A Nazi living in China saved thousands of Chinese citizens from Japanese atrocities and was known as the “Living Buddha of Nanking”

On December 13, 1937, the empire of Japan embarked on a campaign of cruelty against China so shocking that today it’s referred to as both the Nanking Massacre and the Rape of Nanking.

The six-week reign of terror resulted in the murder of up to 300,000 Chinese men, women, and children and is referred to as World War II’s Second Holocaust. The Nanking Massacre may have occurred more than 80 years ago, but this terrible chapter in history continues to impact world events.

The Rape of Nanking stemmed from Japan’s expansionist desires, combined with strained relations with China. These mounting tensions resulted in the Japanese Imperial Army invading China and marching into the former capital, Nanking. With the blessing of Commanding General Iwane Matsui, who victoriously rode into the Nanking on horseback, Japanese soldiers cut a swath of destruction as they raped, tortured, and killed innocent Chinese citizens.

Photo Courtesy: [Creator Unknown/Wikimedia Commons]

A Nazi comes to the rescue of Nanking’s residents

John Rabe was a German national and Nazi Party member working in Nanking as the Managing Director of Siemens China & Co. When the Japanese army closed in, he and other foreigners created the Nanking Safety Zone (NSZ). As its chairman, he pleaded with Japanese military commanders not to harm anyone living within the zone’s borders.

Aware of Germany and Japan’s ties, Rabe took the bold step of unfurling the Nazi flag when Japanese planes bombed the city, hoping the aggressors would spare the friends of its German partner. In 1938, Rabe was recalled to Germany, where he unsuccessfully lobbied Hitler’s government to help the Chinese.

A sad ending for the “Living Buddha of Nanking”

After the war, Rabe’s affiliation as a Nazi resulted in his arrest by the Soviets and the British. Although he was eventually released after being “de-Nazified” by the Allies, Rabe was stripped of his work permit, and the family’s savings were depleted. The man Chinese citizens called the “Living Buddha of Nanking” spent his remaining years living in poverty.

When Nanking’s citizens learned of the elderly Rabe’s dire situation in 1948, they raised $2,000 to help support his family and began sending monthly food packages. Rabe died on January 5, 1950, at the age of 76.

“If you can do some good, why hesitate?” John Rabe

The Rape of Nanking’s aftermath

In 1946, General Matsui was tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, for his role in perpetrating war crimes against the Chinese. He was convicted and hanged on December 23, 1948.

Today Nanking, now known as Nanjing, has several memorials honoring its fallen citizens, along with John and Dora Rabe’s original tombstone, which was moved from Berlin. Rabe’s Nanjing home was renovated in 2005 and now serves as the John Rabe and International Safety Zone Memorial Hall. To this day, some Chinese citizens pay homage to the Rabe and his wife by naming their children “John” and “Dora.”

More than half a century later, relations between Japan and China are still strained. Few Japanese war veterans who took part in the Rape of Nanking expressed remorse, and Japan didn’t publicly apologize for the massacre until 1995. In 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged those who died in World War II but stopped short of an apology.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

·       Pay attention! China tries brainwave device to track student focus | Science 101 

An innovative headband offers clues about our ability to concentrate.

·       Sakoku: That time when Japan cut itself off from the world for over 200 years | History 101

A look at how Japan’s isolationist policy changed after an encounter with the U.S. 

·       This incredible Japanese politician rescued thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe | History 101

Discover how the efforts of one man save thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution.