Was John Rabe a hero? I'd say so. Yes
I would certainly have to agree.
But in judging his heroism against his position as head of the Nazi Party in Nanking, I think it important to note that Rabe had lived in China since 1908, earning his living as a representative of the Siemens China Company. He was not personally a witness to the depredations of the Nazi thugs during the Party's growth, not to the brutal actions taken by the Nazis against their opponents and the Jews after Hitler's acsension to power. Whatever he knew of the events and situation in Germany was undoubtedly filtered through a screen of distance and propaganda.
To my mind, he was a hero on two counts.
First and primary, he agreed to be the Chairman of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, a zone set up within the city by a group of some 20 Westerners, mostly Americans but with at least two other German Nazis - Christian Kröger and Eduard Sperling, with the hope that Chinese civilians could be harbored there in safety during the Japanese attack on the city. This was against the vigorous opposition of the American and other Western Embassies, who urged all Westerners to join them on the US gunboat Panay
and flee the city. (A few days later the Panay
was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft.)
During the battle for the city of Nanking Rabe risked his live innumerable times in sheltering refugee Chinese in his home and in personally intervening (often unsuccsessfully) in attempted rapes, lootings and murders by Japanese soldiers. He and his other Nazi comrades wore their Swastika armbands prominently, which apparently had the effect of detering at least some of the Japanes from further abuses.
At the same time, Rabe made numerous appeals - all fruitless - to the Japanese diplomats and military to restrain their troops from further rapine and murders. Apparently (although this is not entirely clear) he must have made such a nuisance of himself that he was called home to Germany under pressure from the Japanese.
And then occured the second count of heroism, although coupled by some considerable degree of naïveté (which demonstrates to me that he really did not understand Naziism at all).
When Rabe arrived back in Germany he had with him films of rapine and murders committed by the Japanese, which were taken by an American Episcopalian minister, John McGee. Rabe attempted to keep his promise to his Chinese friends by commencing a series of lecture tours describing the Japanese atrocities, in which the film was shown. Initially he was awarded major honors by the Red Cross and by the Chinese Government, and even certain minor commendations by the German Foreign Office.
But when Rabe sought and was refused an audience with Hitler, he naïvely made the terrible mistake of writing Hitler directly, enclosing a report of his experience in Nanking and a copy of McGee's film. A few days later he was arrested by the Gestapo, and only freed by the intervention of his employer, Siemens, on the condition that he would never speak about the Japanese or show McGee's film again. Siemens immediately hustled Rabe off to Afghanistan for a few months, probably for his own protection.
The remainder of his story is a sad one, like that of so many of the Germans who lived through the end of the war. His apartment was bombed out, he lived in abject poverty, was arrested by the Soviets and interrogated constantly for three days under Klieg lights, was then arrested by the British who gave him a useless work permit for there was no work for him; was then denounced by an acquaintance and compelled to go through a " de-Nazification" procedure, the defense of which depleted his savings. He was forced to sell one by one his collection of Chinese artifacts in order to obtain food. Finally even these were exhausted and he and his family were literally starving, when news of their predicament reached China. The City of Nanking immediately raised a significant sum for his assistance; the Mayor of Nanking went to Switzerland to arrange the shipment of large packages of food to Rabe, which shipments continued monthly until the City fell to the Communists in 1948. Rabe died of a stoke in 1950, a broken man.
The source of the above is primarily, but not quite entirely, Iris Chan, "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of Worrl War II"
(Pengin Books, 1998 - paperback edition) at 109-21, 188-94 and passim.
The rape of Nanking was certainly not hidden at the time, at least not in the US. There were at least three American newspapermen in Nanking, and although they left before the Rape was over, they brought back utterly gruesome stories and pictures as to the treatment of the Chinese civilians by the Japanese. I was only a boy of 8 but can remember reading some of them in Life or Time magazine. And I know that I saw some shocking pictures as well, although that may have been a few years later after the US was at war with Japan. But I can vividly remember seeing at the time photos and a newsreel of the Japanese attack and sinking of the gunboat Panay