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 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 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’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 eight weeks (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 (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) 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. After the war neither Hiro­hito nor Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, the Emperor’s “man-on-the-spot” in Nan­jing, was ever charged by the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bunal for the Far East (April 29, 1946, to Novem­ber 12, 1948), the equi­va­lent of the Nurem­berg Trials in post­war Ger­many, with crimes against humanity.

It baffles me that there remains any contro­versy sur­rounding the pre­war and war­time role of Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito, who had taken the auspi­cious reign-title “Shōwa” (“illus­tri­ous peace”) in 1926. Some would like us to believe Hiro­hito was a pas­sive ruler reluc­tantly manip­u­lated by an elite group of Japa­nese mili­tarists and nation­alists who con­trolled the levers of power. Others boldly assert he was a co-conspi­rator and should have been charged with war crimes in a post­war mili­tary tri­bunal as were Gen. Hideki Tōjō and others who regularly reported to him. Herbert P. Bix, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hiro­hito and the Making of Modern Japan, con­signs the contro­versy to the ash­can of his­tory. Bix asserts that Hiro­hito, as com­man­der in chief of his coun­try’s armed forces, must bear the strongest share of poli­tical, legal, and moral respon­si­bility for the crimi­nal con­duct of his mili­tary in the Asia Pacific Thea­ter in the 1930s and ’40s, and he cer­tainly bears direct respon­si­bility for sanc­tioning the bombing of Chi­nese cities and Japan’s use of poi­son gas on Chi­nese sol­diers and civil­ians. Bix demon­strates to my satis­fac­tion that Hiro­hito was a repeat vio­lator of inter­na­tional peace, starting in 1931 with Japan’s illegal sei­zure of Man­churia in north­eastern China, con­tinuing in 1937 with the start of the Second Sino-Japa­nese War remem­bered partly for its grues­ome eight-week-long Rape of Nan­king, and ending in August 1945 only when he and his asso­ci­ates could find no way out of the bloody mess they had made in South­east Asia. Hiro­hito was the missing person in the defen­dants’ dock during the Tokyo Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

[amazon_carousel widget_type=”ASINList” width=”600″ height=”200″ title=”Recommended Reading” market_place=”US” shuffle_products=”False” show_border=”False” asin=”061889425X,0465068367,0375701974,0306811782,0813327180,0472086626,1605983578,0060931302,0674033396,0765603357″ /]

John Rabe and the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone

John Rabe with several committee members of Nanking Safety Zone, 1937Rabe’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 zone or managed to escape the city during the mas­sacre (Decem­ber 10, 1937, to February 10, 1938).

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. The sign says his office hours are from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

German flag protects shelter from Japanese aircraft attack, 1937Rabe’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 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)