The Living Buddha

Harriet Mills is professor emeritus of Chinese language and literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the daughter of W. Plumer Mills, a member of Nanking's foreign community at the time of Japan's 1937 invasion of China, who suggested the creation of the safety zone

More than 60 years after the worst single city massacre in human history, the Rape of Nanking continues to be a dark chapter in world history. At a time when the international community wrestles over the issues of war crimes and reparations, the deaths of more than 300,000 people in this Chinese city at the hands of the invading Japanese army have provided a shameful example of how not to address crimes against humanity.

Unlike the Germans, the Japanese were never forced by the Allies to admit their guilt and for decades denied there had been a massacre. Those who sought to bring the truth to light were forced by passionate patriots into silence; some even disappeared. Since the mid-1960s, a small but growing band of scholars has worked quietly to establish the dimensions of the tragedy. Only recently was the Japanese government forced to admit in a school text that there may have been civilian casualties (although the number is given as only 15,000 or 20,000) at Nanking. Public acceptance of Japanese responsibility is gradually spreading in Japan, but the continuing controversy over the publication in Japan of Iris Chang's bestselling account, "The Rape of Nanking," shows how difficult revealing the truth sometimes is.

The two stories of that terror--about the atrocities themselves and about the efforts of the International Safety Zone Committee to assist the beleaguered populace--are chronicled in "The Good Man of Nanking." It is one of the most important contemporaneous documents of the massacre, if not the single most important, and is unique in providing not only graphic eyewitness accounts of the Japanese atrocities but also in telling the story of the virtually unknown but crucial safety zone organized by a small band of foreign residents, mostly American, to assist the populace of the city.

In July 1937, Japan launched its third military campaign since 1894 to conquer China. Taiwan had been taken in the war of 1894-95, and Manchuria was wrested away in 1931. The fighting that had started near Beijing had spread south by August to Shanghai, from which, after two months of bitter fighting, the Chinese defenders were forced to withdraw in late October. Their main column headed west, following the Yangtze River toward Nanking.

By mid-November, 14 American missionaries--doctors, nurses, professors and ministers--in Nanking, alarmed at the brutality of the Japanese advance on the city, decided to set up a civilian safety zone for refugees, basing it on one successfully pioneered by a French priest during that summer's fighting in Shanghai. Because Germans were the foreigners most acceptable to the Japanese, the Americans moved warily to recruit John Rabe, a businessman whom they had never met and knew only as the experienced representative of the German engineering firm Siemens and as a local Nazi leader. To their relief, Rabe proved to be a humanitarian, deeply committed to China and the Chinese, a man with a sense of humor and impressive administrative skills, though oddly enough he had not learned Chinese in his 30 years in the country (he was fluent in English and French). Within a few days, he was elected chairman of the zone committee and quickly became its key figure. It was soon obvious that his Nazism was based not on experience (Rabe had lived in Germany for only two years between 1908 and 1937) but on the fantasies of the German propaganda press at Shanghai. Rabe used his privileged status as a Nazi--and thus a Japanese ally--to lead the zone committee in an aggressive defense of the Chinese population.

The zone committee and a top Chinese general soon agreed on a 2 1/2-square-mile site in Central Nanking containing substantial American, German and Chinese buildings with an estimated capacity of 35,000 (they would later hold 250,000). In December of that year, a month after the missionaries recruited Rabe, the departing mayor turned over the apparatus of the civilian government to the zone committee--the police, utilities, firefighters, transport and fuel stocks, et cetera--and promised large supplies of rice and flour. Chiang Kai-shek's office offered $100,000 to support this enterprise. Unfortunately only about a quarter of the promised transport, funds and grain ever materialized, and negotiations with the Chinese and Japanese for recognition of the zone as a demilitarized area collapsed, dashing all hope for the safety guarantees that had been so critical to the Shanghai zone.

