Friday, 3 April 2009

John Rabe

by Kathryn Hadley

John Rabe, a co-produced German-Chinese film in German and English, about the Nanking Massacre was released in cinemas in Germany yesterday. The film is based on the diary of John Rabe, a German businessman and a member of the Nazi party, who was working for Siemens in China and who saved thousands of Chinese during the massacre.

Rabe had worked in China for 30 years and was about to return to the headquarters of Siemens in Berlin when Japanese troops arrived in Nanjing, the Chinese capital at the time, at the beginning of December 1937. The city’s inhabitants were subject to extreme violence during six weeks and thousands of girls and women were raped in what has become known as the Rape of Nanjing. He remained in China, however, as the head of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and, along with a few other Westerners and using his Nazi party membership, is believed to have prevented the massacre of over 200,000 Chinese. The safety zone was a 7-sq-km zone centred on the American Embassy and educational institutions in Nanjing (primarily the University of Nanking). Food was provided in the zone and 25 civic buildings were used as shelters. Rabe is believed to have sheltered 650 refugees in his own house and garden. He allegedly also wrote a letter to Hitler asking him to intervene! He returned to Berlin in 1938, where he was arrested by the Gestapo for having collaborated with the Chinese. John Rabe died in poverty in Berlin, in 1950, unknown in Germany. His legacy lives on in China, however, where he is remembered as a hero. His diaries only became public in the late 1990s, when they were published in Germany.

Rabe notably visited the mortuary in Nanjing on Christmas Eve in 1937 and later reported in his diary:

‘I wanted to see these atrocities with my own eyes, so that I can speak as an
eyewitness later. A man cannot be silent about this kind of cruelty!’

The film debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and has already won two Bavarian awards. However, it is expected to spark considerable controversy in Japan, where the recognition of Japanese crimes during the Sino-Japanese war remains a heated political issue. Whilst the Chinese claim that 300,000 were massacred, some conservative Japanese politicians and scholars deny that the massacre even took place. At the end of the conflict, an allied tribunal estimated the death toll at 142,000. Controversy was notably still raving last November when Toshio Tamogami, the chief of staff for Japan’s Air Self-Defence Force, was dismissed following his publication of an essay in which he denied Japanese aggression before and during the Second World War.

In an interview for Reuters in February, director Florian Gallenberger explained:

‘We're fully aware the film could be explosive in Japan. It's an extremely
controversial subject in Japan and there are fears there could be severe
repercussions. I hope the film won't be silenced in Japan. I'd very much hope
this film could help get an opening-up of discussion going in Japan.’

Films have been made about Rabe in China before. However, they have never been taken particularly seriously because his story has often been misused for propaganda purposes. Gallenberger believes, however, that his film has achieved neutrality by remaining true to the facts in Rabe’s journal and that the time is now right for such difficult episodes of the two countries’ past to be addressed.

‘It's taken more than 70 years for John Rabe to get the recognition he deserves.
It was our duty to take a neutral view, not a Japanese nor a Chinese viewpoint,
and I believe we've accomplished that.’

The director also believes that Rabe’s attitude was neutral. He had no reason to take sides and acted out of moral reasons, rather than being motivated by a political agenda.

‘At the beginning of the conflict I think [Rabe] has great trust in the Japanese
as German allies to behave in a disciplined and fair way - but when it turns out
otherwise he is shocked. He feels it is his responsibility to act.’

William Kirby, head of the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, confirmed this viewpoint:

‘He saw the Japanese as a normal army and initially resisted the stories of
wrongdoing - he was a neutral outsider.’

The film is due to be premiered in China at the Shanghai Film Festival in June. It remains unclear, however, as to whether or not it will be released in cinemas in Japan. Prince Asaka Yusuhiko, a son-in-law of the Japanese Emperor Meiji and the commander of the Japanese forces in the final assault on Nanjing, is played, however, by the Japanese actor Teruyuki Kagawa. During the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946, Prince Asaka denied any massacre of Chinese; however, the film notably speculates on his involvement in the decision-making process. Kagawa’s participation in the film may raise its profile and popularity in Japan. Kagawa explained, however, that the film would be difficult to watch in Japan.

‘When faced with this film, many people will be shocked [to learn] the Japanese
carried out such cruel acts. I think Japanese people will find the two hours
very hard [to watch].’

The date for the UK release of the film has yet to be decided.

For more information on Nanking, a previous film about the massacre that was released in December 2007, read our article Nanking on Screen
For more information on the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, read our article The Xi'an Incident
For more information on Japanese difficulties in coming to terms with the legacy of the Sino-Japanese War, read our articles Remembering the Forgotten War and Japan's Uncomfortable Past.

The John Rabe Communication Centre also have a useful website with further information about Rabe, his house and the Nanking Massacre Memorial in China in Nanjing, photos of his diaries, a bibliography, as well as extracts from the press about the massacre -
There is also an interesting article by Professor David Askew entitled ‘New research on the Nanjing Incident’ published on the website of The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus -

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