The Good Man of Nanking

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

During his denazification hearing in postwar Berlin, John Rabe claimed to have saved the lives of 250,000 Chinese residents of Nanking in 1937-1938, a claim supported by other foreign denizens of that city and by officials of the Chinese government. While this claim is surely exaggerated, it is nevertheless true that Rabe saved many thousands of Chinese from starvation, rape, and robbery. How many might have died without his efforts cannot, of course, be ascertained. But the number would surely be in the tens of thousands. John Rabe emerges as an authentic hero.

Yet his diary presents readers with an unheroic, unassuming man. He is factual, never histrionic, modest, of good humor, and unfailingly decent. The diary that is at the heart of The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe covers a six month period from September, 1937—when the Japanese began bombing Nanking—through February, 1938—when Rabe was recalled to Shanghai (and ultimately to Berlin) by his employers, Siemens. During this period Rabe bears witness to the barbaric occupation of the Chinese capital by Japanese forces. The account is graphic and horrific. Yet it is told in the most matter-of-fact manner. Indeed, Rabe treats his own efforts to establish a safety zone for the poorest of Nanking’s citizens, his efforts to provide food and shelter for a quarter of a million people, his attempts to offer some sort of protection for them, as something anyone might have done. It is for him simply the right thing to do, the natural thing to do. And in these efforts he was, despite daily frustrations, largely successful.

Equally interesting are his efforts to maintain civil relations with the Japanese authorities. Rabe wastes no time or energy on moral outrage (though it is apparent on every page of the diary); the end is all-important to him, the protection of the Chinese, not the means he has to employ to achieve that end.

The Good Man of Nanking tells a horrible tale of twentieth century violence and wickedness. But it also details the heroism of one good man and demonstrates the kind of difference that one good man can make in a brutal century.