Rabe and the ‘History Wars’

Ever since their discovery, the Rabe Diaries have been politicized as part of the ‘history wars’ between China and Japan over the Nanjing Massacre. While some have claimed that Rabe’s accounts are ‘ironclad proof’ and represent ‘the truth’ about Nanjing, others have dismissed them as ‘full of lies’ or anti-Japanese propaganda. This essay explains the background to the politicization of the Rabe Diaries in the context of the Nanjing Massacre as the main site of the so-called ‘history wars’ between Japan and China.

‘Nanjing 1937/38’ as a Chinese-Japanese History problem: the context

The mutual perceptions of Chinese and Japanese have remained at low levels for the past few years. According to polls, a main reason for the majority of both Chinese and Japanese are history problems, including the Nanjing Massacre, which refers to the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers before, during, and after the conquest of the Chinese capital in the winter of 1937/38. Interpretations of what happened in Nanjing vary widely, from complete denial by some Japanese to exaggerations and simplifications by PRC propaganda. Within these extremes, many issues are being disputed, such as: was there a ‘great massacre’ (datusha/daigyakusatsu) or just ‘normal’ warfare? Did Japanese soldiers exceedingly use violence and if so, why? How many people in total became victims of the Japanese aggression? What is the relevance of ‘Nanjing’ today? Has Japan appropriately apologized for what happened in Nanjing?

During the past two decades alone, important scholarship and collections of sources have been published to shed light on these and other questions. They include books and articles in English by Timothy Brook (ed., 1999), Daqing Yang (1999), Joshua Fogel (ed., 2000), Takashi Yoshida (2006), Bob Wakabayashi (ed., 2007), in Japanese by Kasahara Tokushi (2007, 2018) and Hata Ikuhiko (2007), and in Chinese by Zhang Xuanwen (ed., 2005-2014) and Zhang Lianhong (2007). Still, there is no widely accepted master narrative which – as a sort of ‘stable truth’ (Yang) – could serve as a consensus on the major historical and historiographical issues. When historians from Japan and the PRC between 2006 and 2008 came together as a joint history committee to produce such a narrative, they failed. Instead of a commonly authored text on the modern history of Chinese-Japanese relations, eventually each side produced separate chapters that openly displayed disagreement, not least with regard to the Nanjing Massacre, called ‘Attack on Nanjing and Nanjing Massacre Incident’ in the Japanese version and ‘Nanjing Great Massacre’ in the Chinese version.

It is important to note that despite the fact that the atrocities committed in Nanjing were widely reported when they happened and were also prosecuted in both major war crime trials (Tokyo 1946-48, Nanjing 1946-48), in the following decades neither in Japan nor in China was there great interest in the event. The beginning of a wider public interest is usually traced back to the politicization of the Nanjing Massacre, first in 1972 when Honda Katsuichi’s journalistic report Travels in China (1972) on Japanese war crimes was heavily criticized by sections of the Japanese public. A second, more well-known incident occurred in 1982, when the first Chinese-Japanese history textbook dispute started the history problems between both countries that have lasted until this day. Yet, even in 1982, in the famous Renmin Ribao editorial, titled “history if not forgotten, serves as a guide to the future”, the Nanjing Massacre is only mentioned once and in passing, as one of different atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war (人民日报「前事不忘、后事之师」15 Aug 1982). And when the Nanjing Massacre Memorial was built and opened in 1985, it did not make many headlines on a national level either. It was rather low-key and well-hidden in an (then) inconveniently located part of the city.

Against the background of increased political history activism and a boom of historical revisionism in Japan from the early 1990s onwards and the emergence of more nationalistic narratives and intensified Patriotic Education Campaigns in China, the massacre became more central in the Chinese-Japanese history disputes. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial, renovated in 1995 and again in 2005-07, became an official national site of patriotic education visited by more than 10 million people (from 1985 to 2012). By the early 2000s, the Massacre had become an inseparable part of China’s official war memory culture.

Enter John Rabe: the discovery of his Nanjing Diaries and the making of ‘China’s Schindler’

Evidence for the atrocities committed in Nanjing in the winter of 1937/38 includes military documents and diplomatic reports as well as testimonies by Chinese survivors, former Japanese soldiers, and members of the international community who lived in Nanjing during that period, including John Rabe whose Nanjing diaries were discovered in 1996. John Rabe (1882-1950) was a German businessman from Hamburg who had lived in China from 1908 onwards. In 1911 he joined the Siemens company in Beijing, was transferred to Tianjin in 1925, and to Nanjing in 1931. In 1937, together with other foreigners (many of them missionaries) he founded the International Safety Zone, which included several refugee camps in the city and became its chairman. Rabe organized food and other materials through negotiations with the Japanese and other embassies. In this way, he is said to have helped saving several thousand Chinese from death by cold, starvation, or Japanese atrocities. Rabe remained in Nanjing until February 1938 when he was ordered to return to Germany. There, he gave several lectures on the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing and he also sent a letter and a report to Hitler, as he had promised his Chinese friends before leaving. Rabe was subsequently arrested by the German secret police and forbidden to give further public talks on the topic. Rabe had been a member of the Nazi party but in June 1946 he successfully completed the denazification process and returned to Siemens. He died of a stroke in Berlin in 1950.

