A Place of Refuge: John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, And The "Nanking Safety Zone"
Recently, while researching an essay on Japanese aggression prior to Pearl Harbor, I stumbled across two individuals who are fully worthy of honor as Tattered Remnants: who stood in the face of possibly the most dangerous event known to humankind, the sacking of a city by a victorious army, attempting to curb outrages beyind imagination.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, what passed for parliamentary democracy in the Empire of Japan collapsed. Militarist extremists assassinated or drove from power all those opposing the use of military force to achieve Japan's national ambitions; civic organizations built around militarization of the people took control of schools and universities.
Japan had, at the time, a quickly growing population thanks to advances in medicine and agriculture. Japan's leaders also knew that she was a purely maritime power that depended on sea power to feed her growing millions; they also knew, by watching what happened to Britain in WWI, how close to starvation a submarine campaign can bring an island state.
And Japan, even in the 1930s was not capable of feeding her own population through domestically grown agriculture alone; her population outstripped her food production by about 40%.
Japanese militarists saw themselves surrounded by enemies: by Western imperial powers France and England, by the United States which held the Philippines and certain islands in the Pacific, by Stalinist Russia and by a weak and vulnerable China which was had collapsed into warlordism. Furthermore, the Japanese militarists saw a world that was 90% owned and controlled by Western colonial powers, and perceived (as many thoughtful Westerners did) that the hold of the West on those colonies were weakening.
This led Japan on a campaign of naked conquest of her neighbors. First came the fall of Manchuria in 1931, followed in 1937 by an invasion of China proper, which led soon to the Nanking Massacre, better remembered in the United States as The Rape of Nanking, in December 1937.
THE CITY FALLS
After the end of the Battle of Shanghai in August 1937, it was clear that the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) forces would be unable to defend the then-capital of China at Nanking. They withdrew, leaving only a small part of the army behind to fight for the city, while the rest of the army pulled back to the south to fight another day. The Japanese 10th Army advanced slowly from nearby Shanghai, as the army commanders made it clear to their troops that looting and ravishment would not be punished. As a result, thousands of rapes and robberies occurred as the army slowly advanced on the now-abandoned southern capital of China.
The city was surrounded by Japanese forces by the end of November and, by December 13, had fallen to the soldiers of the 10th Army, who overwhelmed the city in a primitive rampage of pillage and rape.
As the Chinese army abandoned the city, the government had left and all trace of civil government had ceased–except for one. An international committee of 19 businessmen, professors, missionaries and one physician was formed to maintain some sort of civil order in the city: the "International Committee of the Nanking Safety Zone." These foreign figures–British, German, American, and Japanese–selected from their number a German businessman, John Rabe, as their leader, as he was a known member of the Nazi Party and thus could negotiate on behalf of the Nazi Reich for moderated behavior on the part of the Japanese.
THE SAFETY ZONE IS FORMED
Over the period from November 22 to the end of the attacks in January, the western quarter of the city–an area approximately the size of Central Park in New York City–was designated the "Safety Zone" and some 250,000 civilians took refuge there. The dozen or so committee members left behind spent the next few weeks trying to moderate the behavior of the Japanese army in Nanking and to prevent their penetration of the Safety Zone.
