Nanking, China November 22, 1937

On this date in 1937 in Nanking (today’s Nanjing), China’s capi­tal at the time, fifteen foreign busi­ness­men, mission­aries, and jour­nalists under the leader­ship of German national and Nazi Party mem­ber John Rabe organ­ized the Inter­na­tional Com­mit­tee for the Nan­king Safety Zone. The mission of the com­mittee was to shel­ter Chi­nese refugees against the looming Japa­nese assault on the city, which had a pre­war popu­la­tion of between 200,000 and 250,000. The Japa­nese had laid siege to the coastal city of Shang­hai (they would enter that city on Novem­ber 26) and had begun bombing the terrified inhabitants of Nanjing, nearly 200 miles inland, in August.

When Nanjing fell on December 13, the Nan­king Safety Zone housed over 250,000 refugees in refugee camps that could fit inside the area of New York City’s Central Park (3.5 sq. miles). These refugees were mostly spared the incred­ible vio­lence and bru­tality in­flicted on Nan­jing’s popu­la­tion and their city over a period of three months (Decem­ber 10, 1937, to Febru­ary 10, 1938). Histo­rians, period film and photo­graphs, and eye­witness accounts of West­erners, Chi­nese, and Japa­nese (Rabe and others kept detailed diaries) agree that tens of thou­sands of Chi­nese women, men, and chil­dren were raped, some­times gang-raped in pub­lic streets, and 370,000 or more civil­ians and sur­rendered sol­diers perished in what became known as the Nanking Massacre, or the Rape of Nanking.

Reputedly 57,500 Chinese POWs were shot and indi­vid­ually bay­o­neted on Decem­ber 18, 1937, in the Straw String Gorge Mas­sacre, their bodies mostly dumped into the Yangtze River, after Emperor Hiro­hito (ironi­cally, the name Hiro­hito means “abun­dant bene­volence”) had per­sonally approved removing the con­straints of inter­national law the pre­vious August on the treat­ment of Chi­nese ensnared in “mili­tary opera­tions.” The Emperor advised his staff officers to stop using the term “pri­soner of war” so that Chinese captives could be “lawfully” executed.

In 1946 the Chinese Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek estab­lished the Nanjing War Crimes Tribu­nal to try Japa­nese Army officers accused of war crimes. Two former lieu­ten­ants were con­victed of taking part in the infamous Nan­jing con­test to kill 100 people using a sword. Hun­dreds of survi­vors as well as several foreigners who had wit­nessed the months­long atrocity from their refuge in the Nan­king Safety Zone provided testi­mony to convict Lt. Gen. Hisao Tani, whose superior officer in Nan­jing, Iwane Matsui, had been tried by the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bunal for the Far East in Tokyo and hanged as a war crimi­nal. Tani’s guilty ver­dict corrob­o­rated the records of Rabe and his Nanking Safety Zone committee.

The pre­war and war­time roles of Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito, who had taken the auspi­cious reign-title “Shōwa” (“illus­tri­ous peace”) in 1926, are still the sub­ject of aca­demic and historical con­tro­versy. A recent (2015) narra­tive by Noriko Kawa­mura, Emperor Hiro­hito and the Pacific War, portrays Hiro­hito as a sacred but cere­monial figure in a pre­carious and ambig­u­ous posi­tion when it came to sanc­tioning deci­sions taken by Japa­nese mili­tary leaders, espe­cially when they con­flicted with his own personal, less hawkish views. An opposing narra­tive asserts that Hiro­hito was a true war leader and that he should have been charged with war crimes at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribu­nal just as were Japa­nese Prime Minis­ter and War Minis­ter Gen. Hideki Tōjō and other senior offi­cials who served the emperor. Herbert P. Bix, in his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, believes the latter narrative is more acccurate. In Bix’s view Hiro­hito, as com­mand­er in chief of all Japa­nese armed forces (daigensui), bears the strongest share of poli­tical, legal, and moral respon­si­bil­ity for the crimi­nal behav­ior of his armed forces in the Asia Pacific Thea­ter in the 1930s and ’40s, and he cer­tainly bears respon­sibility for green-lighting the infamous slaughter of Chin­ese sol­diers and civil­ians in Nanjing in 1937. Bix demon­strates to the satis­fac­tion of many readers that Hiro­hito was a repeat vio­la­tor of inter­na­tional peace, starting with Japan’s illegal sei­zure of Man­chu­ria in 1931, con­tinuing for more than a dozen years for peo­ple swept up in the grue­some mael­strom of war, and ending only in August 1945 when he and his sub­or­di­nates could find no way out of the tragic mess they had made in South­east Asia. The Hiro­hito of Bix’s biography was the missing defen­dant in the prisoner’s dock during the Tokyo Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

