Sunday, October 5, 2008

Candles In the Storm: The Angels of Nanking

The Japanese occupation of China stretched from 1937 to 1945. It included some of the most dehumanising violence not only against enemy combatants but against helpless Chinese civilians. The Rape of Nanking is one of the most massive war crimes ever perpetrated in war time. It lasted for about six weeks in 1937 and 1938. Its name in the history books is quite literal. Rape was an organised part of the brutalisation of the city. Tens of thousands of females from children to the elderly were raped and murdered. Many were conscripted into military brothels.

The general death toll is estimated at between 150,000 to 300,000. Because of widespread burning of bodies and throwing of corpses into the Yang tse River, the death toll may well always be underestimated.

There were foreigners in the city. Traders and missionaries formed the core of the foreign population in Nanking. Many of them banded together to protect Chinese civilians.

One of the most unusual among them was a German living in the city who joined the Nazi Party out of conviction and became its organiser in Nanking. He was instrumental in setting up a safety zone in the middle of Nanking in which tens of thousands of Chinese civilians sought refuge. Countless times he brandished his Nazi armband and placed himself between Japanese soldiers and trembling Chinese who would otherwise be victims. In addition to his rescue efforts he kept a diary so that the atrocities woulld not be denied later by the Japanese perpetrators.

The rescuers in Nanking were short on arms and long on courage. Sadly, their success was limited. The Japanese were ruthless in their search for human prey. Constant attacks stretched thin the ranks of the western rescuers.

An additional irony is the role of missionaries who earlier in the century had themselves been hunted and persecuted by the Chinese themselves as agents of western values and power. This same class of distrusted foreigners proved to be tireless defenders of the Chinese who came to them for refuge.

According to Wikipedia "On February 28, 1938 Rabe left Nanjing, traveling to Shanghai and then back to Germany. He showed films and photographs of Japanese atrocities in lecture presentations in Berlin and wrote to Hitler to use his influence to persuade the Japanese to stop any more inhumane violence. Instead, Rabe was detained and interrogated by the Gestapo and his letter to Hitler never sent. Due to the intervention of Siemens AG, he was released. He was allowed to keep evidence of the massacre, excluding the film, but was not allowed to lecture or write on the subject. Rabe would continue working for Siemens, which posted him briefly to the safety of Afghanistan. Until 1945 Rabe worked in the Berlin headquarters of the company.

After the war, Rabe was denounced for his Nazi Party membership and arrested by the Russians first and then by the British. However, investigations exonerated him of any wrongdoing. He was formally declared "de-Nazified" by the Allies in June 1946 but thereafter lived in relative poverty. His family was also starving at one point in time when he (Rabe) was partly supported by the monthly food and money parcels sent by the Chinese government for his actions during the Nanjing Massacre."

The contrasts in Rabe's attitudes are interesting. He went back to Germany with full faith that his concern with the massacre in Nanking would be received with sympathy by Hitler. Despite his interrogation and incarceration for a short time, he returned to his job at Siemens Industries in Berlin with his faith unshaken. Efforts from Siemens executives to obtain his freedom were fortunately fruitful.He did not become a dissident. He did not oppose Nazism until after the German surrender, when it was supposed that he was a common party loyalist. Fortunately, he was exculpated by testimony from eyewitnesses to his heroism.

It is very hard to predict who will answer the call of circumstance to heroic efforts. Some who in peace time are nondescript and even unpleasant sometimes surprise the world with an inner strength. Rabe was described by those who knew him as sincere in his loyalty to Nazi ideology.
It may never be known what inner spark lit his path of kindness and rescue. The most comforting explanation is the thought of a war between good and evil in the world that reaches into the soul of every person born.

Rabe's story is an inspiring example of a person passing a critical test in life. His life is an example to us all.

The video with this posting is part of a series about the Rape of Nanking. It focuses on the rescue efforts during that trying time
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