Among the documents produced by foreigners in Nanjing, including Lewis Smythe’s War Damage in the Nanking Area, December 1937 to March 1938 (Shanghai 1938), Robert Wilson’s letters, George A. Fitch’s and Minnie Vautrin’s diaries, Rabe’s Nanjing diaries are of particular value mainly for two reasons. First, comprising more than 1800 pages in their original version, they are the most comprehensive source produced in Nanjing during the Japanese attack of the city – at least that we know of today. In addition to daily diary entries, they also contain a rich collection of documents, including letters, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and photos. Second, as chairman of the International Safety Zone and an ‘old China hand’, Rabe was well connected and held a key position even among the foreigners who had remained in Nanjing. Therefore, he had access to information and materials like no one else in the city, including contacts to the Japanese embassy. Due to his position, Rabe is also referred to as the de facto mayor of Nanjing after mayor Ma Chaojun (1935-37, 1945-46) had fled the city in early December 1937.

Rabe’s diaries were discovered in 1996 during Iris Chang’s research for her book The Rape of Nanking: the forgotten holocaust of World War II (1997). They immediately caused an international sensation when they were presented to the public by Rabe’s granddaughter in New York in December 1996. The first article published by the international press on the diaries compared Rabe to Oskar Schindler and ended with a quote by Iris Chang: “I think he felt that he could make a difference, that if Germany knew what Japan was doing, then maybe Germany could have influenced Japan to stop it. It may have been naiveté. But to me, John Rabe is the Oskar Schindler of China, another example of good in the face of eviI”.

The politicization of Rabe in China and Japan: witness, hero, liar?

The discovery of the Rabe diaries and their partial publication in German as well as Japanese and Chinese translations in 1997 (English translation in 1998), together with the publication of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking in the same year led to a “sudden internationalization of the debate” (Hata Ikuhiko). Although Iris Chang could only read a small selection of the diaries, she quickly concluded that Rabe was “a hero” and “the most fascinating character to emerge from the history of the Rape of Nanking”. She praised Rabe as “a kind-hearted Nazi working with American missionaries to save Chinese refugees from Japanese soldiers” and re-iterated her view “that John Rabe was ‘the Oskar Schindler of China’.” The only time Chang questioned Rabe’s reliability is regarding the relatively low number of victims Rabe gave, namely 50.000-60.000. Rabe, she explained, “never conducted a systematic count and left Nanking in February, before the slaughter ended”.

In China, the Chinese government immediately started to celebrate both Chang and Rabe as heroes, too. Both were added to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial in 2005. The Renmin Ribao article published on the occasion of the public presentation of the diaries portrayed them as “yet another ironclad proof for the brutal behavior of the Japanese military” (14 Dec. 1996). The article claimed, “only if Japan deeply reflects, faces history squarely, it can achieve the understanding/forgiving of the people of the world, in particular of the Asians”. In this way, Rabe’s diaries were immediately linked to the general criticism of Japan’s lack of repentance even though Rabe’s diaries did not contain any political reference to this end. The use of the expression “ironclad proof” (铁证tiezheng) made clear that the diaries were not meant to be scrutinized critically but to be celebrated as further solid proof of Japan’s aggression. In a similar way, Rabe as a person was celebrated as a ‘hero’ who reported ‘the truth’, for example in Huang Huiying’s 2002 biography. Rabe’s Nazi membership was mentioned but not discussed. If anything, Rabe’s nationality and his position as a vice leader of the local Nazi party branch in Nanjing only seemed to add credibility to his reports. The Renmin Ribao article contained a small section in which Japanese scholars Kasahara Tokushi and Hata Ikuhiko are quoted as saying that Rabe’s party membership and efforts to inform Hitler about the atrocities made the diaries even more reliable historical sources. Hata calls the Rabe diaries more trustworthy than documents written by the missionary members of the Safety Zone because of their assumed strong anti-Japanese sentiments.  

One year after amendments had been made to the exhibition in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, in 2006 John Rabe’s former residence in Nanjing was opened as a memorial. Its exhibits mainly consist of photos and text panels (in English and Chinese) summarizing John Rabe’s life and deeds. The exhibition celebrates Rabe as an “international hero” and the opening section contains the following statement of endorsement by President Xi Jinping: “Chinese people commemorate Rabe because he has a great love for life as well as the pursuit of peace” (中国人民纪念拉贝,是因为他对生命有大爱,对和平有追求). The exhibition in the Rabe House together with the sections on Rabe in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial are important as they make accessible historical narratives of war and humanitarianism. Simultaneously, however, their highly politicized interpretative framing and rather uncritical treatment of historical sources also contribute to polarization and the intensification of the history problems between China and Japan.

