Starting his diary

On 7 September 1937 John Rabe returned to Nanjing from the beach resort Beidaihe (Peitaiho) in Eastern Hebei where he had spent most of August with his wife Dora. For safety reasons, he had left behind Dora in Beidaihe. She later moved to Tianjin and then Shanghai. In February 1938 John was reunited with Dora in Shanghai where he stopped on their way back home to Germany via Hong Kong. Rabe’s first diary entry is dated 21 September 1937. Rabe writes about his family, the situation in Nanjing, and his motivation to stay in the city – despite the frequent Japanese air raids and worsening conditions in the city.

Rabe writes that his family members are “scattered around the globe”. This is slightly exaggerated but may indicate how much he missed his family: his wife Dora was in Tianjin while the rest of his family was in Southern Germany (his son Otto and son-in-law Willi) and in Westphalia (his daughter Margarete with her own daughters Ursula and Gudrun). In this first entry, Rabe mentions the famous oversized Nazi flag he had mounted in his garden as protection against Japanese air raids. It was made of hand-painted sailing cloth, 6 metres long and 3 metres wide. Because of the increasing air raids foreigners had been asked by their embassies to leave Nanjing but John Rabe had decided to stay in Nanjing. Why?

I did not return here from safe Peitaiho [Beidaihe] because of love of adventure but primarily to protect my property and to represent the interests of Siemens. Of course, the company cannot (and does not) expect me to get shot and killed here for its sake. And I don’t want to risk my life for any goods or property: be it that of the company or my own few clothes. But as a reputable businessman from Hamburg there is a moral point which I simply cannot ignore.

Rabe goes on to explain that many of his Chinese servants, employees, and their family members have nowhere to go, if he left, as the war-torn areas had spread in northern and eastern China. He also stays for them, to protect them and to care for their wellbeing, he writes.

Rabe’s first entry in its original 1937 version finishes with one of his typical ironical comments: he ‘complains’ that despite the fact that Japanese air raids had been announced in the morning of the 21st there still had been no attacks at half past three in the afternoon. Rabe writes he may lose face in front of his Chinese staff if all the preparations, incl. putting food and medicine in the dugout, were in vain.

Never losing his sense of humour: portrait of John Rabe in his dugout

Most intriguing is, however, that Rabe added a section to the original text when he wrote the digest version of the diary in Berlin in 1942. The additional section — stating another reason for staying in Nanjing — on the surface reads like a confession of his commitment to the Nazi party (NSDAP) and National Socialism: “I am a party member (Parteigenosse) of the NSDAP, in the rank of political leader (Amtswalter), and temporarily even held the office of deputy local leader (stellvertretender Ortsgruppenleiter).” He goes on to write that Germans were “soldiers” and “friends” of the workers who would never leave behind other workers even if, as a “National Socialist”, his primary concern were German, not Chinese workers. In this attitude, it was impossible for him to leave the poor Chinese to their fate of being slaughtered. Why did Rabe add this section in 1942?

When Rabe wrote the original version in 1937, regardless of whether he already held the same convictions as in 1942 or not, he apparently had not felt the need to spell out his commitment to National Socialism which to him was the cause of the poor and the workers. Upon his return to Germany in 1938, however, Rabe had started lecturing publicly on the war in China hoping to raise awareness of the human tragedy there among Germans. But Rabe had to realize that Nazi Germany had no interest in his humanitarianism. Instead, Rabe was temporarily arrested by the Gestapo and his diaries were confiscated. He was quickly released but had to promise he would not talk in public about his views and experiences in Nanjing again. It is possible that Rabe feared that he may be questioned or arrested again and therefore explicitly stated his commitment to the NS regime in the 1942 version of his diaries; albeit not without offering his own – humanitarian – interpretation of what it meant to him to be a member of a Socialist Workers’ Party.

Cite this blog post
Torsten Weber (2020, November 3). Starting his diary. John Rabe's Nanjing Diaries. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from

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