The Nazi of Nanking

December 9th, 2010

By Brianna Aubin

Last spring, I read a book called The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang.  Iris was the descendant of Chinese immigrants; her parents were actually professors at my university, so she grew up here in Chambana.  Her grandparents had managed to flee Nanking before it had been taken by the Japanese; it was her family connection to the event that in part inspired her to write the work.

The Rape of Nanking tells the story of the Japanese conquest of the city during the Second Sino-Japanese War.  Its focus is not on the military conquest itself, but rather the brutal and horrific treatment the inhabitants of the city who had not managed to flee received from the Japanese once the city had fallen.  Looting, rape, and murder by members of the Japanese army were omnipresent.  Most reasonable death tolls place the number killed between 200,000 and 300,000; Chang’s book estimates the number of rapes at somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000.

However, as numerous and atrocious as they were, this article does not focus on the crimes committed at Nanking.  Rather, it focuses on one of the foreigners who tried to protect the inhabitants of Nanking from the Japanese: a German member of the Nazi party named John Rabe.

When it became clear that the city was about to fall, most foreigners in the city fled from the Japanese.  Only 22 foreigners stayed, with the intent of doing what they could to protect the natives.  Together they created the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, making safe havens for civilian inhabitants at all the foreign embassies and at Nanking University.  When it came time to choose a leader for the committee, Rabe was elected specifically in part because his German citizenship and Nazi Party membership would give him more authority with the Japanese troops than any of the other members of the committee.  At the risk of their own lives, Rabe and the other committee members did everything within their power to help the citizens of Nanking, and to protect the men, women and children who managed to make it to the safety zone.  Together they are credited with saving somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 lives.  When Rabe left Nanking, he took evidence of the atrocities with him and attempted to speak about what he had witnessed, but was stopped by the government (though his evidence was fortunately not confiscated, and much of it survives to this day).

All of the foreigners who chose to stay in the city were heroes of almost superhuman proportions. The Rape of Nanking is rife with stories of how these individuals worked themselves to exhaustion and put themselves in danger again and again for the residents of the city.  John Rabe is not unique among them because his acts were somehow more exceptional than the rest, but because of his ties to a regime which is itself infamous for performing indescribable horrors upon defenseless victims.  How could a faithful Nazi, loyal to the party and the Fuhrer, literally become the savior of a city when Nazism itself was responsible for so much horror and devastation?

Perhaps if Rabe were alive today and the Nazi atrocities had not yet become known, it would be argued that Rabe was proof that all ideologies are equal, that you cannot judge between ideologies, and it is immoral to place one ideology on a higher or lower moral footing than another.  However, in view of the historical facts this position is clearly absurd.  Nazism is an immoral ideology; it fully deserves its reputation today as a political philosophy of unspeakable evil.  Nazism is at root a collectivist ideology based on race; there was no reason for Rabe to not decide to apply it in such a way that the suffering of the Chinese victims of Nanking would mean as much to him as the suffering of the Jews meant to his fellow Germans and party members.  In short, Rabe was a hero in spite of his ideology, not because of it.

Today, we are told that all religions are equal, that you cannot judge between different sets of beliefs, and that it is immoral to place one religion or culture above or below another.  Particularly we are told this about Islam, precisely because Islam is the most visible, egregious and powerful totalitarian ideology at work in the world today.  As proof that there is nothing wrong with Islam, we are offered the evidence that there are millions of Muslims who do not engage in violent jihad, so of course those who do engage in violent jihad in the name of Islam must be twisting an otherwise decent faith to suit their purposes.  But I do not believe that the decency of most Muslims is due to the benevolence of their religious ideology, any more than Rabe’s actions were due to the benevolence of his political ideas.  Rather, the decency of these individuals in both cases was and is due to their basic human decency, which they acted out in spite of their explicit religious and political ideology.

The refusal of some Muslims to fully carry out every command of their faith does not redeem Islam, any more than Rabe’s acts redeem the Nazi party platform.  The triumph of human decency over horrendous ideology — that is the true moral of the story of the Nazi of Nanking.

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7 Responses to “The Nazi of Nanking”

  1. Tom Carter |

    I’ve read about Rabe before, and although he’s not quite as well-known, I’ve always compared him to Raoul Wallenberg, who along with others worked heroically to save Jews in Budapest from the Nazis and the Hungarian fascists. They and others like them were remarkable people who were determined to do the right thing despite the tremendous danger to themselves. Wallenberg paid with his life at the hands of the Soviets, and Rabe wasn’t that well-treated by the Nazis when he returned to Germany, although he survived until after the war.

