The Little-Known Story Of John Rabe And The Nazis Who Defended China From The Japanese

Published April 28, 2017
Updated June 14, 2019

During the Nanking Massacre and the Japanese invasion of China, Nazis like John Rabe and Alexander von Falkenhausen saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

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The Little-Known Story Of John Rabe And The Nazis Who Defended China From The Japanese
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In one seldom-recounted moment in history, the Nazis were the heroes.

Before World War II broke out, the Nazi Party placed businessmen, diplomats, and military commanders in China. Nazi officers trained and equipped the Chinese military, invited Chinese citizens to travel to Berlin to join the German Army, and set up Hitler Youth camps around the country.

Things changed in 1937. That year, Japanese forces invaded China, storming through Shanghai and on to Nanking. They left in their path a trail of horrors, human experiments, and massacres, many of which were just as terrible as the worst moments of the Holocaust.

German commanders back home soon instructed their men in China to vacate out of respect for Germany's new alliance with Japan, but some of the Nazis refused to leave their adopted Chinese countrymen behind. They -- mainly two men, John Rabe and Alexander von Falkenhausen, whose efforts are outlined below -- stayed with them, waving Nazi flags and badges as symbols of protection, and risked their lives to save hundreds of thousands of others.

Alexander von Falkenhausen

Nazi General Alexander von Falkenhausen and a handful of his officers remained in China after the Japanese invasion and assisted the Chinese army. Falkenhausen served as a military advisor to Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, while his officers helped command the Chinese soldiers.

Included among them was the Chinese 88th Division – an elite, German-trained unit of soldiers who were the pride of the Chinese army. With Nazi weapons and Nazi commands, they fought some of the hardest battles of the war.

Eventually, the Nazi Party forced Falkenhausen to return to Germany by threatening to imprison his family for disloyalty. Falkhausen had no choice but to go home – but not before sitting down with Chiang Kai-shek one last time and setting up months of plans for operations against the Japanese.

John Rabe

With Falkenhausen gone, the Chinese still had at least one other German on their side: John Rabe, a German businessman and card-carrying member of the Nazi Party.

Rabe was there when the Nanking Massacre began. All around him, Japanese soldiers started slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people, desecrating their bodies, raping at least 20,000 women, and holding contests to see who could kill the most.

With the help of other foreign expats in China, Rabe set up the Nanking Safety Zone, an area where the Japanese could not enter and where he invited every Chinese civilian in.

Rabe saved the lives of 250,000 Chinese civilians. He walked around outside, documenting the atrocities, pulling attackers off of women, and using his Nazi Party badge as his only defense.

In time, John Rabe went back to Germany, determined to show his pictures and films of the Nanking Massacre to Hitler and to convince him to ally with the Chinese. Hitler, however, took the Japanese atrocities as a sign of their strength. He stayed allies with the Japanese instead and soon started a war in Europe that would make the Nazi flag the most reviled symbol in the world.

For more lesser-known stories that may change how you see World War II, learn about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and discover the biggest World War II myths.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.