Nonetheless, the zone committee on Dec. 4 declared the zone open to unarmed civilians but not to military personnel. Food merchants were urged to bring their stocks for sale, ordinary residents their supplies and utensils. Thousands had moved in by the time the Japanese arrived a week later; some 200,000 more would follow. With the Japanese at the gates, the zone committee regrouped as a committee of all 22 remaining foreigners in the city.

While the zone was being organized, the Japanese occupied the surrounding area. We now know from Japanese army documents captured by guerrilla forces at the time that the official mop-up policy for captured areas called for punishing treatment to intimidate inhabitants and the destruction of the area's economic base. The massacre at Nanking began with the execution-style murders of some 140,000 to 150,000 defenseless Chinese troops, trapped outside the city between the city wall and the Yangtze River, shot under a "kill all prisoners" order, and then dumped into trenches or the river. The killing continued inside the city in a 10-week orgy of murder, rape, looting and arson. Squads were assigned to execute tens of thousands of able-bodied men who were suspected as ex-soldiers. Tens of thousands of luckless individuals were shot in the jaw, doused with kerosene, incinerated or used for live target practice. And there were the rapes. Women left with bayonets stuffed up their vaginas; girls seized individually or by the truckload to be raped five, 10, 15 times a day, then sometimes returned, just as often killed.

"We Europeans are all paralyzed by the horror," Rabe wrote of those dreadful months in his diary, a document that more than 50 years later is an astonishing testimony to the horror. Even the Japanese foreign minister admitted in a secret cable cited elsewhere that the "Japanese Army [has] behaved and [is] continuing to behave like Attila and his Huns."

Rabe's administration and worldly savoir-faire--"being Jesuit," he called it--greatly strengthened the efforts of his less worldly colleagues, while his Nazi standing and unyielding insistence on rights forced on the Japanese more cautious treatment of the zone committee than would otherwise have been the case. Those who compare Rabe to Oskar Schindler miss the point. The high-living Schindler began with a need to secure motivated workers for his wartime factories. The thoroughly decent German burgher Rabe was moved by compassion and moral outrage.

But without enough supplies and adequate space for all the refugees, even compassion was not enough. Living conditions were difficult in the overcrowded zone. Refugees arrived holding pots, pans and whatever grain they had. The buildings overflowed out into large open areas, like the quad area around the University of Nanking. People clustered there and cooked, ate and slept in the open, shivering in the cold. It was wet, rainy and makeshift, with much death and disease as the result.

In late December, the Japanese army began a multifaceted campaign to pressure the zone into oblivion. First came orders for the populace to leave the zone and return to homes that no longer existed, but those were ignored. In January, a puppet government was established in Nanking, designed in part to undermine and replace the zone's committee. In late January, more draconian steps were taken to cut off food supplies to the zone. By mid-February, under the pressure of this puppet government, the zone was half empty, but a resurgent tide of rape--worse, Rabe wrote, than in the worst days of December--quickly sent tens of thousands of women and their families back.

Each day, zone members fanned out to investigate newly reported crimes and trouble spots and, when possible, to block crimes in progress. The Nazi armbands of Rabe and his countrymen were far more effective than the zone insignia worn by their American colleagues. Each night, members would record the horrors witnessed that day in diaries, in letters to be mailed when possible and in reports to be incorporated into the official committee protests presented to the Japanese Embassy. Those documents, together with surreptitious films of atrocities made by two missionaries, were a decade later major evidence at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, where some zone officials testified.

Throughout the Nanking ordeal, the Japanese diplomats, clearly dismayed by the conduct of their army but unable to oppose their country's war machine, played an important and sometimes surprisingly helpful role. Early on, the Japanese consul-general visited the committee to deliver the definitive, if ambiguous, statement as to its status: "You will not be recognized, but the treatment you receive will be tantamount to recognition." Recognition turned out not to include personal or property protection; half the Americans and two Germans were variously roughed up, shot at, cut with bayonets, or threatened by sword or pistol; virtually all German and American residences were looted, many vandalized. On occasion, Japanese Embassy officials obligingly signaled upcoming policy shifts, even wrangling exit permits twice for zone committee members when leaving was strictly forbidden.

