Early Life & Career
John Heinrich Detlef Rabe was born on November 23, 1882, in Hamburg, German Empire.
He was a deputy group leader of the Nazi Party in his region. He went to China to work for the Siemens AG China Corporation, managing operations in different cities.
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Nanking Safety Zone & the Nanking Massacre
Despite being a staunch Nazi supporter, John Rabe had no idea about the atrocities committed on the Jews back at home by his own Nazi Party. He was not aware of the worldwide image of Adolf Hitler while working for Siemens in Nanking.
Nanking had many Americans and European missionaries working in 1937 until the Japanese forces marched into the city. The locals and foreigners started to evacuate Nanking when the Japanese troops started bombing as they approached the city.
Rabe along with a few other westerners decided not to leave the city and form a committee, International Committee for Nanking Safety Zone, led by Rabe.
The day before the Japanese troops broke into Nanking, the committee created a demilitarized zone comprising of refugee camps spread across 8.6 sq. kilometers around the US Embassy. The safety zone was approved by the Nanking authorities and was helped with aids like food, medicine and security personnel.
The Japanese troops didn’t give any recognition to the zone but they promised not to attack any section of the city that didn’t have any Chinese military presence. The public was advised to move into the safe zone while the International Committee convinced the Chinese government to pull all the military reinforcements away from the safe zone.
Though the Japanese army did not attack the safe zone as severely as they did the rest of the city, they did infiltrate the camp every now and then and committed atrocities.
The troops would enter the camp with excuses of catching or chasing guerrillas and take away a few hundred refugees (men and women). The refugees would end up dead and raped by the Japanese troops.
Rescue & Aftermath
Despite the occasional atrocities in the safe zone, the Nanking Safety Zone International Committee managed to save hundreds of thousands of civilians from the massacre of Nanking.
The Nanking massacre is believed to have cost almost 300,000 people their lives, whereas the safety zone saved almost the same number of people, between 200,000 and 250,000.
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The Japanese Empire ordered the refugees in the safety zone to return to their homes while they tried to restore order in 1938. The International Committee was forced to rename itself as the International Rescue Committee as the camps were emptied blocks by blocks.
After normalcy was somewhat restored, John Rabe left for Germany in February 1938, carrying piles of documents and photographs which he produced in front of the German people. He wanted to provide Adolf Hitler with all the information in order to make him stop the atrocities committed by the Japanese.
However, he couldn’t reach Hitler and was interrogated by the official secret police of Nazi Germany, Gestapo. He was arrested and all his documents were seized. Later, he was released with some of his documents on the atrocities committed by the Japanese. He was barred from giving any presentation or lecture about these events in the future.
Post War Life
Siemens AG saved John Rabe from the Gestapo and posted him in Afghanistan. He lost his previous position and was paid very less but with the same workload. He was arrested by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Soviet) and then by the British. He was not jailed but went through severe interrogations by both organizations.
John Rabe was stripped off of his Nazi Party membership and had to fight a legal battle to recover the work permit given to him by the British zone. He lost all his savings and suffered obvious negligence from the society due to his Nazi association.
John Rabe’s association with Nazism was cleared by the British through the de-nazification process. However, it came too late as he had already lost all his wealth and was living in a small apartment. He suffered from bad health, mostly due to malnutrition.
He died on January 5, 1950, after suffering a stroke, and was rested in Berlin. Later, his tombstone was taken to Nanking where he had performed one of the greatest wartime humanitarian works. He was honored with a place at the massacre memorial site.
Several films on his life and works were later made, based on his diary entries and historical documents. Popular actors like Jurgen Prochnow, John Paisley, and Ulrich Tukur have portrayed Rabe in feature films.
He was married to Dora Rabe and had children.