- Revisiting the Wound of a Nation:The "Good Nazi" John Rabe and the Nanking Massacre
In 1937, John Rabe (1882-1950), the Nazi director of the Nanking branch of Siemens and chairman of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, saved over 200,000 Chinese during the Nanking massacre, one of the most brutal episodes of the Japanese invasion of China (1931-1945). His feat was recently revivified in a film by Florian Gallenberger. The film, John Rabe, can be categorized as another attempt in the search for "good Germans" or, more bluntly, for "good Nazis," a paradoxical term memorably applied to Oskar Schindler, whose story was popularized in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List (e.g. Koltnow). Gallenberger's film gained acclaim after a successful premiere at the Berlinale in February 2009, and, two months later, it again received extensive media coverage after winning four German prizes, including those for best picture and best actor. German newspapers almost unanimously stated that Rabe has been considered a "saint" and the "Oskar Schindler of China," though his story was hardly known in Germany. Despite the 1997 publication of his Nanking and Berlin diaries by Erwin Wickert, a former diplomat to China who stayed at Rabe's residence in 1936, and the 1997 publication of the late Iris Chang's bestseller The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, in which Chang shares her discovery of Rabe's diaries, Rabe remained largely unrecognized outside of China. The bio-pic brought Rabe's heroism into focus, publicizing his name and story while mediating between Hollywood cinema and Nazi-retro films.
This article reiterates Rabe's life story, compares his diaries with Gallenberger's representation in the film, places the film within the discourses of Nazi-retro films and Asian-German geopolitics, and considers reasons for the film's subordination of an objective account of atrocities to a version of events whose heroic and romantic elements would more likely ensure commercial success. It surveys media reports, reviews, and interviews, and in doing so examines the film's reception in Germany, China, and Japan. Noting the past unawareness and neglect of this tragedy as a result of the Chinese Civil War and the rivalries between China and Japan, this article also situates the film within the recent decades of controversy and debate about the massacre and discusses how they shed light on politics, memory, and national identity. [End Page 661]
Rabe's anonymity in Germany before the making of the film shows an important fissure in Europeans' awareness of atrocities in Europe and Asia. Like Schindler's List, John Rabe serves as "a means of enlightenment" (Niven, "The Reception of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List" 176), in this case about war crimes and genocide taking place in Asia preceding the Second World War. The story of John Rabe constitutes a unique historical episode for studying Asian-German geopolitics from the early twentieth century to the present. The film revisits the Nanking massacre, a national wound for the Chinese, in which over 300,000 Chinese were murdered by the Imperial Japanese Army. Gallenberger's film acknowledges this number in the final credits. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East concluded that more than 200,000 Chinese were massacred and approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred in Nanking during the six weeks after the city fell (Eykholt 22; Yoshida 71). Yet those numbers are contested or even denied, especially by conservatives in Japan (Yoshida). Since Rabe is a German, the film touches on the painful past of the Germans with their obvious role in Nazism and the Holocaust. With its multinational aspect, it directs viewers' and scholars' attention to types of atrocities that are not usually compared. The Holocaust is sometimes invoked as an analytical and interpretative framework when discussing the Nanking massacre (Chang 195; Schwarcz; Uhrich; Yang; Yoshida 120). The film also has implications for Japan, where conservative forces still refuse to come to terms with the country's war atrocities in Asia and the involvement of its royal family. As evidenced by the film's reception, the discourses of perpetration and victimization are considerably...