A Question of Morality: John Rabe

If you can do some good, why hesitate.

—John Rabe, December 10, 19371

John H. D. Rabe’s story presents a paradox. He is remembered as a great humanitarian despite remaining a loyal member of the Nazi Party. Born in 1882 in Hamburg, Germany, Rabe first came to Shanghai in 1908. He began working for the Chinese branch of the Siemens Company in 1911 and 20 years later in 1931 transferred to Nanjing and served as director of the Siemens branch office with his wife and two children. Siemens was largely responsible for building the Nanjing telephone lines and supplying turbines for the electrical plant and equipment for the city’s hospitals.

In 1934 Rabe founded a German school in Nanjing and decided to locate the building on his property. While both of his children were past elementary school age, Rabe served as chairman of the school board and it was in this capacity that he first came in formal contact with the Nazi leadership of Germany and joined the NSDAP (the Nazi Party). Throughout World War II Rabe remained a loyal member of the Nazi Party.

Like several of the other foreigners who chose to remain in Nanjing and help, Rabe kept almost a daily journal of the events leading up to the Japanese occupation as well as the occupation itself. Like all the foreigners in Nanjing, Rabe faced many dilemmas: should he stay in the face of the eminent assault by the Japanese army or should he return to Germany?

What policy should the Safety Zone Committee uphold in regard to Chinese soldiers that had deserted? How could such a small number of foreigners administer to the many needs of Chinese refugees simply trying to survive? The detailed account of his daily life in Nanjing provides an invaluable window into the days leading up to the occupation of the city:

21 September 1937

All the rich or better-off Chinese began some time ago to flee up the Yangtze to Hankow. . . . Many Americans and Germans have departed as well. I’ve been seriously considering the matter from all sides these last few nights. It wasn’t because I love adventure that I returned here from the safety of Peitaiho [vacation des- tination for many foreigners in China], but primarily to protect my property and to represent Siemens interests. Of course the company can’t—nor does it—expect me to get myself killed here on its behalf. Besides, I haven’t the least desire to put my life at risk for the sake of either the company’s or my own property; but there is a question of morality here, and as a reputable Hamburg businessman, so far I haven’t been able to side-step it.

Our Chinese servants and employees, about 30 people in all including immediate families, have eyes only for their “master.” . . . I cannot bring myself for now to betray the trust these people have put in me. And it is touching to see how they believe in me. . . .

Under such circumstances, can I, may I, cut and run? I don’t think so. Anyone who has ever sat in a dugout and held a trembling Chinese child in each hand through the long hours of an air raid can understand what I feel.

Finally—subconsciously—there’s a last, and the not least important, reason that makes my sticking it out here seem simply a matter of course. I am a member of the NSDAP, and temporarily held the office of local deputy leader. When I pay business calls on the Chinese agencies and ministries who are our customers, I am constantly asked questions about Germany, about our party and government, and my answer always is:

Yes indeed—

We are soldiers of labor;

We are a government of workers, We are friends of the working man,

We do not leave workers-—the poor-— in the lurch when times are hard!

To be sure, as a National Socialist I was speaking only of German workers, not about the Chinese; but what would the Chinese think? Times are bitterly hard here in the country of my hosts, who have treated me well for three decades now. The rich are fleeing, the poor must stay behind. They don’t know where to go. They don’t have the means to flee. Aren’t they in danger of being slaughtered in great numbers? Shouldn’t one make an attempt to help them? Save a few at least? And even if it’s only our own people, our employees? 2

As air raids increased over Nanjing and more and more Chinese fled the city, the efforts to organize the Nanjing Safety Zone were solidified. In October 1937, Rabe was unanimously elected as the first chairman of the Nanjing Safety Zone (NSZ) Committee. On November 25, 1937, approximately three weeks before the Imperial Army laid siege to the city, Rabe sent the following telegram to Adolf Hitler:

Undersigned Deputy Group Leader Nanking, chairman of local International Committee, asks his Führer kindly to intercede with the Japanese government to grant permission for creation of a neutral zone for noncombatants, since imminent battle for Nanking otherwise endangers the lives of over two thousand people stop

With German greetings from Rabe Siemens agent in Nanking stop 3

It is uncertain if Hitler ever received the telegram, but Rabe never received a reply. Nonetheless, Rabe hung the Nazi flag at his home, draped the Nazi flag on the hood of his car, and wore a swastika armband to confront Japanese soldiers at even the hint of misconduct. Rabe’s home was within the parameters of the NSZ so he was able to shelter hundreds of refugees inside and around the grounds of his residence during the siege of the city.

German businessman and Nazi party member John Rabe, leader of the Nanking Safety Zone committee, pictured with other committee members.

Many entries in John Rabe’s diary also record the tremendous amount of time he spent negotiating with the Japanese military leadership to keep the NSZ safe from marauding Japanese soldiers. They consistently accused the Safety Zone Committee of sheltering Chinese soldiers who had deserted the army. Even though all Chinese refugees were notified that only Chinese civilians were permitted within the borders of the Safety Zone, and in fact the committee was unable to protect soldiers if they were discovered, it was almost impossible to ensure a foolproof method to bar their entrance. Rabe struggled with this dilemma a great deal, knowing that Chinese soldiers would still be treated as enemy combatants in Japanese eyes even if they gave up their weapons. See Notice for Chinese Refugees Issued by the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee.

