Thursday 7 March 2013

Of Holocausts and Heroes: John Rabe, Oskar Schindler, and Modern Memory

Let’s go back in time a little.

It’s not all that long a journey – a matter of three-quarters of a century; near enough in time so that some of the participants are still alive as I write this. Let the years roll away, and let us go to China, and to 1937.

Those were the years when a resurgent Germany under Hitler was rearming, when the Spanish Civil War was going on, and when old-style imperialism hadn’t yet realised that its time was gone. The world’s attention – as far as such a term can be used for something restricted to the Western view of the universe – was focused on Europe. But, elsewhere, in Asia, a gigantic war was going on – a war the West barely recognises, to this day, even existed.

Japan had been fighting in China since 1931, and steadily expanding its territories at the expense of its vast mainland neighbour. Its reasons – from the Japanese point of view – were clear. Japan was Asia’s most developed, powerful, and industrialised nation. It was also overpopulated and unable to feed itself. Therefore, economic imperatives demanded that it acquire a colonial empire, just as the white nations before it had acquired their own colonial empires. In 1905 it took Korea, but Korea wasn’t nearly enough. Just as Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum would lead Germany eastwards to the vast spaces of Russia, Japan’s logical route for expansion was west, into the huge territories of China.

In 1937, China was far from the industrial powerhouse and militarily powerful country it is today. The Middle Kingdom had been in decline for over a century, preyed on by western imperialists, broken apart by major civil wars (including the huge Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s), and by the time the decadent monarchy finally fell in 1911, it was a nation only in name. After a further interregnum during which warlords had parcelled out the country among themselves, a new civil war started between the Communists and the Guomindang (“Kuomintang”) of Jiang Jieshi (“Chiang Kai-shek”).

By the 1930s, then, China – weak, divided and backward – seemed ripe for the plucking. Japan expected de facto control of the country within three months. All that was needed was a pretext for war.

In the summer of 1937, the Japanese finally managed to provoke that full-scale war between itself and China. Jiang was inclined to give the Japanese what they wanted while continuing to fight his Communist opponents, but his army had other ideas, and forced him at gunpoint to declare war on the Japanese.

In August, the Japanese attacked the great port city of Shanghai, expecting to overrun it within days. However, the Chinese – despite their lack of armour or a functional air force – defended the city with great tenacity, fighting street by street, barricade by barricade, and inflicting massive losses on the Japanese. It was only after months of fighting that Shanghai fell, leaving the Japanese with the uneasy realisation that the Chinese were much tougher opponents than they had anticipated.

Working up the Yangtze valley, the Japanese then advanced on the Chinese capital, Nanjing.

The stage was set for one of the worst massacres in human history.

Nanjing was a walled city, and was supposed to be strongly defended by the Chinese. Jiang ordered his commanders to hold the city (and then sneaked away himself, abandoning them to their fate). Meanwhile, though much of the city’s population had fled, it was full of refugees from the countryside, who fled the oncoming hordes of Nippon in the hope that the Chinese capital would hold out, just as Shanghai had for so long.

But the battle of Shanghai had also mauled the best Chinese divisions beyond recovery; all that was left was a rabble of exhausted, retreating soldiers and untrained conscripts, many of them Mandarin-speaking Northerners who didn’t even understand the orders of their Cantonese officers. With the politicians having abandoned the city, all control rapidly collapsed, and the bulk of the remaining troops either threw away their weapons and tried to melt away among the civilians or retreated in rout across the Yangtze.

Unlike Shanghai, which had held out for months, Nanjing fell in just four days, and with scarcely a shot.

On the evening of the 12th of December, 1937, then, the Japanese were swarming over the walls on one side of town while the Chinese army was fleeing out of the other. The people – mostly those city residents who were too sick or poor to escape, and the refugees from the countryside – were left to the tender mercies of the Japanese.

In order to understand what happened next, it’s necessary to take a brief diversion into Japanese militarism. Since the early twentieth century, the Japanese military forces had been slowly but steadily taking over the state. By the 1930s, the country was a de facto military dictatorship where even the school teachers worked under military discipline and children were physically and psychologically trained to be soldiers. In The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang recounts how a Japanese schoolboy who wept at the prospect of having to dissect a frog was chastised by his teacher in these words: “Why are you crying over one lousy frog? When you grow up you’ll have to kill one hundred, two hundred chinks!”

