The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe


The Good Man of Nanking is a crucial document for understanding one of World War II's most horrific incidents of genocide, one which the Japanese have steadfastly refused to acknowledge.  It is also the moving and awe-inspiring record of one man's conscience, courage, and generosity in the face of appalling human brutality.

Until the recent emergence of John Rabe's diaries, few people knew abouth the unassuming hero who has been called the Oskar Schindler of ...

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Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe

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The Good Man of Nanking is a crucial document for understanding one of World War II's most horrific incidents of genocide, one which the Japanese have steadfastly refused to acknowledge.  It is also the moving and awe-inspiring record of one man's conscience, courage, and generosity in the face of appalling human brutality.

Until the recent emergence of John Rabe's diaries, few people knew abouth the unassuming hero who has been called the Oskar Schindler of China.  In Novemgber 1937, as Japanese troops overran the Chinese capital of Nanking and began a campaign of torture, rape, and murder against its citizens, one man-a German who had lived in China for thirty years and who was a loyal follower of Adolph Hitler-put himself at risk and in order to save the lives of 200,000 poor Chinese, 600 of whom he sheltered in his own home.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Saving Thousands from the Slaughter

One might expect the journal of a minor Nazi functionary to be a study of the banality of evil. The Good Man of Nanking is instead a testament to the ordinariness of good, as demonstrated by the remarkable heroism of an otherwise unremarkable man. It is estimated that during the Rape of Nanking in 1937 and 1938, John Rabe helped save the lives of more than 250,000 Chinese. His recently discovered diaries offer a shocking account of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in their attack on Nanking, even as they reveal a good-natured, decent man who risked his position and his life to save others.

By 1937, John Rabe was an "old China hand" who had spent almost 30 years working for German firms in Shanghai, Peking, and Nanking. "He wanted to be," the editor claims, "no more than an honest Hamburg businessman" and was "a simple man whom people prized for his common sense, his humor, and his congeniality." His diary does indeed portray an amiable, humble man with a talent for diplomacy and organization. But it also shows a man with uncommon courage and a nerve that even the Japanese invaders respected.

Japan's undeclared war against China began in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria. In the summer of 1937, Nanking, then the capital of China, came under air attack by the Japanese. This edition of Rabe's diaries begins in September. Rabe wrote of the dugout in his backyard where he and his neighbors crouched during raids, and of the 20-by-10-foot Nazi flag staked to the ground. Despite frequent bombings, he seemed to feel equaltothe adversity that faced him, praying daily, "Dear God, watch over my family and my good humor; I'll take care of the other incidentals myself." Nevertheless, Rabe certainly felt the gravity of his situation:

"And how the Chinese applaud happily whenever an enemy bomber takes a hit...and plunges to the earth in a beautiful fiery arc. Only the funny, inscrutable 'Master' is behaving strangely. He silently touches the brim of his hat and mutters, 'Hush! Three men are dying!'"

In November, most of the city's European contingent departed, and Rabe considered going as well. But he felt a duty to his employees — "What's to become of all the many Chinese clinging to my coattails?" — and an affinity for the land and the people who had supported him for so long. When a volunteer committee was formed by other Westerners to create a civilian refugee camp in Nanking, Rabe joined immediately and was elected chairman. Nanking's poor flowed into the Safety Zone (and into Rabe's yard and home) as Japanese troops marched closer to the city; eventually Rabe's grounds accommodated 600, and the Zone housed 250,000.

The Europeans' vigilance in disarming any Chinese who entered the Safety Zone prevented any formal Japanese aggression within it, though less organized incursions happened constantly. The Japanese advanced into the city on December 12th, and shortly thereafter even the Safety Zone was no longer absolutely safe: "[Now] pillaging, rape, murder, and mayhem are occurring inside the Zone as well," Rabe wrote. Even so, Rabe's status as a European — and moreover as a German — afforded some measure of protection to the occupants of the Zone: "As I write this, the fists of Japanese soldiers are hammering at the back gate to the garden.... When I suddenly show up with my flashlight, they beat a hasty retreat."

In several entries, Rabe described happening upon rapes in progress, and in one case wrote of flying into a rage and waving his swastika armband under the nose of a Japanese soldier, who then fled. In this instance, as in others, Rabe showed great faith in the Nazi party, and the party served him well in warding off Japanese aggression.

Rabe described the atrocities that continued both within and outside of the Safety Zone with compassion and outrage, and it is clear that he had no intimation that in a few years the party he revered and supported would be guilty of similar depravity. (In 1945, he wrote, "If...I were to be asked today why I remained in the party, I can only reply that those of us overseas never came into contact with...eyewitnesses to the atrocities...committed by members of the SS.")