Rabe and his fellow committee members tried to restrain the Japanese through bluff and determination, by confronting Japanese soldiers engaging in rapine and in contacting Japanese diplomatic personnel at the embassy in the city, trying to get these diplomats to contact the Army to curb the abuses. One diary entry by Rabe gives a flavor of the work the committee did:
Two Japanese soldiers have climbed over the garden all and are about to break into our house. When I appear they give the excuse that they saw two Chinese soldiers climb over the wall. When I show them my party badge, they return the same way. In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital. (...) Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling Girls' College alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they're shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers....At the Ginling Girls' College, the lead American professor, Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and a professor of education, worked tirelessly in a parallel effort to preserve the young women of her school from rape. Although not a formal member of the Safety Zone Committee, her efforts to protect her young women from degradation were ceaseless. Her experience was similar to Rabe's:
There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from language school last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night—one of the girls was but 12 years old. Food, bedding and money have been taken from people. … I suspect every house in the city has been opened, again and yet again, and robbed. Tonight a truck passed in which there were eight or ten girls, and as it passed they called out "Jiu ming! Jiu ming!"—save our lives. The occasional shots that we hear out on the hills, or on the street, make us realize the sad fate of some man—very probably not a soldier.... In my wrath, I wished I had the power to smite them for their dastardly work. How ashamed women of Japan would be if they knew these tales of horror."The Rape of Nanking" continued until February. On the 13th of February 1938, the Safety Zone was dissolved and the committee renamed itself the Relief Committee for Nanking. By this time, however, normal military discipline was restored and Nanking was now treated, for better or worse, as an occupied city rather than as a lawless free-for-all.
By the efforts of the Committee, it is estimated that some 250,000 people were saved from murder or rape. The Committee itself was, in essence, a great bluff. Members of the Committee continuously transmitted letters to the Japanese leadership, held up badges of office to lower level officers, confronted and deterred raping private soldiers through intimidation and personal confrontation. Miraculously, none of the Committee died, but they witnessed horrors beyond imagination.
Mr. Rabe was a businessman, an executive for the Siemens engineering company; his task in China was to organize factories to produce simple electrical components. During the course of the work of the Committee, he was tireless in his humanitarian work to secure the safety of the people in the Zone. All who knew him testified to his basic decency and his humanity when it came to his efforts to save lives.
And yet, Mr. Rabe was a committed National Socialist, a supporter of Germany's goals before and during the war. One source, , makes the following observations, comparing him to the charmingly deceptive Nazi Oskar Schindler:
He was ... a far more dour figure than the charismatic Schindler, and far more sincere in his commitment to Nazi ideals. Speaking at one the lectures he delivered in 1938, Rabe is reported to have said, "Although I feel tremendous sympathy for the suffering of China, I am still, above all, pro-German and I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but, as an organizer of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent." It is likely that he meant it....It is possible that he engaged in a certain degree of mental compartmentalization in this matter. But withal, he loved humanity, so he worked to protect the Chinese of Shanghai; he loved his country, so he supported Nazism until its defeat and the revelation of its evils caused him to break at last with the system that encapsulated him.
Rabe's colleagues appear to have been impressed by his character but puzzled by his political beliefs. Robert O. Wilson, a missionary and doctor who worked in China in the 1930s, wrote of Rabe: "He is well up in Nazi circles and after coming into such close contact as we have for the past few weeks and discover(ing) what a splendid man he is and what a tremendous heart he has, it is hard to reconcile his personality with his adulation of 'Der Fuhrer.'
Remember, too, that his membership in the Nazi Party and his connection to the German government was precisely what gave him the power to bamboozle the Japanese into respecting the Zone to the extent that they did.
And yet, even though he was a committed Nazi, he also kept meticulous records, including a diary, of the events in Nanking and he spoke out against the Japanese massacres in highly dangerous public speeches in Germany in 1938 and 1939. Finally, he made a public and direct appeal to Hitler (of all people!) to ask the Japanese to moderate their savagery. The Gestapo arrested him, and instructed him to cease speaking out on the subject; however, in an unusual move, they allowed him to keep his materials, which became key historical documents after the war.
He was closely examined by the British and the Russians in the days immediately following the war; his was declared blameless and officially de-Nazified on both occasions. In the days of privation that followed, he received a small stipend and food packets from a grateful Chinese government, which continued until the fall of the Nationalist Chinese government in 1949.
John Rabe died of a stroke in Berlin in 1950 at the age of 64. His headstone was eventually moved from Berlin to Nanking where it takes an honored place in the museum to the Rape of Nanking. A Nazi he may have been, but he was also a man of conscience by whose fruits we have come to know him.
