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From Barnes & NobleThe 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, barnesandnoble.com