Rabe reluctantly left Nanking early in 1938 because he was ordered home by Siemens. Grateful refugees had for days implored their "Living Buddha of Nanking" not to leave; 3,000 women kowtowed to block his path. He had also won the deep respect and affection of his zone committee colleagues as a "splendid man" of "tremendous heart."

For all its disappointments, in the end the zone had played an important role. Physically it had survived fairly well, with no major killing fields or arson tracts. The very crowding sometimes provided a margin of safety. The zone committee members were later decorated by the Nationalist Chinese government with its highest civilian award, cited for having saved some 250,000 lives. In the later 1980s, a memorial hall to the Victims of the Nanking Massacre was erected, and Siemens commissioned a bust of Rabe.

Rabe's return to Germany, however, was sad and disillusioning. For trying to inform Hitler and the Germans of the atrocities of their ally, Japan, he was briefly arrested by the Gestapo, his diaries temporarily confiscated and his career ruined. Later, when word reached his scattered zone colleagues and the people of Nanking that Rabe was destitute after Germany's defeat, care packages from those zone members and food from Switzerland, bought with funds spontaneously raised by the ordinary people of Nanking, kept Rabe and his family alive. Still later, when Rabe was denounced as a Nazi and his appeal denied, the vigorous testimonials of his zone comrades won him swift acquittal.

After 1949, as the new Chinese government sought international and diplomatic recognition, it muted criticism of the Nanking massacre hoping for Japanese support. The strident anti-Western, particularly anti-American, bias that dominated foreign policy propaganda in the first three decades of the People's Republic proved a hard sell in Nanking to the veterans of the safety zone, who had to be specially taught that the zone committee foreigners were not friendly helpers but bloodsuckers seeking to exploit China. Even today, some elderly survivors, caught in the contradiction of personal experience and official party line, are still too fearful to talk.

And now a few words of caution. The English version of Rabe's diary under review is actually a translation of the heavily condensed 1997 German version excerpted by Erwin Wickert, former German ambassador to China, from Rabe's 800-page German manuscript, "Bombs Over Nanking: From the Diary of a Living Buddha," which Rabe had prepared for the day when publication might be possible. Unfortunately, the American publishers have simply copied the infelicitous editing of the German edition.

Consciously or unconsciously, the German version has a German spin. Wickert's omission of Rabe's clear identification of the American responsible for initiating the safety zone has led reviewers and readers alike mistakenly to cast Rabe in the role of the committee's founder. Further, Rabe's title for his memoirs shows that he would have preferred the affectionate Nanking sobriquet of "Living Buddha of Nanking" to the pretentious and loaded ambiguity of the German title "The Good German of Nanking" or the English title of "The Good Man of Nanking." Finally, although less than half of Rabe's text has been selected for translation, Wickert has inserted into the main text a significant number of German diplomatic and news reports. Though they are interesting and informative, Rabe may never have seen them, and we know from comparison with the full and faithful Chinese translation that they did not appear in his diary. Such decisions in conjunction with the book's space constraints have led to the omission of much of Rabe's voluminous documentation of the major American committee activity.

Yet Wickert's version of the diary reads smoothly (thanks to the superb translation by John Woods) and catches Rabe's humor and compassion. And despite the aforementioned drawbacks, readers should be grateful to have "The Good Man of Nanking" as well as Iris Chang's book, which together make accessible to the English-speaking public the main facts of this dark moment in modern history. Rabe's diary testifies to the depths of human cruelty in a way that other history books can't. But it also reminds us about the goodness in every person. As Rabe wrote, packing to leave Nanking, "Anyone who has witnessed the misery here understands what the protection we've been able to give these poor people really means. It was all so obvious, none of it has anything to do with heroics."

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