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The Living Buddha

THE GOOD MAN OF NANKING: The Diaries of John Rabe;\o7 By John Rabe; Edited by Erwin Wickert; Translated by John E. Woods; (Alfred A. Knopf: 384 pp., $26)\f7

July 25, 1999|HARRIET MILLS | 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.

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