The Morality of John Rabe

Honor and choice in times of genocide

Quinn Norton
Notes from a Strange World
8 min readDec 5, 2013


John Rabe is my personal patron saint of moral complexity. Rabe was a Nazi who died after the war in 1950, broken and poor. 76 years ago this week, he started a committee that led to him being known as a "living Buddha" in China. There is nothing higher that can be said of a person than this.

I grew up knowing I was the product of a genocide before I really knew what a genocide was. I was raised knowing I was a tiny bit Native American, and mostly white. White was no badge of honor in my family. My father told me, sometimes in angry drunken slurring, that we should be evicted from America. My mother told me rich white people ruined the lives of almost everyone else. Some of those rich white industrialists were my distant relatives, and closer to me my family were criminals, veterans, and poor whites moving in on native land.

No matter how I poked my family history, blood seeped out.

Largely alone and growing up in a country I didn't really understand, I had to find some meaning in it.

In my early 20s, I did the road trip to Wounded Knee thing. It really is a thing, with even its own small industry and terrible think pieces. I drove from the west coast looking for some cathartic moment that would explain my history to me, personally, some meaning or context that could make sense of the American Story I Was Living. It didn't work at all. I went there, bought a few things, read some plaques, got into a little small talk, and was stuck with all the same contradictions and less gas money.

The best I did was sitting in the passenger seat of the car, turning over in my head what it means to be white in America, and what it means to be native, indigenous, Indian, black, and so on and not really coming up with anything. While we were traveling through Montana, I looked up and saw a construction sign on the side of the road that read "Rough Break." That's the closest I got to my epiphany: Rough Break. It was something for me. It was enough to get me by that moment. Sometimes the world is just shitty. Sometimes the world refuses to be simple enough to understand.

Back to John Rabe, now that you know the eyes I see him through.

John Rabe

Rabe was born in Germany in the last moments before the 20th century. He moved to China while still a teenager, a distant and displaced ex-pat European complete with a European wife and European job. He worked for Siemens in China from 1911, through WWI and eventually through WWII. From a distance he remained a loyal, dedicated, and uncritical German. The Nazis came to power, and from his home in Nanking, he joined the party.

It is not enough to say Rabe was a Nazi. There is no funny Godwin moment, no punchline of evil to Rabe's story. He believed in the Nazis.

He not only joined the party, by 1937 he was head of the Nazi party in Nanking. In Rabe's mind, Hitler was the hero of Germany, a man he repeatedly vested his hopes in. Rabe was a manager and a bureaucrat, for him, governance was a top down affair, a coherent ordering of society.

To Rabe, Nazism was a socialist and moral position, about a man vested with authority taking care of chosen people. To him that man was Hitler. For Nanking, he saw himself as that man.

By the fall of 1937, Nanking was in need of that man. The Chinese government that had declared it would fight to the last to defend Nanking fled in advance of Japanese troops, and after them, the mayor and anyone with money and means. But Nanking was a big city, and many of its residents couldn't get out, including Rabe's serving staff and their families. He was, it seems, moved by them and the other Chinese abandoned in his adopted home, particularly the children.

Instead of sensibly fleeing with the other foreigners and rich Chinese residents of the city, Rabe and 14 other westerners formed something they called The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, to try and help the innumerable Chinese poor being left to contend with Japanese army atrocities.

He was voted leader of the group both because his Nazi party was allied with the invading Japanese, and he had many years of established credibility with the Chinese. Rabe was the obvious choice, and it was his moment to live out the values he jotted down in his diary.

The committee marked out a 3.4km sq area dubbed the Safety Zone as a neutral area to protect civilians. Rabe led coordination with the fleeing Chinese government and the invading Japanese Army command. In many ways, Rabe seems to have sought to emulate his hero, Hitler, or at least the heroic Hitler that Rabe held in his mind. He so believed in the power of his Nazism that he marked his Safety Zone with Nazi flags, in hopes that the Japanese would not attack the symbol of an ally. It seems like it may have worked; the zone was never attacked from above or subjected to an all-out raid.

