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November 29, 1999 -- Vol.4, no.1

The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe
by Victor Fic

The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998, $26.00.

On September 22, 1937, John Rabe picked up his pen with the same determination that the Japanese soldiers advancing on Nanking picked up their rifles, and began to record their terrible atrocities. The testament he produced will confound those cynical about altruism, as well as naysayers who deny the brutality -- or even the occurrence -- of the Rape of Nanking.

Rabe was a Hamburg businessman posted to the city. When Japanese forces advanced on Nanking, he organized a sprawling International Safety Zone, "that eventually saved over 250,000 lives even as reportedly an equal number of people lost theirs". His diary details his activities and what he witnessed during the several weeks of murder, rape and pillage that started in mid-December 1937.

In one important way the, middle-aged, balding Rabe was like Oskar Schindler. He followed his conscience, and this, along with the circumstances, allowed him to attain greatness. As Shakespeare wrote ?Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them?.

He gave several motives, some mundane, others noble, for remaining in the doomed city. First Rabe cited professionalism, or duty to his company. Then he wrote of the power of personal bonds, insisting that, "I cannot bring myself to betray the trust" [of friends and employees]. He invoked compassion when he wrote ?Anyone who has ever held a trembling Chinese child during an air raid? cannot run.

When circumstances stranded him and Nanking's helpless citizens in a moral desert, Rabe created an oasis of relief and safety. Once a blast shook a bomb shelter crowded with civilians and Rabe reacted by saying that fear could be controlled by "a few cheerful words, a really rotten joke, grins all around?.

Even though he was usually good-humored, Rabe demonstrated a capacity for righteous rage when encountering a soldier about to rape. This chubby, bow-tied businessman hollered at, and then shoved away the armed soldier, who then ran off.

The diary?s' credulity seems enhanced by Rabe's obsession with accuracy. He usually recorded the precise time, location, and nature of an atrocity, as he maintained composure, never inflaming emotions. For instance, he wrote plainly that "The older [child] was bayoneted and the younger split down through the head with a sword?.

The Chinese calculate that 300,000 people were murdered in Nanking. However, Japanese revisionists claim that either the massacre did not happen or that perhaps only 50,000 people died. Rabe cites no figures. Unlike Iris Chang's exhaustively researched, "The Rape of Nanking", a vivid account of terror and death leading to genocide, Rabe's diaries are surprisingly understated. One reason might be because "cases are pouring in faster than we can type them out?.

Sometimes words failed him, for the horrors were "indescribable?. And, ironically, their ubiquity encouraged shorthand such as, "You hear of nothing but rape?. At other times Rabe indicated that the suffering dumbfounded him.

To be sure, the cruelty was extreme. Women had golf clubs or bamboo poles rammed up their genitals, and others were raped up to 40 times, with even 70-year-olds victimized. Children were murdered and raped. Hospital patients were executed, and looting was constant. Any Chinese man suspected of being a soldier was bound, killed, dumped into a fire, or kicked into the river. Some were buried alive.

Although the Japanese had pledged to respect the Zone, they killed and raped within it. Sometimes, needing to demonstrate their superiority, the soldiers humiliated the Chinese. Rabe cites an incident in which a Japanese soldier, passing a poor Chinese family sitting down to eat, paused to urinate in their common bowl of rice gruel. And when the Japanese realized that Rabe monitored gunfire, they switched to bayoneting their victims. Rabe wrote that an additional reason for staying was to witness these horrors "so that one fine day the truth will out."

A Japanese diplomat in Nanking referred to the soldiers as "rascals?. This diplomat tried to win Rabe?s good will at a reception by playing Western songs. One was "Chinatown, My Chinatown?. Rabe was chagrined that most Japanese in Nanking, instead of facing the truth and reforming, hid behind denials or excuses. Tragically, many do to this day. [When the Japanese version of the diaries were published in Japan, many of the atrocities were censored].

In 1938, Rabe left for his homeland, Germany, where he continued to keep a diary. Rabe's China diaries make it apparent that when he was in Nanking, this apolitical man seems never to have understood that the evil tide of fascism was flooding his homeland. Later, in Germany, the apparently still naive Rabe tried to tell the Nazi's about Nanking's suffering in the vain hope that Germany might help China. But the Gestapo censored him in order to preserve the good relations between Berlin and Tokyo.

He died in 1950. The diaries resurfaced in 1996 after his startled daughter read a reference to them in a newspaper and realized then that her father's diaries were in her possession. When they were published, they caused a stir among specialists on Japan and the war. Battle lines have been drawn around Rabe's attempt to get the truth out. Rabe's contemporary allies insist that the diaries are an unbiased account of Nanking's suffering. These allies include the Japanese journalist Katsuichi Honda, who has written prolifically on Nanking. In America, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is lending its immense moral prestige and influence to assist victims of Nanking and other atrocities gain redress. [Within China, the diaries are being widely read; filmmaker Xie Jin has announced that he will make a movie about the rape of Nanking to educate people world wide.]

But Japanese reactionaries are fighting back. When the diaries were published in Japan recently, many of the atrocities were censored. Shintaro Ishihara, the right wing politician, continues to insist that the massacre is a Chinese lie; as the mayor of Tokyo, he has a pulpit from which to preach. When a Tokyo theatre tried to show a film about Nanking recently, right wingers burst in and slashed the screen with a sword. Rabe's supporters will likely always find that when they try to speak up within Japan, their adversaries can speak as, or even more, loudly.

Rabe died poor and in obscurity. Sadly he was forced to barter his treasured Chinese art for food, and traded away his statue of Kuanyin -- the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, for a handful of potatoes.