Of course, in a society created under these lines, obedience to the central authority is the only virtue. The central authority, in this case, was the Emperor Hirohito, whom the average Japanese had never seen or heard. The Emperor appeared to his people in the form of an Imperial Rescript, which had to be read to schoolchildren every morning, and many of the teachers were army officers whose purpose was to turn the pupils into prospective soldiers. By the time a youngster passed from the schooling system and into the military, he was already programmed to obey without question; a rule that was further reinforced in training until he had no more ability to resist it than a computer has ability to resist a command. His own thoughts, beliefs or reluctance was, of course, immaterial.

This, ultimately, was the ideal Japanese soldier: rigidly faithful to orders, trained to submerge his own individuality completely and absolutely, with the (perceived) will of the (unseen) Emperor as the only law. This psychology was reinforced by a system of brutal military discipline, where, as Len Baynes wrote in The Other Side of Tenko, each soldier could beat those lower down to him in rank, “down to the two-star private beating his one-star colleague; it was mutiny and death to retaliate.” Baynes also tells of having seen (as a PoW in Malaya) wounded Japanese soldiers having been put on half rations since they couldn’t fight and so weren’t of any use to their Emperor.

Obviously, if the only good was obedience to the Emperor, anyone not offering similar obedience was beneath contempt; he or she was utterly worthless, not deserving of the slightest consideration. Life, whether someone else’s or one’s own, was of no importance; only serving the Emperor was important. As long as one fulfilled that, anything and everything was acceptable. And since obedience to the Emperor even to the extent of sacrificing oneself was the natural state of things, one never, ever surrendered. And since one never, ever, surrendered, any enemy soldier who surrendered wasn’t just an enemy; he was a pathetic coward, who lacked the courage to fight to the death. As such, he did not deserve mercy.

This made it easy for the Japanese soldiers to murder prisoners without compunction, and massacring civilians was only a step beyond that.

(It must be emphasised that this wasn’t a policy which was immediately successful. Despite all the indoctrination, a lot of young Japanese soldiers were far from ready to inflict harm on unarmed people. Baynes, for instance, talks about many Japanese prison camp guards who were compassionate, and went out of their way to help prisoners. Chang tells of many Japanese soldiers who were physically revolted at the idea of murdering civilians and prisoners and had to be “toughened up” by their NCOs and officers by being forced to kill or rape captives in the company of their comrades, as a rite of passage.)

The officers were no better. The nominal commander was General Matsui Iwane, a scholarly Buddhist, but he was in indifferent health and at the moment Nanjing fell was away in hospital, ill with tuberculosis. Hirohito sent his uncle, Prince Asaka, to take over, and from all accounts, Asaka and the divisional commanders lacked the common civilised values people are commonly supposed to possess. And either Asaka himself, or one of his staff officers, issued the order that all Chinese prisoners would be killed – the order which was the direct cause of the massacre to come.

The rot wasn’t restricted to the top officers. As the Japanese burned, killed, mutilated and destroyed their way towards Nanjing, their juniors – freed from Iwane’s control – began acting out their own sadistic fantasies. The process wasn’t even a secret; Japanese newspapers proudly reported how two sub-lieutenants, for example, held a “friendly contest” to decide who could first kill a hundred Chinese with a sword. When neither of them could agree on who had reached the goal first, the figure was raised to 150.

It was such an army that the Japanese unleashed on China, the army which on the 13th of December controlled Nanjing.

What happened next was a bloodbath.

For the purposes of this article, a detailed description of the atrocities the Japanese visited on Nanjing is unnecessary; it would, in any case, take far too much space. In brief, over the next few months, the Japanese killed between (lowest estimate) 260,000 and (higher estimate) 350,000 unarmed Chinese soldiers and civilians in Nanjing – much higher than the death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

The murders happened in a variety of ways. Surrendered Chinese soldiers were rounded up, marched off, and – if they were lucky – merely shot. If they were not so lucky, they were used for live bayonet practice, or decapitated one by one with swords, or buried alive, or eliminated in other delectable little ways. Many of these killings were meant to “toughen up” reluctant soldiers and junior officers, as mentioned, but others were just for entertainment. 

Live bayonet practice

And once the supply of prisoners began to give out, the Japanese turned on the Chinese civilian populace.

These civilians fared no better than the prisoners had. Men and children were relatively lucky – they’d be killed more or less right away, with a minimum of ancillary suffering. Women, on the other hand, were subject to violence on an almost unimaginable scale.

Unlike the Nazis, who thought of the Jews as Untermenschen and forbade intercourse between them and Aryan Germans, the Japanese had no compunction about sexual contact with Chinese women. Any Chinese woman, of any age, was fair game; be she a schoolgirl or a grandmother. Women were systematically raped and murdered, or murdered and raped, or raped to death, or just raped and savaged so badly that they would perhaps have been better off dead. Body orifices were violated with a variety of objects. The Yangtze became a dumping ground for corpses, which washed up downstream in immense drifts.

The Japanese went hunting for women, specifically, and frequently raided the Safe Zone (of which I’ll be speaking in a moment) to abduct them. Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking has a selection of photographs of the violence the Japanese visited on the Chinese women; I’d recommend a strong stomach if one wishes to see them. With your permission, I won’t repost them here.

There’s a reason why the Nanjing Massacre is called the Rape of Nanjing.

Now, at the time of the Japanese invasion, Nanjing had a small Western presence; business people, diplomats (as this was the capital of China), doctors and missionaries. These were of many nationalities, including British, Danish and Russian, but primarily American and German. Most of them were evacuated in the days before the Japanese took the city, but a small group (numbering fewer than two dozen) stayed on. These men and women, of diverse nationalities, decided on using what influence they had as foreigners to protect the Chinese as far as they could. For this purpose, they got together to form an International Committee to oversee a Nanking (sic) Safety Zone. The chairman of this committee was a remarkable man, a German Nazi named John H D Rabe.

In December 1937, John Rabe was 55 years old. An employee of Siemens, he had been living in China since 1910, and knew the country well. He and the others of the International Committee put anyone in the Safety Zone under their own protection – despite the fact that they had no way of enforcing this protection, lacking any official standing whatever, and despite the fact that the Japanese themselves refused to recognise this zone.

Faced with this problem, Rabe decided to use the only weapons he had – his German nationality and Nazi Party membership, symbolised by his swastika armband. Germany and Japan were allies against the Comintern, so Japanese soldiers and officers were more reluctant to cross him than they would be to any other Europeans or Americans – and Rabe, and the other Germans present, used this knowledge ruthlessly.

Even so, and going only by the accounts available, it’s hard not to be in utter awe of Rabe’s physical and moral courage. He, and the other Westerners, were constantly on patrol to protect Chinese civilians in their Safety Zone by their mere presence. They would unhesitatingly throw themselves between Japanese troops and their victims, braving gun barrels and bayonets brandished in their faces. On at least one occasion, Rabe himself bodily pulled a Japanese soldier off a Chinese woman he was raping. Rabe’s own house was a shelter for no less than 650 Chinese civilians, and hundreds of thousands of others were accommodated in the Safety Zone, unprotected by walls or barriers, but beyond the reach of the Japanese only due to the physical courage of these few men and women.

It wasn’t only Rabe, of course. There was an American surgeon, Dr Robert Wilson, who operated day and night on the victims of the massacre, to the edge of exhaustion and beyond. There was Wilhelmina Vautrin, an American missionary and college teacher, who used the premises of her college as a women’s shelter and had to be on the alert for Japanese raids to find attractive women to rape. There were others, all unarmed men and women who risked themselves on a constant basis to try and help the civilians and keep the Japanese at bay.

For months on end, they couldn’t even take a break. If they wanted to leave the city, of course, they were more than welcome; the Japanese would love to see them gone. But, of course, they wouldn’t be permitted to return. So, sacrificing food, rest, and sleep, these people kept going on, for month after month, until at last in mid-1938 the massacre ran its course and the city began limping back to a kind of normal.

But at the forefront of all this was Rabe. If it hadn’t been for him, it’s anyone’s guess how many more Chinese would have fallen victim to the Japanese. It’s not known exactly how many people the International Committee saved; but the estimates start from 200,000 to 250,000; a quarter of a million people, and their descendants, owe their lives to Rabe and his colleagues.

The story of John Rabe doesn’t end there. At the end of February 1938, while the massacre was still going on but beginning to ebb, he left Nanjing for Shanghai and then went to Germany. Once there, he gave a series of lectures – including displaying photographs and films – on the Japanese atrocities and the massacres. He also stuck his neck out enough to write a letter to Hitler asking for action. All that this did was bring him to the attention of the Gestapo, which arrested him and confiscated the letter and the film. Siemens then sent him to Afghanistan to protect him from further proceedings, but it was pretty much the end of any German initiative to stop the massacre. Nanjing stayed in Japanese hands till 1945, with the people ruled by a puppet Chinese authority.

