With the 1997 publication of John Rabe’s diaries, diplomat and author Erwin Wickert triggered a public debate about the man whose humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Chinese civilian population during the horrific Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-38 had been in danger of slipping into oblivion. In 2009, Florian Gallenberger’s feature film about the "Oskar Schindler of China" played a major role in bringing this courageously humanitarian Siemens employee to the attention of an even broader public.
The "Good Man of Nanjing" – Saving hundreds of thousands of lives
John Rabe was born in Hamburg on November 23, 1882. He completed his business apprenticeship there, then worked in Africa from 1903 to 1906 before moving to China in 1908.
Around 1910‑11, Rabe was hired as a clerk at the Beijing office of Siemens China & Co., a Siemens distributor. Within three years he had been promoted to a position of responsibility with the power to represent the company. In 1931, Rabe was appointed Managing Director of the Siemens offices in the capital at the time, Nanjing (Nanking).
During the “Nanjing Massacre” in 1937, Rabe was elected chairman of an international committee that established a safe zone to protect the civilian population from the Japanese troops’ atrocities.
The hope was that Rabe, as a German citizen and member of the Nazi party, would have some influence over the enemy soldiers. For a time, Rabe even sheltered Chinese civilians in his own home and on his property.
It is estimated that up to 250,000 people were saved through his intervention. His humanitarian efforts earned him great honors from the Chinese government.
Back in Berlin – Condemned to silence, then forgotten
In the spring of 1938, Rabe was recalled from Nanjing and returned to Berlin. Here he repeatedly tried to call attention to the crimes against the Chinese civilian population; but all in vain. Ultimately he was forbidden to pursue such activities any further.
Following a temporary assignment to the Kabul sales office of Siemens-Schuckertwerke, Rabe worked in personnel for the international division at Berlin headquarters, where he was responsible for Siemens employees interned in foreign countries hostile to Germany.
Thanks to his humanitarian deeds, he was freed on appeal in a denazification investigation and went back to work for Siemens in 1946 – as a lowly translator. Impoverished and forgotten, he died in Berlin on January 5, 1950.
Finally honored by former employer – Siemens AG und John Rabe
Today, Siemens AG donates resources and funds to honor John Rabe’s memory. The company joined in supporting the renovation of Rabe’s former home in Nanjing, the site of a research center and museum since 2006.
A commemorative plaque was unveiled at Rabe’s former house on Harriesstrasse in Berlin-Siemensstadt on November 23, 2012 – Rabe’s 130th birthday, and just a day after the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the safe zone in Nanjing.
Dr. Frank Wittendorfer