In Japan, the publication of the Rabe diaries caused much more controversy. In the afterword of the Japanese translation of the diaries, historian Yokoyama Hiroaki praised Rabe’s diaries as “historical material of outstanding quality” which Rabe had compiled in an “absolutely faithful manner”. The above-mentioned Kasahara Tokushi, the leading Japanese scholar of the Nanjing Massacre, however, made only little use of the diaries in his later works because he questioned the accuracy of the Japanese translation. Hata Ikuhiko even started using portions of the diary to support revisionist views on the Nanjing Massacre. Moreover, the potential debate between Japanese and Chinese scholars was complicated by the fact that the Chinese translation was a full-length translation of the digest version Rabe had written after his return to Berlin in 1942 whereas the Japanese version (like the English translation) was directly translated from Wickert’s edited and much shorter version. In addition, the title of the Japanese translation Nankin no shinjitsu (The truth about Nanjing) was unnecessarily provocative and, at best, a misnomer.

Revisionist publications in Japan quickly dismissed the diaries as “third class” materials and unreliable. John Rabe also caught the attention of the best-selling revisionist mangaka Kobayashi Yoshinori. Kobayashi utilized the Rabe diaries in two ways: on the one hand, he focused on those parts of the diaries that seemed to confirm the assumption that the scale of the massacre was much smaller than claimed by China. In this respect, Rabe was treated as a credible source. On the other hand, however, Kobayashi sought to discredit the diaries in toto as a fabricated text, mostly relying on hearsay, and written by a Sinophile Nazi to promote his own business interests.

The Rabe Diaries as a research object

But Kobayashi did also raise some important points for the academic study of the Rabe diaries (although this was probably not his intention) and for a more rational treatment of this source: which parts are from reliable sources or verifiable? Which parts have been omitted in the published versions and why? Apart from personal biases by the diarist, the circumstances in which they are written complicate the factual reliability of diaries. War as an extreme human experience influences the way events are perceived and over time one’s attitudes towards them may change. As historian Jochen Hellbeck writes, diaries are products of the “diarists‘ desire for a purposeful and significant life“ in difficult times. As so-called ‘ego documents’, diaries above all provide valuable and important insights into the diarists’ self-perception. They also fulfill the function of coming to terms with extreme experiences and serve as means of reflection and sometimes justification. As Hellbeck writes, the diary therefore becomes a medium in the dialogue between the diarists and his experiences. To be sure, diaries are not to be confused with factual accounts (although diarists often make such claims). Rabe too called his diaries “Tatsachenbericht” (factual account) when in fact they are more of a mix of factual reports and documentation, witness accounts, hearsay, and media consumption.  However, Rabe did not attempt to conceal the provenance of his sources and information. During the past two decades, scholars have evaluated his diary as a credible and authentic source. Moreover, the existence of other materials, including the above-mentioned diaries and reports by other foreigners in the Nanjing Safety Zone (and other sources from the Japanese and Chinese sides) facilitate a critical contextualization and comparison of Rabe’s writings.


The controversy over the Rabe diaries are part of the controversy over the historicity and significance of the Nanjing Massacre, which as such is the main site of the history wars between China and Japan. Over the last twenty years, the Rabe diaries have become part of this history warfare over the Nanjing Massacre, mainly because of the politicized context of the time in which they were discovered and published. During the past few years, the Chinese side has been gearing up its campaigns to institutionalize and internationalize the memory of the Nanjing Massacre, as can be seen in the registration of related documents as UNESCO world memory heritage (2015) or the inauguration of a National Memorial Day on December 13th (2014). Rabe and his diaries only play an indirect role in these activities but as can be seen from Xi Jinping’s endorsement of Rabe, his diaries will very likely continue to be part of the politicized commemoration of China’s war against Japan.

To a scholar, the labels ‘hero’ or ‘liar’ are little helpful. Rabe’s witnessing – direct and indirect – as recorded in his diaries are of great value as they add to a dense body of sources on ‘Nanjing 1937/38’. Professional historians will surely also share a sense of gratefulness to Rabe for collecting and preserving volumes of valuable information for the next generations which – in the current context of ‘history wars’ and ‘fake history’ – seems more important than ever.

(based on Torsten Weber, “John Rabe and the Nanjing Massacre in post-war Japan and China: witness, hero, liar?”, conference paper given at the 78th Annual Conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Denver, USA, 22 March 2019)

Cite this blog post
Torsten Weber (2019, August 2). Rabe and the ‘History Wars’ John Rabe's Nanjing Diaries. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/t4sj

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