The end of the war found Rabe in Berlin, destitute and unemployed. Because of his Nazi past (he had subsequently quit the party) he was arrested by the Soviets, interrogated, released, then arrested by the British, interrogated, and again released; but nobody would give him a job. Finally, word got back to the citizens of Nanjing about his plight, and they put together money and food to send him, which allowed him to live out the last years of his life in relative comfort.

By any standard, Rabe was a hero. But, today, almost nobody knows who he was.

By contrast, almost everyone knows who Oskar Schindler was. An ethnic German industrialist (he was an Austro-Hungarian from Czechoslovakia by birth) and Nazi Party member, he is credited with saving 1200 Jews from the gas chambers by employing them in his enamelware and ammunition plant; and before the Germans had taken over Czechoslovakia had been a German spy and separatist politician. He, therefore, was a complete part of the Nazi state. Schindler was an unabashed war profiteer, as well, and was arrested three times during the war for being a black-market operative (the black market was a big, huge, enormous sin where the Nazis were concerned, because it implied that they weren’t able to fulfil peoples’ needs and because they thought they alone deserved to profit from the war); each time, he bribed his way out of his legal troubles. So, apart from being a Nazi, he was a war profiteer and a crook; but the world knows all about him, as a hero.

The reason the world knows about him is basically because he is the subject of a film by Steven Spielberg, Schindler’s List, which most people reading this will have either seen or at least heard of. I’ll be totally open about my own reaction to the film: I consider it a wonderfully made, deeply moving, superb piece of shameless propaganda.

This isn’t the space for a review of the film, which I watched when it was first released; but I’ll make a few points about it:

First, let me admit to a bit of bias: I despise Steven Spielberg. I don’t doubt he is a good director – but, as a person, he’s a complete opportunist and time-server. Just looking over his films will show that at any given time, he’s catered to the market-of-the-moment. Back when Reagan was in power, his villains were evil Nazis and foreigners in “Third World” countries. When it became politic to oppose Big Business, he made Jurassic Park. And so on.

That’s the significance of the timing of Schindler’s List, by the way; it was made in 1993, when the Communist “threat” had abruptly vanished, and the artificial Islamic “menace” hadn’t yet become a new Evil to be Countered. At that time, then, there was a real danger that the US might decide that the so-called State of Israel (more correctly, the Zionist entity in Occupied Palestine) was no longer required as a base in West Asia and might scale back its unquestioning support. Therefore, Spielberg abruptly remembered that he was a Jew; and the Jewish experience of the Holocaust was dug up, brushed off, fictionalised, and turned into a movie to remind the American people that “this must never happen again.”

Did I say “fictionalised”? Of course; because the movie is basically as far from real history as any other Hollywood product. Schindler is the hero of the movie, and the symbol of the Good German; the counterpart is the Evil German, in the shape of concentration camp commander Amon Göth (played superbly by Ralph Fiennes; in fact, I contend that the only reason to watch that movie is Fiennes’ performance). But the real life Schindler and Göth weren’t polar opposites; they were both deeply corrupt, both war profiteers, both involved in the black-market, and both (though this is not shown in the film) ended up being arrested by the Gestapo for stealing from the state.

In another respect, they were alike. During the Holocaust, one’s chances of survival depended a lot on where one ended up; a concentration camp (like, say, Dachau) offered far greater chances of survival than an extermination camp like Auschwitz. One of Göth’s sins, which ended up in getting him arrested by the Gestapo, was that he took bribes from the Jewish inmates to ensure that they were sent to relatively benign labour and concentration camps. It has been argued that he was actually responsible for saving more Jews than Schindler was. But you don’t get any of that from the film.

You don’t get that from the film because it’s part of the Holocaust industry, which pushes only a certain narrative of recent history. This isn’t the place for a discussion of the Holocaust industry – or its unlovely alter ego, the Holocaust Denial industry; I’ll handle them in a future article. It’s basically a fairy tale, told with only one purpose in mind – the glorification of Oskar Schindler.

I’m not saying Schindler wasn’t a hero. He did go out of his way to save Jews, and he did spend his entire war-profiteer fortune in buying them protection and supplies. But he was a different person from the hero of the film.

Of course, it may be argued - and has been - that Schindler wasn't motivated by concern for the Jews but mere self-preservation. After all, by the time he began protecting them, the tide of war had clearly turned against Germany; and that Schindler was concerned about war crimes trials is clear from the fact that when he fled west before the Red Army, he took care to have the Jews in his factory write letters certifying that he helped them. That is not the action of a concerned altruist.

In any case, the point is that everybody knows about Schindler, who saved 1200 lives; but nobody knows about Rabe, who saved a quarter of a million (in other words, for every person Schindler saved, Rabe saved more than two hundred; and with infinitely greater personal risk). The reason is that, of course, Hollywood hasn’t seen fit to handle the Nazi from Nanjing, though he was the subject of a Chinese-European film.

Why should Rabe be ignored? After all, like Schindler, he was a Good German. Besides, unlike Schindler, he wasn’t a crook, and he was, also unlike Schindler, a dedicated family man. And for a third thing, unlike Schindler, who operated essentially alone, Rabe had colleagues among whom were Americans, also perfectly genuinely heroic. (As anybody knows, where Hollywood is concerned, the presence of an American is essential to just about any movie, set anywhere.) So why isn’t Rabe a Hollywood hero?

The only answer to this question lies in nationalities: that of the perpetrators of the respective genocides, and of the victims. Schindler saved Jews from the Nazi state, and the Nazi state is almost universally acknowledged as having been evil. The modern German nation acknowledges that evil, too, and has gone out of its way to try and expiate the past. Also, the actions taken by that evil Nazi state against the Jews form the shield used to defend the actions of the evil Zionist state against the Palestinian people: “it must never happen again!”

Conversely, Japan – the nation which perpetrated the Nanjing Massacre – still refuses to come to terms with its own aggression against China and Korea. To this day, it’s common in Japan to deny that the Nanjing genocide even happened, and any Japanese historian who dares suggest it did ends up being targeted by right-wing groups. Also, the post-war American occupiers of Japan were more interested in maintaining it as an anti-Communist base in East Asia than to achieve justice, so Japan’s crimes against the Chinese were mostly quietly let slide, unlike Japanese crimes towards Western civilians and prisoners of war.

Another important reason for American silence over Japanese war crimes in China was that the US actually benefited directly from them. The most notorious example was Unit 731, a Japanese medical experimentation and biological warfare programme in China the horrors of which put the worst the Nazis ever did to shame. Prisoners were vivisected without anaesthesia, irradiated, deliberately infected with diseases including plague, cholera and smallpox, and then operated on; they were transfused with horse blood to see how long they could survive, and on and on and on.

So what happened to Unit 731? Surely its members ended up in the dock like the Nazi war criminals, and were punished like the Nazi medical experimenters?

You wish. What actually happened was that the US pardoned them in exchange for their experimentation data, and the unit commander, Shiro Ishii, ended up as a lecturer in the US. Another of his subordinates continued experimentation on human subjects in Japan, with full American approval, till 1956.

There were a few war crime trials; some of the Japanese commanders in Nanjing were executed, including Iwane Matsui; the two sub-lieutenants who took part in the sword-killing contest also ended in front of a Chinese firing squad. But, by and large, Nanjing remains a forgotten massacre in the West, and the vast majority of its perpetrators were never punished for their actions.

(It must not be imagined that Iwane was unjustly executed. Though he did not instigate or order the massacre, he returned to his command shortly after Nanjing fell; though he expressed shock at the massacres   - which were then still only in their early stages - he made absolutely no effort, not even a token one, to stop them. Therefore he became complicit in them, and deserved his execution.)

And today, when there’s a new Cold War brewing between China and the US, Japan is again a frontline vassal and armed base of the American Empire. Therefore there’s even less chance that the massacre will ever be mentioned. As always, it’s who does the massacring that matters, and who the victims are.

I’ll just close with a personal salute to John H D Rabe. Nazi or not, the man has my absolute and unbridled admiration.

I just wish he could have got his due.



Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking

LL Baynes, The Other Side of Tenko


  1. Absolutely fascinating, as always.

  2. Thank you for this. I have been aware of the Rape of Nanjing/Nanking for some time. I had not yet read the books you mentioned though. The Vietnam experiences I lived through are too fresh for more attrocities of war just now.
    Yes, Mr. Rabe IS a hero. His story does need to be told to the world, along with those others who aided his efforts to save the Chinese people of Nanking.
    That many of the Japanese war criminals were let off from any prosecution does raise serious doubts about the US of A and its claims to be for human rights and against crimes. Of course that batch of lies is easily exposed by current wars of choice being waged by the US/NATO in various countries around the globe.

  3. The name John Rabe still is unknown in the German general public as well, although the media remind people now and then of him and his story. I think for us it still is a problem to deal with the idea of a "good Nazi", we haven't learned this could be possible. Thank you Bill, for reminding us.

  4. Very interesting and thoughtful.

  5. Finally, some links about the movie "City of War: The Story of John Rabe":


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