His Nanking diary ends upon his return to Germany. Back in Berlin, he remained a staunch supporter of Nazism, though he was questioned by the Gestapo and forbidden to speak in public about the atrocities he had witnessed in Nanking. His diary resumes in 1945, when he lived in Berlin in poverty and obscurity. After his de-Nazification in 1946 he was allowed to work again, but the privations of the war years and his intense humiliation had taken their toll, and he died of a stroke in 1950.

Rabe's diary of the Rape of Nanking is a priceless document, not only because it is a rare, first-person account of Japanese atrocities but because it proves that one ordinary man can make a difference. Although Rabe's affiliation with the Nazi party would seem to be at odds with his strong humanitarian impulse, his meticulous accounts of six months in Nanking show no contradiction whatsoever. The Good Man of Nanking certainly was that.
— Julie Robichaux,

From the Publisher
"Riveting, inspiring, terrifying and tragically sad."  -The New York Times Book Review

"John Rabe is the Oskar Schindler of China."  -Iris Chang, The New York Times

"A document of the power of the human will....A quarter-million Chinese survived the horror of Nanking because John Rabe didn't hesitate to act."  -The Boston Globe

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Considered the Oskar Schindler of China, Rabe was a German businessman who saved the lives of 250,000 Chinese during the infamous siege of Nanking. But Rabe was also a member of the Nazi party and a man whose motto was "Right or wrong-my country." This gaping paradox adds a fascinating complexity to his newly translated diaries, which primarily focus on the six-month Nanking siege in 1937 and 1938. When the Japanese air raids began over Nanking--where Rabe was regional director of the German industrial giant Siemens--Rabe's wife, along with most foreigners, evacuated the city. But Rabe stayed to protect his Chinese staff and co-workers; as he put it, "I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me." As the magnitude of the Japanese assault became apparent, Rabe, along with American doctors and missionaries, created an International Committee whose purpose was to set up a Neutral Zone where Chinese civilians could take refuge. Six hundred of the poorest Chinese were soon living in Rabe's own house, symbolically protected by an enormous canvas painted with a swastika; thousands more took shelter in the arbitrary Neutral Zone that Rabe continually begged the Japanese to respect. Lacking food and medical supplies, Rabe was mobilized to continue his good works by the atrocities he witnessed; his descriptions of the sadistic rapes, torture and slaughter perpetrated by Japanese soldiers are chillingly vivid. Similar in some ways to Giorgio Perlasca, the Italian fascist businessman who helped save Budapest's Jews (Enrico Deaglio's The Banality of Goodness, Forecasts, June 1), Rabe was a complicated figure whose ultimate reasons were very matter-of-fact: "You simply do what must be done." (Nov.)
John Rabe, although born in Germany, lived in China from 1908 until 1938. He was director of the Siemen's office in Nanking and he felt that China was more his home than Germany. When the threat of Japanese attack began in late 1937, Rabe ignored all orders and advice and remained in Nanking. He was instrumental in establishing a safe zone for over 200,000 Chinese who stayed there. Though he would deny it, his presence saved many from death, starvation, rape and other atrocities visited on the Chinese by the Japanese. Rabe's diaries cover the period from September 1937 until he left China in February 1938. They document the horrors and privation that the Chinese experienced as well as those Europeans and Americans who remained in Nanking. When Rabe eventually returned to Germany, he found his situation there was also bad. He and his wife barely survived the war; it was a constant struggle. These diaries offer a look at a part of history that many may not be familiar with. Although far from objective, Rabe documented events and history. In China, he was in a fairly powerful position and tried to help as many as he could despite the danger to himself. When used with other history resources, this small volume provides a thought-provoking perspective. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Random House/Vintage, 294p, 21cm, 98-15885, $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Robin S. Holab-Abelman; Libn., US Court, Mobile, AL, July 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 4)
Library Journal
Joining the ever-growing shelf of World War II memoir literature, this carefully edited book recounts the wartime experiences of an obscure German businessman who is now known as the "Oskar Schindler of China" and revered as a saint by the Chinese. Rabe (1882-1949) lived in China for almost 30 years, most notably as the director of the Siemens branch in Nanking during the infamous 1937 siege. Working closely with American friends, he organized an International Safety Zone that offered relative security to 250,000 Chinese during the brutal Japanese occupation. This book, based on a journal he kept then, describes his rescue efforts as well as the atrocities he observed. Called back to Germany shortly thereafter, he was arrested by the Gestapo and forbidden to speak of his experiences. The editor, a friend who first met Rabe in China in the early 1930s, explains the general political and military background and, more importantly, summarizes the political information that was available to Rabe himself. Recommended for academic and informed lay readers.--Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ
Sheryl WuDunn
...[A]t once riveting, inspiring, terrifying and tragically sad....compassionate and at times, humorous, with an understated horror...
The New York Times Book Review
Martin Booth
...[H]is writing is not merely a catalogue of gloom and despair. It has its lighter side, his humanity and humor never abandoning him. He writes of his neighborly feud with a Chinese cobbler with whom he was later reconciled to the tune of a pair of resoled boots....The book is...inevitably moving.
Far Eastern Economic Review
Iris Chang
John Rabe is the Oskar Schindler of China.
The New York Times/I>
Kirkus Reviews
In December 1937, the Japanese army conquered and occupied the Chinese city of Nanking. What followed was, as Rabe notes, "destruction barbaric beyond all comprehension." Japanese soldiers raped, tortured, and murdered indiscriminately, and in all, as many as 300,000 people were butchered. Rabe at this time was Nanking director of Siemens, the German industrial concern. He was also a member of the Nazi Party and an (apparently naive) admirer of Hitler. Easily able to leave the city, he chose to stay and by staying was able to blunt some of the effects of the Japanese onslaught. At first he simply opened his home to Chinese desperate for sanctuary: The number of refugees in his house and (not very large) yard eventually totaled 600. More significantly, he became head of an international committee that was able to create a safety zone in the city where it was hoped non-combatants would be afforded protection. Some 250,000 Chinese streamed into this zone, where, quite literally, the only thing standing between them and the depredations of the Japanese soldiers was the courage of Rabe and a handful of other Westerners.

