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’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 nine 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 (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. 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

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 Rabe’s 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 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 (Chinese documentary with English subtitles)