John Rabe and the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone (November 1937 to February 1938)

John Rabe with several committee members of Nanking Safety Zone, 1937John Rabe’s office in besieged or occupied Nanking

Left: John Rabe (center in photograph) was elected chair­man of the Inter­na­tional Com­mit­tee for the Nan­king Safety Zone, partly owing to his status as a mem­ber of the Nazi Party and to his coun­try’s mem­ber­ship in the German-Japa­nese bilateral Anti-Comin­tern Pact (Novem­ber 25, 1936). Rabe, his zone adminis­tra­tors, and other refugees from for­eign coun­tries fran­tically tried to pro­tect Chi­nese civil­ians from being killed by unre­strained Japa­nese sol­diers (some who went from house to house in search of young girls) and to halt the whole­sale rape, muti­la­tion, looting, and burning. Owing to their efforts, between 250,000 to 300,000 Chi­nese were pro­tected inside the Nan­king Safety Zone or managed to escape the city during the two-month-long massacre.

Right: In China since 1908, Rabe had moved into the top slot of Sie­mens China Cor­po­ra­tion. In this photo­graph he is seen in his under­ground office on the grounds of his home during the period of the Nan­king Mas­sacre (Decem­ber 10, 1937, to Febru­ary 10, 1938). The sign says his office hours are from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

German flag protects shelter from Japanese aircraft attack, Nan­king Massacre, 1937John Rabe’s former home in Nanking after renovation, 2007

Left: Rabe opened up his home and garden to shelter 650 more refu­gees from the car­nage out­side the Nan­king Safety Zone. In his diary Rabe wrote that from time to time Japa­nese sol­diers would enter the zone, carry off a few hun­dred men, women, and chil­dren, and either sum­marily exe­cute them or rape and then kill them. Between mid-Decem­ber 1937 and Febru­ary 5, 1938, the Nan­king Safety Zone Com­mit­tee for­warded to the Japa­nese em­bassy a total of 450 cases of mur­der, rape, and general disorder by Japanese soldiers in Nanjing.

Right: The former residence of John Rabe located in the then Nan­king Safety Zone. On Febru­ary 18, 1938, the Nan­king Safety Zone Inter­na­tional Com­mit­tee was for­cibly renamed “Nan­king Inter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee,” and the Safety Zone effec­tively ceased to func­tion. Ten days later Rabe left Nan­jing for Germany. With him he took a large number of source mate­rials docu­menting the atro­cities com­mitted by the Japa­nese in Nan­jing. On returning home he showed films and photo­graphs of Japa­nese atro­cities in lec­ture presen­ta­tions and even wrote to Adolf Hitler, asking him to use his influ­ence to per­suade the Japa­nese to stop fur­ther inhu­mane vio­lence. By the time of his death from a stroke in 1950, Rabe had amassed more than 2,000 pages of his and other for­eigners’ eye­witness reports, news­paper arti­cles, radio broad­casts, tele­grams, and photo­graphs of the atro­cities, all meticulously typed, numbered, bound, and illustrated.

Nanking Massacre, 1937: Japanese Aggression in China (Contains Scenes of Vio­lence and Gross Brutality)