WILHIMINA (MINNIE) VAUTRIN
Little is known of Minnie Vautrin. She was born in 1886, raised in Illinois, and worked as a high school teacher there before going to China as a missionary in 1912. She founded two schools and eventually founded the Ginling Girls College in Nanking, where she eventually took over as Master of Studies. Ginling became a refuge like (but separate from) the Safety Zone, and she limited rapine incursions into her college through sheer courage and judicious use of the American flag.
When the Japanese army invaded Nanking in December 1937, she and the other foreigners in the city, including John Rabe, worked to protect the civilians in the Nanking Safety Zone. Ginling Girls College became a haven of refuge, at times harboring up to 10,000 women in a college designed to support between 200 and 300. With only her wits and the use of an American flag, Vautrin was largely able to repel incursions into her college.
After the attacks, she was forced by what we would now call post-traumatic stress to leave her post as a teacher and return home. She attempted suicide on the passenger ship returning her to the United States; she was held for a time in an asylum, and returned home. She committed suicide in her home in Indianapolis through breathing in gas from her kitchen oven in May of 1940. Later that same year, her home county named her as one of the county's 10 greatest citizens in its hundred-year history.
As Wikipedia puts it: "After the war, Vautrin was posthumously awarded the Emblem of the Blue Jade by the Chinese government for her heroic sacrifices during the Nanjing Massacre. Her work saving the lives of Chinese civilians during the massacre is recounted in the biographical book, American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking, written by historian Hua-ling Hu. In the documentary film Nanking, Vautrin was portrayed by actress Mariel Hemingway, who recited excerpts from Vautrin's diary."
THE OTHER COMMITTEE MEMBERS
There were other members of the Committee; their names should be remembered as well:
Miner Searle Bates, American professor, University of Nanking
George Ashmore Fitch, American missionary, Nanking YMCA
Ernest Forster, American missionary, St. Paul Church
J.M. Hansen Danish businessman, Texas Oil Co.*
J. Lean, American businessman, Asiatic Petroleum Co.*
Iver Mackay , British businessman, Butterfield and Swire
John Magee, American missionary, American Church Mission*
Rev. W. Plumer Mills, American missionary, American Church Mission
James McCallum, American missionary, Ginling University Hospital*
P. H. Munro-Faure , British businessman, Asiatic Petroleum Co.*
J.V. Pickering, American businessman, Standard-Vacuum Co.*
Charles Riggs, American professor, University of Nanking*
P.R. Shields , British businessman, International Export Co.
G. Schultze-Pantin, German businessman, Shingming Trading Co.*
Lewis S. C. Smythe, American professor, University of Nanking
Eduard Sperling, German businessman, Shanghai Insurance Co.
Robert O. Wilson, American doctor, Nanking Hospital
Those indicated by asterisk (*) were withdrawn from Nanking by their employers after the city fell, the remaining dozen or so remained through the city's agony.
COUNTERPOINT - THE SREBRENICA "UNITED NATIONS SAFE AREA"
As the reader may know, I often offer counter-examples of my Tattered Remnants: For Solzhenitsyn, I describe Madelyn Murray O'Hair; for James Pouillon, John Brown; for the Titanic heroes, the thankfully fictional Rose DeWitt Bukater.
Here, if I could, I would describe in greater detail the opposite of the Nanking Committee: namely, the "United Nations Safe Area" of Srebrenica, formed in 1993 by decree by a French general who immediately fled its confines, the cowardly and worthless "DUTCHBAT" mercenaries brought in to protect its 25,000 inhabitants, who shamefully cut and ran when the Serbs attacked it; and the massacre of its male inhabitants after the city fell, some 6000 prisoners shot in the back of the head and an additional 2000 unarmed men attempting to flee.
It's all on Wikipedia, here, if you want to read about it.
Forgive me for not describing it myself.
But even now, a decade after spending more than two years as a Bosnia peacekeeper, I still cannot think about this event without wanting to vomit.