After the Japanese came into the city, people fled into the zone, or they died.

Rabe wrote in his diary that ponds vanished into mass graves from the Chinese that were slaughtered by the Japanese army. He and other members of the committee documented horrors of the Second Sino-Japanese War that are, to this day, physically painful to read.

Rabe continued to play negotiator and interlocutor with the Japanese, provider and protector to the poor Chinese, and pleading representative to any power he hoped could intercede for his people. The committee saw to the feeding, medical care and winter housing of somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese souls for six weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people would have likely died in that bloody winter without their Nazi. I don't know if a staunch Nazi can be a good man, but by the end of it all in late January, he was a hero.

The people of Nanking called him the Living Buddha. He, and his group of friends, were a bit of Heaven come to Earth to save all they could from Hell.

In my mid-20s I had a European Jewish boyfriend whom I would visit for a month at a time. We had a complex and difficult relationship, but I learned so much about the faith and community of Judaism that I will always be grateful to him for that. I showed up one year in time for Purim, a holiday where Jews drink until they can't tell the good guy and the bad guy in the story apart. My partner did an odd thing. He asked me to read a book on the story of Purim and tell him later what I thought. I sat down, and read through it, the biblical story, some commentary, the way my partner would celebrate it shortly.

When he came back, I had my answer. "This is horrible," I told him, "you're celebrating slaughtering 75,000 people in one day." In the story, one part of the Babylonian empire planned to kill the Jews, but they were stopped by Esther, who managed to turn the tables by using womanly charm on the Babylonian king. The Jews slaughtered their enemies instead. But it's not clear that the reverse massacre was even defensive -- they had stopped the edict for their slaughter. Most Jewish holidays are about the Jews not getting killed, but this one had a body count for the other side, and it was big. Too much death to easily comprehend.

“This,” he said, with an air of dark humor, “is why we drink on Purim.”

These days, I like Purim, but for its ambiguities, not because I ever made sense of them. I like that the Jews have made a point of not forgetting being on either side of the knife of history.

In Feburary of 1938, within a month of the end of the Safety Zone, Siemens recalled John Rabe to Germany. With the exception of a brief posting to Afghanistan, he lived out the rest of the war as their employee and a party member. At first he lectured and tried to raise awareness of what the Japanese had done in Nanking, but after a three day stopover with the Gestapo, he fell silent for the rest of the war.

After Germany lost the war Rabe was denounced as a Nazi, and financially destroyed by de-Nazification. Unable to work, he fell into poverty, hunger, and eventually disease. Rabe and his family starved, living on wild seeds and handouts until 1948, when the citizens of Nanking found out how their Buddha was living. People gathered up money for the Rabes. The mayor of Nanking traveled to Germany to buy the family food himself. The help continued until the Communist Revolution in 1949, when the Rabes were once again forgotten. In 1950, at the age of 67, John Rabe died of a stroke.

Rabe appeared to have understood something of the disposition of Nazis towards Jews. In Nanking he took in a German friend whose career was ended by having a Jewish ancestor. But he blamed the Jewish ancestor for his friend's misfortune, not his beloved Nazis. If he objected to the war, little of the objections seems to have made it into the record of his life.

John Rabe was a good German in the bad sense. But he was also possibly the very best German. He remains obscure in the west, where we like our morality more black and white. He is a hero in China, because what else can you call a man who lays his life on the line to protect 200,000 people?

For me there is only this in the story of John Rabe: there are no clear bad guys or good guys in humanity. There is just an uncomfortable pause, where you can let history crowd in on you. The best you can do is be quiet in the face of the terrible contradictions, and try to figure out what the next right thing is.

The Rabe house in Nanking, these days transliterated as Nanjing, is a memorial to Rabe and the International Committee.



Quinn Norton
Notes from a Strange World

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.