Nazi who became the angel of Nanjing

CHINA: John Rabe helped save the lives of 250,000 Chinese from a Japanese army bent on slaughter, writes Clifford Coonan in …

CHINA: John Rabe helped save the lives of 250,000 Chinese from a Japanese army bent on slaughter, writes Clifford Coonan in Nanjing

There was chaos on the streets of Nanjing in December 1937 when Japanese troops stormed the Ming Dynasty walls of what was then the capital of China. They were bent on slaughter.

Thousands of Nanjing residents were killed by the Japanese army in the "Rape of Nanking", but for some, a saviour was at hand - a paid-up member of the Nazi party. He offered refuge in the garden of his comfortable, grey-bricked house near the city university and ultimately helped save the lives of more than 250,000 people.

John Rabe led a group of Western missionaries, businessmen and scholars in draping Red Cross flags painted on sheets around a two-by-three- kilometre area. The quarter of a million people who were able to get inside the safety zone survived - another 300,000 people outside the International Safety Zone became the victims of the Nanking massacre.

With his swastika armband, Rabe was an unlikely or even impossible hero, but his personal courage and the selfless way he administered the safety zone means for many here he remains "The Living Buddha of Nanjing".

His story is soon to be turned into a Hollywood movie. Nanjing University has turned Rabe's house into a memorial, with support from his former employers, Siemens. It is due to open to the public this month.

The Japanese ground assault began on December 10th and the city fell three days later, signalling the start of the six-week-long Rape of Nanking.

The Chinese say 300,000 people died, although the Japanese insist the figure was lower. Eyewitnesses say Chinese captives were tortured, burnt alive, buried alive, decapitated, bayoneted and shot en masse, and up to 80,000 Chinese women and girls of all ages were raped, with many more murdered or forced into sex slavery.

The incident has left enormous psychological scars in China and remains a huge stumbling block in relations between Beijing and Tokyo even today, as the Chinese believe Japan has not done enough to atone for its militarist past.

This gives a political dimension to John Rabe's actions being highlighted at the moment.

Rabe's account of the Nanking massacre in his 1,200-page diary is extremely moving and detailed, and despite being lost for many years, it has become a key historical account of the time.

"If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. They [ Japanese soldiers] smash open windows and doors and take whatever they like . . . I watched with my own eyes as they looted the cafe of our German baker Herr Kiessling," he wrote.

Japan was Germany's ally and Rabe often resorted to waving his swastika armband in the face of a difficult Japanese soldier to try and get his way. He describes how it was highly dangerous work and how all the foreigners were close to being killed on many occasions.

In one case, some Japanese troops broke into the settlement to attack the women there.

"We few foreigners couldn't be at all places all the time in order to protect against these atrocities. One was powerless against these monsters who were armed to the teeth and who shot down anyone who tried to defend themselves," Rabe wrote.

There were Chinese soldiers among the refugees and the Japanese forced their way in to arrest them.

"Of the perhaps 1,000 disarmed soldiers that we had quartered at the ministry of justice, between 400 and 500 were driven from it with their hands tied. We assume they were shot since we later heard several salvos of machine gun fire. These events have left us frozen with horror," Rabe wrote in his diary.

He also opened his own house and garden to 650 other Chinese refugees. Fu Bin, from the university's history department, shows me the sections of walled garden where they lived, and where they were fed rice and beans. "Five families lived in the house itself, and many more lived on the grounds," he says, pointing to the gardens around the handsome house.

Fu was one of three historians who went to Germany this year to meet Rabe's grandchildren and others who knew him, to collect as many relics and files as possible for the museum.

Some of the artefacts held by his grandchildren, now living in Heidelberg and Berlin, are astonishing - beautiful jade necklaces and Chinese dolls.

The intimate sepia photographs of this bastion of the German community and his family is a touching testament to expatriate life in the 1930s. But his descendants cherish the memory of what their grandfather did most of all.

The parallels with Oskar Schindler, the entrepreneur who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews, are obvious, but Rabe is a more challenging figure in so many ways. He joined the Nazi Party early on, was head of the local branch and does not seem to have doubted his Nazi beliefs.

Tang Daoluan, director of Nanjing University's archive department, believes Rabe was essentially apolitical and only joined the party to get support for a German school he set up in Nanjing. For her, it was Rabe's humanity that moved her most.

"He is only a businessman, not a priest or a humanitarian worker. What he did here - protecting citizens of another country without regard for his own safety - went far beyond his duty. He was a good man who understood human dignity," said Tang.

The son of a sea captain, Rabe was born in Hamburg in 1882 and arrived in China in 1908, joining Siemens two years later. He worked in Beijing until November 1931 when the firm transferred him to its office in Nanjing, named China's capital under Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomingtang. As the company's senior China representative he sold telephones, turbines and electrical equipment to the government.

Photographs show Rabe's ingenuity. An air-raid shelter he built in his courtyard in August 1937, when the Japanese air attack began, was covered with a giant swastika flag to dissuade attackers. By 1937 it was clear the Japanese were coming and the foreign community and much of Nanjing's Chinese population, including the government, evacuated the city in November.

Rabe sent his family back but refused to go himself, instead staying behind with several dozen other foreigners to set up the safety zone.

Shortly before the Japanese arrived, Rabe was elected chairman of the 15-member Committee of the International Safety Zone. "He was reluctant at first and concerned about the safety of his family; but as soon as he took the position, he shouldered the responsibility and didn't turn back," said Tang.

Huang Huiying has written a biography of Rabe and interviewed many survivors of the period. "A survivor told me Rabe once bought horsebean to cure people who suffered from beriberi in his house, otherwise the disease may cause plague; and he also gave a little money to kids who lived there when festivals came, so as to cheer them up," said Huang.

Even at the time his fame was such that 3,000 women from Jinling Women's University knelt by the roadside and kowtowed in gratitude to Rabe when he was finally forced to leave the city early in 1938.

After returning to Berlin, Rabe gave lectures about the massacre and tried to get Hitler to intervene. He was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo for three days and told to shut up.

He left for Afghanistan and then came back to Berlin to work for Siemens. After the war, he was de-Nazified and was kept alive by food parcels and money sent from grateful colleagues in China. He died of a stroke in 1950.

But one entry in his diary, around Christmas in 1937, sums up his motivation. He has just received a Christmas card, in German and Chinese, from the refugees thanking him for all he had done."The best Christmas present I could ever have is to save the lives of over 600 people."