Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Good Man of Nanking

John Rabe was a German citizen who lived in China from 1908 through 1938, mostly working for the Siemans China Company, first in Peking but later in Nanking. In 1937, after the Japanese army conquered Shanghai, the cultural center of China-it's "New York City", if you will-they advanced on the capital city of Nanking. Fearing for the lives of the half million Chinese living in the city, Rabe was part of a group of foreigners, mostly German and American missionaries and doctors, who established a "safety zone" which they intended to be a war-free zone where unarmed civilians could be free from the Japanese invaders.

For three months, those foreigners protected some 250,000 Chinese civilians huddled in the Safety Zone, over 600 of them crowded into Rabe's yard itself, while around them chaos reigned: Japanese soldiers murdered more than a quarter million people in the city and its immediate environs, raped more than 40,000 women, burned more than half of the city down, and destroyed all the crops in the fields surrounding the city.

Life in the Safety Zone was not particularly secure either. A quarter million people packed into a few square miles, with insufficient food due to Japanese refusal to import more, with Japanese soldiers intruding on the zone on a daily basis, often raping and killing, but just as often being stopped by the intervention of the foreigners. Rabe himself devoted all hours of day and night rushing through the city, pleading with Japanese authorities to provide food and an end to the chaos, often physically protecting Chinese citizens from Japanese soldiers by waving the swastika emblem on his arm right under Japanese noses.

Rabe was hailed as "the living Buddha of Nanking" by grateful Chinese citizens. After he returned to Germany he gave speeches about the horrors taking place in China and pleaded with the German authorities to intervene on behalf of the Chinese. But Rabe was a relative innocent in German affairs. While in China all he knew about Nazi Germany he had read in German newspapers: Germany had finally risen above the humiliation of the post-World War I armistice; the economy was strong, and both morale and national pride were high again.

But it did not take Rabe long to realize that Nazism was considerably different up close than it had seemed ten thousand miles away. Rabe was arrested by the Gestapo and ordered to stop his speeches. Following Germany's defeat by the Allies, he found himself unemployable as a former Nazi party member and his family in dire poverty. But his Chinese friends did not forget him. One of the most touching moments in Twentieth Century history took place when the citizens of a free and recovering Nanking donated sufficient money to buy large supplies of food which the mayor took to Germany to give to Rabe and his family, saving them from hunger, and repaying a small part of the debt for all the lives he saved during the Japanese invasion.

When Iris Chang was researching her book The Rape of Nanking, a minister in Germany helped her locate Rabe's granddaughter. Iris went to Germany and interviewed Rabe's granddaughter and, amazingly, during the course of the interview the daughter mentioned that Rabe had kept a diary the entire time he lived in China. In fact, the granddaughter had the diary stored in the attic of her house!

That was how we discovered Iris Chang before her own now-popular book was published. During our discussions with Nanking scholars, one of them mentioned the "young Chinese-American who had discovered Rabe's diary". Other scholars confirmed the existence of the diary and Iris' discovery of it. Fei Fei and I went to Yale where we met with Martha Smalley, acquisitions librarian of the Yale Divinity Library. Martha showed us the original copy of Rabe's Diary and told us that it had been published in German, Chinese, and Japanese, with an American translation due shortly.

The Good Man of Nanking is the finally-published American translation of Rabe's Diary. It has been cut down from 1,000+ to 300 pages, but it retains all the events of the Nanking Massacre, starting on 21 September 1937 and continuing until 28 February 1938 when Rabe left Nanking for Shanghai under orders of his superiors at the Seimans Chinese Company. The book is edited by a longtime German friend of Rabe who, interestingly, takes credit himself for discovering the diary. At this point I have no idea who the actual discoverer was, not that it matters.

This book is absolutely incredible. It tells the story of the Nanking Massacre from the inside. Rabe is a very humble man, not given to exaggeration or self-praise, but writing in a low-key matter-of-fact manner that makes the atrocities all that more horrifying. While he makes no attempt at estimating the numbers of rapes and murders, as you read through the weeks following the invasion you gradually begin to realize the magnitude of the massacre and how the 300,000 Chinese killed seems quite believable.

Even more horrifying is the attitude of the Japanese military and authorities to the events taking place. Attempts to halt or even modify the atrocities are minimal; all that seems to matter is covering up and lying about what takes place. But no amount of misdirection can minimize the extent of the holocaust taking place. Rabe's Diary-and American missionary John Magee's film of the events which is discussed by Rabe in the diary and which has also been released to the public in the past decade-are incontrovertible proof of what took place. It is hard to fathom how horrors such as the Rape of Nanking could actually take place, but even more difficult to realize that it was not just an isolated event, but one that has been echoed in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Turkey, Cambodia, and the list goes on.

I tend to be cynical about human nature anyway; but my dealings with the Nanking Massacre the past decade has deepened that cynicism considerably. Anybody who has the least amount of doubt as to the extent of the horrors which took place all too frequently in the past century should definitely read this book. And then-as I told the audience at Parsippany High School's mini-Nanking Conference-try to do something to help make a difference in the world. Individually we can do little, if anything, to make the world a better place. But if everybody takes one small step in that direction, together maybe-hopefully!-we can make a difference. Because God help us if the 21st century is any worse than the 20th century was!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home