This is a story I had read about earlier – how John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member, helped to save many thousands of Chinese lives as the Japanese plundered and brutalized Nanjing in 1937. Apparently there will soon be a film coming out about his act of incredible courage, which no doubt will elicit immediate comparisons with Oskar Schindler. This article gives a good rundown of who he was and what he did, and leaves us with a bit of hope at a time when tales of true heroism and selflessness seem fewer and farther between.
Tang Daoluan, the director of Nanjing University’s archive department, believes Rabe was essentially apolitical and only joined the party to get support for a German school he set up in Nanjing. For her, it was Rabe’s humanity that moved her most.
“He is only a businessman, not a priest or a humanitarian worker. What he did here – protecting citizens of another country without regard for his own safety – went far beyond his duty. He was a good man who understood human dignity,” said Tang.
…..Even at the time, his fame was such that 3 000 women from Jinling Women’s University knelt by the roadside and kowtowed in gratitude to Rabe when he was finally forced to leave the city early in 1938.
After returning to Berlin, Rabe gave lectures about the massacre and tried to get Hitler to intervene. He was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo for three days and told to shut up. He left for Afghanistan and then came back to Berlin to work for Siemens.
After the war, because of the implementation of de-Nazification, he lost his job and was kept alive by food parcels and money sent from grateful colleagues in China.
Schindler, Wallenberg, Rabe… I’m always in awe of “ordinary men” who transcend themselves and their situations, and wonder at the source of their goodness – especially people like Rabe and Schindler, ordinary businesspeople and opportunists who, when faced with a moral crisis, rise to the situation and become nothing less than saints. One of the great mysteries of us human beings, and one of the greatest sources of hope.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.