Biography

Based on: Thomas Rabe, John Rabe. Sein Leben, seine Zeit. Heidelberg 2009

Last updated: 29/07/2019

November 23, 1882: John Rabe is born in Hamburg, Germany. Due to his father’s early death, Rabe had to leave school after receiving his secondary education. He spent two and a half years as a mercantile apprentice and subsequently worked at a Hamburg exporter for one and a half years as a trade assistant.

1903: Rabe travels to the Portuguese colony Laurenco Marques in Mozambique on his employer’s recommendation, where he worked for a British company.

1906: Rabe is forced to return home, due to a case of malaria.

1908: He travels to China using the Trans-Siberian Railway and begins working for a German-speaking company in Beijing.

1909: Rabe marries his childhood friend Dora Schubert in Shanghai.

1911: He becomes a representative for Siemens in Beijing.

1914: Rabe stays in Beijing despite the outbreak of World War I. Even when the Chinese government is pressured to declare war on Germany by the Triple Entente in 1917, Rabe is able to convince the Chinese public officers of the mutual benefits of keeping the Beijing Siemens office up and running and is thus able to stay.

1919: After Germany’s defeat in WWI all German citizens in China are repatriated.

1920: Only a year later Rabe returns to China via Japan. He subsequently becomes the mercantile director of Siemens China Co. in Beijing.

1925: Rabe is relocated to the Siemens branch in Tianjin, keeping his position of mercantile director. The Rabe family lives in the city’s Russian concession.

1931: Rabe is relocated once more, this time to Nanjing, where he takes over the management of Siemens China Co. for all of China. The family settles down in a house owned by the university, located in Xiaofen Qiao Street, 1.

1933: Opening of a German school on Rabe’s property.

1934: Rabe joins the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party).

November 1937: Rabe is elected head of the International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone

December 1937: The mayor of Nanjing authorizes the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone to take over the government of the city

February 1938: The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone is replaced with the International Aid Committee. Siemens orders Rabe to return to Germany.

February 28, 1938: Rabe boards the British gunship Bee to pick up his wife in Shanghai and they then travel back to Germany together.

1938: Rabe moves into one of the company accommodations, located in Berlin Siemensstadt (Siemens-town) with his family.

In the following months, he tries to garner awareness for the events in Nanjing. Rabe gives speeches in Berlin and shows images, reports and films about the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China. His activities are met with suspicion and Rabe is temporarily arrested by the Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei). He is released on the condition that he would cease giving talks on the topic. While he is allowed to keep his diaries, the audiovisual materials made by Magee were confiscated.

June 8, 1938: Rabe sends a letter to Hitler in which he promises he would cease all activities concerning the events in China and that he “had no intentions of working in opposition to German politics or the German public authorities”.

January 5, 1950: Rabe dies of a stroke. He is buried in the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Cemetery in Berlin Charlottenburg.

In 1997 the headstone of John and Dora Rabe is relocated to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial in Nanjing. The grave in Berlin still exists today.

Testifying and Contesting War Experiences in China and Japan