    I don’t intend to defend anyone who was a member of the NSDAP. However, Rabe was and remained first and foremost a businessman, and I’m sure he joined the Nazis to further his career. We should also remember that this was 1937-38, before the worst Nazi atrocities took place. That doesn’t absolve Rabe of the taint of having been a Nazi, but it at least leaves room to think that the kind of man he proved himself to be in Nanking wouldn’t have approved of what the Nazis did later.

    Sadly, I can’t disagree with your general comparison of Nazi ideology and Muslim religious beliefs, even though there are obviously significant differences. Looking back at that time, it seems inevitable that nazism wasn’t going to last that long. Islam, on the other hand, isn’t ever going away. There’s also another important difference: One became a Nazi as a matter of choice, for whatever motives; however, one is born into the Islamic faith in almost all cases, just as one is an adherent to any other religion mostly as an accident of birth. Regardless of all that, a member of the Nazi party, even the least fervent, shares some of the blame for Nazi atrocities, and Muslims, particularly those who fail to condemn terrorism, share a degree of blame for the acts of their coreligionists.

  2. Brian |

    Tom, look around. The philosophical underpinnings of NAZIism are alive and well. NAZIism is but a branch of the thoroughly discredited ideas of Kant, yet Kant’s philosophy is so completely embraced by progressives and neo-Cons that they don’t even realize it, and most people in those camps couldn’t even tell you who Kant is. Yet embrace his philosophy they do. It’s sort of like breathing – we do it without even thinking about it.

  3. Brianna Aubin |

    You know what Tom? The more I think about it, the more I think that you’re wrong and that there was no guarantee that Nazism wouldn’t last. It was an extremely stupid ideology, but then, so is Communism. And while Communism didn’t last forever, it lasted a heck of a lot longer than the Nazis did. We view Communism as a joke today, but that’s not the way it looked in the late 70s. And many leftists liked Nazism and fascism before its crimes became too heinous to ignore. Heck, a lot of them still like the idea of a strong central government with the authority to order whatever it likes; just read any Thomas Friedman column about China.

    Perhaps if Hitler had never invaded anyone, Nazism would have reigned quietly for decades, taking the same course as your more typical fascist dictatorship. Perhaps if Hitler had been smarter during WWII and not broken his pact with the Russians, we would have been forced to some sort of stalemate in the war and then had two evil empires to contend with, or one really big evil empire. And while fascism as a political system is completely discredited, fascism as an economic system was not; last year there was an article in the NYT claiming that while he *wasn’t* advocating for any sort of dictatorship or genocide, he had to admit the Nazis did good economics. We think the fall of Nazism was inevitable because Nazism *did* fall… but just because it did work out one way in history, doesn’t mean it had to work out that way.

  4. Tom Carter |

    I agree in general, Brianna. However, I did note that “looking back” it seems inevitable that the Nazis wouldn’t last that long. One point has to be considered: the Third Reich was Hitler, and Hitler was the Third Reich. The things he did that appear counterproductive to the survival of the regime are things Hitler did because he was who he was. The regime wouldn’t have existed as it did without him, and with him it was doomed not to survive. There was no shortage of people who gave him contrary advice, most of them in the military, because some of them were oriented more toward success than ideological purity. But his personal power and charisma were such that he almost always did what he wanted.

    It’s interesting also that there were a huge number of attempts to assassinate Hitler — 40 or more — and some of them came very close. A lot of people in the military, particularly the professional military class, and some people in the general population didn’t like the Nazis and Hitler in particular, and there was some work-shirking and passive resistance of various kinds. History takes peculiar twists and turns, and at any point the loss of Hitler could have resulted in Germany taking a very different course.

  5. Emile Badir |

    Infortunatly all conquerer use the same technick to break the soul of the conquered nation by using orginized terorism, but it seam some like to specify the Naziism for this kind of attitude, and I wonder what the differance between German Naziim, Latin Fachism or British imperialism ? all are the same sharing the same spirit of Naboukhas Nasr, Holaco and Gankiskhan.
    Just by reading the first few line of the presantation of this book , I get in mine the blue soldier in North America, Sadam soldier in Kuweit, Hirochima and Nakazaki, German city in 1948-49 and many others.
    do their will never be an end for this masacre one day ? I don’t think so, just the style will change …

  6. Tom Carter |

    Emile, I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to say, but it appears that you need to do some serious work in history. Or perhaps facts don’t matter to you — there’s a lot of that going around these days.

  7. Brianna |

    @Emile – I was not singling out the Nazis at all, and this article wasn’t really about the Nazis or about atrocities per se. The point of the article is that just because someone who subscribes to a horrific ideology is a good person, that in itself is not a vindication of that ideology. People can believe in bad ideologies and still be good people, and you shouldn’t use the example of a good person who believes in a bad ideology as a vindication of that ideology.

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