Rabe, John Heinrich Detlef “The Good Nazi”.

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Rabe, John Heinrich Detlef, born 23-11-1882, in Hamburg , the son of Marcus Rabe, pursued a career in business and worked in Africa for several years. In 1908, he left for China, Nanking and between 1910 and 1938 worked for the Siemens AG China Corporation in Muk, Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai and later Nanking. Rabe suffered from diabetes by the time he worked in Nanking, requiring him to take regular doses of insulin. 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.

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. On 22-11-1937, 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”. 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. Rabe was elected leader of the committee, in part because of his Nazi party status and the German-Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact.

Japanese ambassador to Germany Kintomo Mushanokōji and the German ambassador-at-large Joachim von Ribbentrop sign the 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 01-12-1937, 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. Mayor Ma Chao-chun survived the war and died in 1977 (aged 90–91).

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. 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 250,000 to 300,000. In his diary, Rabe documented Japanese atrocities committed during the assault on and occupation of the city.

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”. 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.

On 28-02-1938, Rabe left Nanking. He traveled first to Shanghai, returning to Berlin on 15-04-1938. He took with him a large number of source materials documenting Japanese atrocities in Nanking. Rabe showed films and photographs of Japanese atrocities in lecture presentations in Berlin and wrote to Adolf 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. 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. 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

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 defence.

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 insufficient prevent their malnutrition. He was formally declared “de-Nazified” by the British on 03-06-1946 but continued to live in poverty. His family subsisted on wild seeds, his children eating soup and dry bread until those too ran out. 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 2022). 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.

Undated Photo provided by the John Rabe and International Safety Zone Memorial Hall of Nanjing University shows John Rabe and his family standing in front of the main building of No.1 Xiaofenqiao in Nanjing, east China’s Jiangsu Province.

Death and burial ground of Rabe, John Heinrich Detlef “The Good Nazi”.


On 05-01-1950, age 67, Rabe died of a stroke. In 1997, his tombstone was moved from Berlin to Nanking, where it received a place of honour 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. Rabe’s grave in Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Cemetery in Berlin-Charlottenburg was re-erected in 2013.

John Rabe and his family after World War II(Dora and John Rabe with their daughter Gudrun and Magarete and son-in-law and their two granddaughters) Grave of John Rabe, Berlin, May 2011

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