city's mayor traveled 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 the family a food package each month, for which Rabe wrote many letters expressing deep gratitude.[14]

Death and legacy[edit]

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

On 5 January 1950, Rabe died of a stroke. In 1997, his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanking, where it received a place of honor at the massacre memorial site and still stands today. In 2005, Rabe's former residence in Nanking, the John Rabe House, was restored to its former state; it houses the John Rabe and International Safety Zone Memorial Hall, opened in 2006. The Austrian Service Abroad was later invited to send a Peace Servant there.[citation needed] Rabe's grave in Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Cemetery in Berlin-Charlottenburg was re-erected in 2013.

War diaries[edit]

Rabe's wartime 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 film[edit]

John Rabe has been portrayed in numerous films:

See also[edit]

  • Robert Jacquinot de Besange, a French Jesuit who saved over half a million Chinese civilians.
  • Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who saved thousands of lives during the Nanking 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 Nanking Massacre.
  • Bernhard Arp Sindberg, a Danish worker who saved thousands of people by harbouring them in a factory during the Nanking Massacre.
  • Georg Rosen, consular employee of the German Foreign Office who helped create the Nanking Safety Zone.


  1. ^ "John Rabe Homepage: Curriculum Vitae". Archived from the original on 10 June 2009.
  2. ^ Rabe, John; Wickert, Erwin (1998). The Good Man of Nanjing: the Diaries of John Rabe. A.A. Knopf. p. 254. ISBN 9780375402111.
  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 23 April 2012
  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 22 July 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Woods, John E. (1998). The Good Man of Nanjing: the Diaries of John Rabe. p. 67.
  10. ^ "Japan echo". Japan Echo Inc. 34 (1–6). 2007.
  11. ^ Dutton, Donald G. (2007). The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres and extreme Violence: Why "Normal" People come to Commit Atrocities. Greenwood Publishing. pp. 64–65. ISBN 9780275990008.
  12. ^ "Biography". John Rabe's Nanjing Diaries. Retrieved 29 July 2019.
  13. ^ a b "Shelter Under The Swastika: The John Rabe Story". NPR. 14 June 2010.
  14. ^ a b c Chang, Iris, The rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, pp. 191–94.
  15. ^ "John Rabe scoops Golden Lola". Cineuropa - The Best of European Cinema.


  • Erwin Wickert (editor). (1998). The Good German of Nanking: 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 links[edit]