In August of 1937, before their invasion of China, the Japanese Army abolished the term “prisoners of war.”
Three months later, they had enter and occupied Shanghai with the intent of opening the way to Nanjing, the capital of China at the time. The Nationalist Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, after losing Shanghai, ordered a scorched-earth retreat of his forces that effectively destroyed all transportation, food sources and roads that could be commandeered by the Japanese invaders. Unfortunately, this meant that the Nanjing civilians had no means to leave and any civilians in the surrounding countryside were forced to go towards Nanjing, instead of away from, to keep from completely starving. This unfortunate circumstance left hundreds of thousands of civilians crammed into a city that was about to be attacked by the full might of the Japanese Army.
Following the example of Jacquinot de Besange – a Jesuit priest who had saved Chinese residents of Shanghai via a “safety zone” – the last remaining Europeans in Nanjing decided to band together as “The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone” and establish their own refugee camp in the vicinity of the Ginling Women’s College and the American Embassy in the northwest of the city. It was a strange partnership: their leader, a loyal Nazi engineer named John Rabe; American missionaries John Magee, Ernest Foster and Minnie Vautrin; the sole remaining surgeon in Nanjing, Robert Wilson; and a selection of 14 other professors, businessmen and missionaries.
Father Jacquinot de Besange
The Safety Zone had the full support of the Nanjing city government and Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces, as they were intent on escaping and grateful that anybody would take up support of the city. A massive amount of supplies were sent there and a force of 4,500 soldiers were assigned to the camp; a further 90,000 soldiers were left to defend the city, though they were mostly untrained and ill-equipped. A great majority of the soldiers had no guns and no bullets, and issued a mere 2 grenades per man in which to fight a force that included a well-organized army, air force and tank units.
On December 1, the mayor of Nanjing ordered all citizens to report to camps within the Safety Zone before evacuating himself and the city government. By December 9, the Japanese Army had surrounded the city. During this time, John Rabe was able to board an American gunboat and send telegrams to Chiang Kai-Shek and to the Japanese HQ in Shanghai. There was no answer from Chiang Kai-Shek, but Rabe was successful with the Japanese; he was able to persuade their commanders to leave the Safety Zone alone if he could remove all soldiers from within its borders. Though this was not official policy, the camp was left alone, at least for a little while, after the breach of Nanjing gates on December 12.
John Rabe, third from left.
Upon entering Nanjing, the Japanese army began a systematic pillaging of Nanjing while embarking on a forceful effort to rid the city of all Chinese soldiers. Their occupation through February 1938 saw the death of 350,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers; additionally, a war crimes tribunal established in Tokyo after the American occupation counted 20,000 rapes in the first month of occupation alone. (Indeed, recently declassified US intelligence revealed that William Dodd, the US ambassador to Germany, had heard the Japanese ambassador to Germany boasting that the Japanese army had killed 500,000 people in Nanjing.) The wholesale murder of women during the occupation meant that the number of rape targets leftover week after week was decreasing. To satisfy their lusts, soldiers began to target younger and younger girls and boys and even old women. They also looked longingly at the Safety Zone with their scores of protected women.
During January of 1938, the Japanese army started to sojourn into the camps to raid the camp of soldiers and military age men. They focused on patients at the hospital, thinking that injuries would only be garnered by individuals that had fought back, thus labeling them as soldiers. They also rounded up any other unattached men they could find. One tactic they used was to present each man to the camp crowd; if nobody claimed them as a family member, they were considered soldiers and roped into long lines of prisoners. These long lines of men were walked over to the river and bayoneted, machine gunned and burned to death with gasoline, depending on the mood of the commanding officer.
The Japanese often entered the camps and tried to round up women to serve in prostitution centers, ostensibly to satisfy their soldiers’ needs so they wouldn’t force themselves on the civilian populace. They also tried to persuade civilian women to return to their homes. Minnie Vautrin, a missionary that ran the Ginling Women’s College, protected thousands of women from these random culls but learned many lessons along the way. After negotiating with Japanese officers to send girls back to their homes, she learned that many of these girls had immediately been set upon by soldiers living in their homes, gang raped and then bayonetted. In her diaries, she noted that she would never again suggest that girls should leave the camps.
Dr. Wilson, the sole remaining surgeon and European doctor in Nanjing, ran the camp hospital and helped deal with thousands of victims of the Rape of Nanjing. He was constantly forced to hide his female doctors and nurses on the top floor of the hospital while negotiating with Japanese soldiers to leave the casualty wards alone. Sometimes this required camouflaging soldiers as civilians or as close to death; these cases would generally be ignored as they were going to die anyways.
Though they were not allowed access to their home governments until later, this small set of Americans and Europeans was able to save over 250,000 Chinese civilians during the occupation. Japanese soldiers were apparently ordered not to molest these foreigners, and this often included the civilians being directly protected by this small set in any given circumstance. Rabe was able to stop several rapes by his presence alone; Vautrin saved thousands of women from prostitution by marching them from the city back into the Safety Zone and faced no opposition from soldiers during those jaunts.