Rabe's diaries describe in detail the atrocities committed by the Japanese, but also how Rabe cajoled, flattered, and when necessary bullied the Japanese authorities into tolerating the Safety Zone. Like Schindler, Rabe was quite aware that his Nazi affiliation afforded him a degree of influence and protection. This does not, however, account for the heroism and steadfastness with which he saved thousands of lives. Rabe's dramatic—-and perhaps, to some, ambiguous—-tale shows how unremarkable people can sometimes do remarkable things, and how one evil can,sometimes, be used to fight another.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375701979
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 672,518
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

John Rabe was born in Hamburg in 1882. He lived in China from 1908 to 1938, where his last position was that of director of the Siemens office in Nanking. He died impoverished and unrecognized in Berlin in 1950. Dr. Erwin Wickert, noted scholar and German ambassador to China from 1976 to 1980, first met Rabe in 1936 in Nanking. He is the author of several books about East Asia, including the best-selling China Seen from the Inside. With 2 maps and 59 illustrations.

The translator, John E.Woods, lives in San Diego, California.

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Table of Contents

Foreword vii
A Note on the Text xix
Part 1 From John Rabe's Nanking Diary
1 How It Began 3
2 Things Get Serious 25
3 Waiting for the Attack 51
4 The Japanese March In 62
5 Christmas 88
6 New Year 107
7 The Diplomats Return 113
8 Closing Down the Siemens Nanking Branch 128
9 The Japanese Want to Clear the Safety Zone 156
10 The Living Buddha 168
11 Farewell 177
Part 2 John Rabe in His German Homeland
12 Between the Nanking and Berlin Diaries 209
13 John Rabe's Berlin Diary 216
Afterword 253
Documents 259
Notes 289
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2000

    A book that will change the way one looks at the human race.

    I have recently read this excellent book, and have found it to be an eloquent, honest, and heartbreaking account of a man, who, when faced with the horrors of war, exemplified the qualities of nobility and compassion. John Rabe saved more people than 200 Oskar Schindlers, but so few people know of him and his story. Inspiring and memorable, it's a book I cannot reccommend enough.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2010

    The Good Man of Nanking

    Knopf didn't have the book at this time. I'll get the refund on my credit card.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2002

    An insightful firsthand account of the rape of nanking

    Fortunately I had already heard of the atrocities that occured during WWII in Nanking. Although if i had not, this book might have been a tad-bit hard to follow. John Rabe is well reserved and leaves the harsh details to when they are most needed. Though without more historical knowledge, one cannot fully understand what when on in Nanking. Before reading this, I would highly recommend the Penguin Edition of The Rape of Nanking.

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