Prior to the Japanese occupation, Rabe wrote:

9 December 1937

. . . The streets of the Safety Zone are flooded with refugees loaded down with bundles. The old Communication Ministry (arsenal) is opened to refugees and in no time fills to the rafters. We cordon off two rooms because our weapons and ammunition are in them. Among the refugees are deserters, who hand over their uniforms and weapons.4

11 December

The streets of our Zone are packed with people who aren’t even bothered by the din of the shelling. These people have more faith in our “Safety Zone” than I do. The Zone is a long way from being safe; there are still armed soldiers inside, and all our efforts to get them out have thus far been to no avail. We cannot tell the Japanese, as was our intention, that the Zone is now free of all military. 5

The day before the city was occupied Rabe wrote:

12 December

8 p.m.

The sky to the south is all in flames. The two dugouts in the garden are now filled to the brim with refugees. There are knocks at both gates to the property. Women and children plead to be let in. Several plucky fellows seeking shelter on my grounds climb over the garden wall behind the German School.

And I can’t listen to their wailing any longer, so I open both gates and let everyone in who wants in. Since there’s no more room  in the dugouts, I allocate people to various sheds and to corners of the house. Most have brought their bedding and lie down in the open. A few very clever sorts spread their beds out under the large German flag we had stretched out in case of air raids. This location is considered especially “bombproof.” 6

Once the Imperial Army arrived and unleashed the full force of their occupation, Chinese soldiers were shown no mercy. The Japanese military used the possibility of Chinese soldiers hiding in the NSZ as an excuse to enter the premises again and again and search for supposed combatants. Rabe wrote:

16 December

Almost all the houses of the German military advisors have been looted by Japanese soldiers. No Chinese even dares set foot outside his house! When the gates to my garden are opened to let my car leave the grounds—where I have already taken in over a hundred of the poorest refugees—women and children on the street outside kneel and bang their heads against the ground, pleading to be allowed to camp on my garden grounds. You simply cannot conceive of the misery. . . .

I’ve just heard that hundreds more disarmed Chinese soldiers have been led out of our Zone to be shot, including 50 of our police who are to be executed for letting soldiers in. . . . We Europeans are all paralyzed with horror. There are executions everywhere, some are being carried out with machine guns outside the barracks of the War Ministry.

Katsuo Okazaki, the consul general, who visited us this evening, explained that while it was true that a few soldiers were being shot, the rest were to be interned in a concentration camp on an island on the Yangtze.

As I write this, the fists of Japanese soldiers are hammering at the back gate to the garden. Since my boys don’t open up, heads appear along the top of the wall. When I suddenly show up with my flashlight, they beat a hasty retreat. We open the main gate and walk after them a little distance until they vanish in dark narrow streets, where assorted bodies have been lying in the gutter for three days now. Makes you shudder in revulsion.

All the women and children, their eyes big with terror, are sitting on the grass in the garden, pressed closely together, in part to keep warm, in part to give each other courage. Their one hope is that I, the “foreign devil,” will drive these evil spirits away.7

John Rabe was instrumental in establishing the Nanjing Safety Zone.

By late February 1938 his leadership role in Nanjing precipitated the home office of Siemens to recall Rabe back to Berlin, Germany. Never again to resume a large leadership role in the company, Rabe gave lectures that included films and photographs of the atrocities he had witnessed. When Rabe returned to Germany he was also detained and interrogated by the Gestapo. Only through the intervention of Siemens was he released and allowed to keep some evidence (excluding footage) of his time in Nanjing.

In the aftermath of World War II, John Rabe was denounced for his Nazi Party membership and arrested first by the Soviet NKVD (the primary enforcement agency of the Soviet Union and predecessor of the KGB) and then by the British army. Both discharged him after their investigations. He was declared “de-Nazified” by the Allies in June 1946. Denied his full pension, Rabe’s final years were lived largely in poverty supplemented by monthly food and money parcels provided by the Chinese government and sent to him as recompense. In 1947 John Rabe retired at the age of 65 and died two years later on January 5, 1949.


  • 1 : John Rabe, The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 58.
  • 2 : Ibid., 5-6.
  • 3 : Ibid., 33.
  • 4 : Ibid., 57.
  • 5 : Ibid., 60.
  • 6 : Ibid., 4.
  • 7 : Ibid., 76–77.

Connection Questions

  1. Is it possible to reconcile John Rabe’s membership in the Nazi party with his actions in Nanjing? If so, how?

  2. John Rabe has been compared in Germany to Oskar Schindler, a Nazi Party member who saved Jewish lives in Nazi occupied Poland. Both men demonstrated tremendous courage and risked their own lives to rescue others while remaining loyal Nazi party members throughout the war. How is it possible to be loyal to an organization like the Nazi party and practice humanitarian acts? What do such apparent contradictions suggest about human behavior?

  3. Create an identity chart for Rabe from the background given in the reading and the details he provides in his entries. What aspects of his identity do you believe contributed to the success of the Safety Zone? What evidence can you cite to defend your claim?

  4. Prior to the Japanese occupation, John Rabe candidly records several reasons for remaining in Nanjing including what he states as “a question of morality.” In your own words what does he mean? What is the question of morality that John Rabe is trying to answer?

  5. On October 31, 2006 the John Rabe and International Zone Memorial Hall and John Rabe International Research and Exchange Center for Peace and Reconciliation was opened. Located in the renovated house of John Rabe during the war, the museum is dedicated in honor of Rabe’s exemplary humanity. What is the purpose of saving such a site as Rabe’s house? What might people understand from visiting a site like Rabe’s house that they might not learn in any other way? How do physical places connect us to the past?

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