Rabe was considered the most effective negotiator with the Japanese Army during the whole theater of war. His constant negotiations with Japanese military command were extraordinarily successful – possibly because of his connection with Germany – but his contribution to history was almost completely forgotten. He had arranged for tapes made by fellow committee member John Magee in the hospital to be smuggled out to the rest of the world. The tapes reached three targets: free China, who were outraged but could do nothing but better organize and equip their army for further battles; the Washington press corps and political elites, who refused to antagonize Japan over foreign conflicts and indeed continued supplying the Japanese right until Pearl Harbor; and the Nazi government on the recommendation of the secretary of the German Embassy in Shanghai. Nothing happened. The world was silent and no help came.
Rabe was forced to leave Nanjing in February 1938. Upon returning to Germany, he immediately reported the atrocities to the German government in person. His reward? Imprisonment and torture by the Gestapo, who ordered him to be silent about the actions of a military and political ally of Germany. Despite this extreme ill-treatment, Rabe remained a strangely loyal Nazi. (During the occupation, the missionaries noted that they could not quite align his obvious sympathy, humanitarian nature and utmost kindness in choosing to stay and rescue the Chinese civilians, with his devout loyalty to the Nazi cause. Apparently, he had little to say about his government’s treatment of unwanted and displaced persons throughout German territories and actually stated at one point that he was 100% behind German policies.) It was only through the intervention of Siemens, his employer, that he was able to leave the Columbia-Haus on Prinz Albrecht Strasse. He was then posted to Afghanistan for a short time, but soon returned to Berlin. Unfortunate timing: the Russians then occupied the city and Rabe was again imprisoned and tortured. After release, he was denied work based on his Nazi party membership but was finally able to obtain the deNazification certification upon the testimony of fellow occupation committee members from Nanjing.
Sadly, Rabe was to suffer in abject poverty from 1946 until his death of a heart attack in 1950. Though the survivors of the Nanjing massacre were desperately poor, they were adamant about providing him a stipend to support him once they heard of his condition. The mayor of Nanjing personally travelled to Berlin to provide him with the first of the monies that was to keep him from starvation. Once he died, his name was forgotten from history until 1996, when his grand-daughter realized she had his diaries in her possession. Today, Rabe is known as the Oskar Schindler of the East, having rescued hundreds of thousands more civilians than Schindler was able to.
The other missionaries and businessmen were forced to return to most of their homes and the camp was closed in May 1938. Most led fairly uneventful lives after their time in Nanjing. Those who tried to speak out learned that no one was interested in what they had to say – that is, until the attack at Pearl Harbor confirmed the Japanese as an actual enemy and thus atrocities could then be revealed. Minnie Vautrin, highly vaunted by the thousands of women she saved in Nanjing, committed suicide in 1939. Her suicide note stated that she would have given up ten lifetimes to do what she had done in Nanjing, but she lamented that she had failed.
General Iwane Matsui and Prince Yasuhiko of Asaka, center and right.
Prince Yasuhiko of Asaka and General Iwane Matsui were the two primary military officers responsible for the Nanjing massacre. Both men were recalled to Tokyo in February of 1938; Matsui was retired and Asaka was promoted to general but given no more military commands. During the Allied tribunals, Asaka was given immunity as he was a member of the imperial family; this was even more outrageous given that it was Isamu Cho, Asaka’s aide, that had given the order to “kill all captives” which allowed soldiers to run rampant. Asaka was also given additional protection by the testimony of Matsui, who went out of his way to protect Asaka from assuming any responsibility.
Matsui’s punishment was an indictment for “deliberately and recklessly” ignoring his legal duty “to take adequate steps to secure the observance and prevent breaches” of the Hague Convention. From his judgment:
“Organized and wholesale murder of male civilians was conducted with the apparent sanction of the commanders on the pretext that Chinese soldiers had removed their uniforms and were mingling with the population. Groups of Chinese civilians were formed, bound with their hands behind their backs, and marched outside the walls of the city where they were killed in groups by machine gun fire and with bayonets.”
Matsui was hanged in late November of 1947. Strangely enough, he was the only Japanese officer to express dismay at how the occupation had turned out. On December 18, 1937, Matsui told one of his aides that “I now realize that we have unknowingly wrought a most grievous effect on this city. When I think of the feelings and sentiments of many of my Chinese friends who have fled from Nanking and of the future of the two countries, I cannot but feel depressed. I am very lonely and can never get in a mood to rejoice about this victory.” He later confided to a Japanese diplomat that “my men have done something very wrong and extremely regrettable.”
Japan left China in 1945. Nanjing was ruled by a collaborationist government from 1940 until 1946, when the Nationalists moved their capital back to Nanjing. In 1949, the People’s Liberation Army under Mao Tse-Tung recaptured Nanjing and established the city as a provincial capital.
The monument to Radha Binod Pal at Yasukuni.
A weird aside: the lone Indian justice on the International Military Tribunal, Radha Binod Pal, was also the lone non-guilty vote for all Japanese officials on trial for war crimes. A monument to Judge Pal was established at the Yasukuni Shrine in 2005, the national war memorial shrine which also commemorates war criminal and leader of the Japanese military effort in World War II, Hideki Tojo. That same year, Indian PM Manmohan Singh told Japanese PM Koizumi Junichiro that “the dissenting judgement of Justice Radha Binod Pal is well-known to the Japanese people and will always symbolise the affection and regard our people have for your country.”