The Oscar Schindler of China: John Rabe Review and Problems of Perspective, History, and Responsiblity

Trigger Warning! Discussion of rape, torture, and Japanese War Crimes follow.

Most of the information, unless specified otherwise, comes from Wikipedia. I make no apology for that because this is a blog post, not a dissertation. I would love to have time to do formal research onto this subject, but I do not. Also, I will not tolerate any comments on this blog denying the reality of Japan’s war crimes. If you are even thinking about posting anything like that, TAKE THAT SHIT SOMEWHERE ELSE! 

I also want to point out that the goal of my post is not, in any way, to minimize the the Holocaust.  The Holocaust was a horrific crime, a wicked act of genocide, and it is beyond the scope of any blog to truly address the nature of that crime and the innumerable loss of life.  It is also right to point out that the Japanese did not commit genocide the way the Germans did.  (Genocide is not the same as mass murder.  It is mass murder of an ethnic group or race with the intent of extermination.  The Germans did that, the Japanese did not.)  

My goal in this post is to challenge Americans (and Europeans) to expand our frequently Western centered point of view, which believes that “If it happened in Asia, it doesn’t matter.”  (If I hadn’t watched John Oliver, I would have had no idea that India had an election this year.  CNN never bothered to mention that 800 million people went to the polls last April in the largest election on the planet!)  I also think that the suffering of Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, and Filipinos was (and is) very real, and it is wrong to negate their suffering. Suffering less is not the same as not suffering.  A woman who was kidnapped by the Japanese and raped as a comfort woman did not suffer the terror of murder the way a woman in a concentration camp did.  But the comfort women still suffered.  

I first heard of John Rabe as a teenager.  I had stolen my mom’s copy of Reader’s Digest and read about The Rape of Nanking, the name for the Japanese massacre of the Chinese populace of Nanking in 1937.  An estimated 300,000 peopled died.  A few years ago, I watched a documentary about Nanking, with actors playing Western witnesses, as well as actual interviews with both victims and perpetrators.  I will never forget hearing the aging Japanese man recount how he and his friends went out at night to rape Chinese women, and women included girls as young as ten.  He described how his friends would take turns holding down the victim while one of them would rape her.  He complained that the women didn’t show a lot of enthusiasm for the sex and then he chuckled.  He laughed about it.  I had to turn it off and watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

One of the most noble figures in The Rape of Nanking is a German man named John Rabe.  He was a member of the Nazi Party, working for Siemans, and had lived in Nanking for more than 20 years.  When the Japanese conquered Nanking, John Rabe and others established a safety zone for civilians, where the Japanese military would be forbidden.  John Rabe was chosen as the obvious leader.  He had been an important man in China for more than 20 years, and as a German, the Japanese would respect him as an ally.  It worked.  250,000 lives were spared.

This film John Rabe, by German director Florian Gallenberger, tells the story of John Rabe’s experience during the Rape of Nanking.  Overall, the film is excellent.  It is very well shot, and magnificently acted.  Ulrich Tukor is wonderful as John Rabe. I was also gratified to see that they included film shot during the time period by the doctors.   This is important because many Japanese (including important politicians) deny that the massacre even happened.  (More about that later.)  The film tells a very heavy story, but it does not feel overbearing.  There are moments of levity to help ease the pain  It is a very compelling introduction to the atrocity of Nanking.

That being said, I do have two issues with the film.

One, it was not brutal enough.  It was violent and bloody, but the main acts of killing that the film shows is the killing of Chinese prisoners of war.  Don’t get me wrong, this is horrible.  However, killing prisoners of war was just the beginning.  In the documentary Nanking, a man recounted a story of a Japanese soldier who bayoneted a woman in the back as she ran with her child.  They didn’t just kill soldiers, they killed civilians, including women and children.   The film does talk a lot about the rapes that occurred and shows one attempted rape.  It recounts the story of the Japanese officer who demanded that the teacher of the local girls’ school turn over students to his soldiers.  “We’ll bring them back tomorrow,” he said.  The film could have used a little bit more of that.

Two, the film suffers from its perspective.

Florian Gallenberger, the director, is German.  I don’t mean that as a criticism, I just point this out because he brings a strong level of discomfort with the material.  He said in an interview that he wasn’t even sure that it would be appropriate for a German to direct this film.  John Rabe, after all, was a member of the Nazi party.  During the Japanese air raids, he hid people in his courtyard under a giant Nazi flag.  John Rabe wrote letters to Hitler, describing the crimes and asking Hitler to intervene on behalf of humanity.  (I know, I know.  Believe me, I wanted to jump into the screen shouting, “Oh shit!  He’s giving him ideas!” and take his type writer away from him.”John, you’ll thank me for this later,” I’d say.)  Florian balked at much of this, and understandably so.  It was not until he traveled to Nanking and met survivors that he decided to make the film.

For me, I think that Florian Gallenberger allows his nationality to inhibit him. There is a scene between John Rabe (Ulrich Tukor) and Dr. Rosen (Daniel Bruhl) where they argue about Hitler. (Dr. Rosen is opposed to the Nazi regime.) It is a great scene, very well acted, but it has no place in this film for my money. A similar scene was cut from the film, which shows Dr. Rosen kissing a Chinese girl. I forgot, upon seeing the clip in the trailer, that such an act would have been illegal in Nazi Germany. The scene is not simply an attempt to inject romance into the film; it gives Florian yet another opportunity to reject Hitler and Nazi ideology. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

Florian is painfully aware of his country’s past, as most Germans are, and he interprets the war in the Pacific through the lens of the West. For those of us in the West, WWII is about the Nazis, about fascism and the Holocaust. I feel the same way, for the most part. After all, I’m an American and my grandfather fought at the Battle of the Bulge.  My best friend as a child lost family in the Holocaust.  However, I probably feel that way to a lesser extent than most. That’s because I spent a year living in South Korea.

I’ll never forget that first weekend I walked along the streets of my little Korean city in the South, and I saw a Buddhist shop. On the front window of the shop, I saw this.

Buddhist Swastika

I knew, intellectually, that I would see this. I even had a rough idea of what it meant for Asians. And yet, the first time I saw it, my blood ran completely cold. I cannot explain the momentary terror I saw when I first saw the Buddhist swastika. I was determined to photograph everything during my sojourn and yet it took me more than a month before I could bring myself to photograph this image. It was displayed so openly, without apology, I did not know what to make of it. After a few months, I became accustomed to seeing it; I associated it with monks, not with Nazis. I also began to understand the depth that Korea (as well as China, Indonesia, and the Philippines) had suffered under the Japanese. I only scratched the surface, but the wounds in Asia are very deep, and very, very real. My biggest regret about my time in Korea was that I was never able to attend the Comfort Women protest in Seoul. During the war, hundreds of thousands of women from Korea, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, were rounded up to provide “comfort” for the soldiers. Today, these women want an apology and financial compensation from Japan, and every Wednesday they meet in front of the Japanese embassy to demand them.  Similar protests take place in other Asian countries.


If I could, I would have taken Florian to a Buddhist shrine in Korea before he started production.  I would show Florian the swastika and say, “I need you to understand, you are in Asia. Germany’s history means nothing here, in this place. I understand you are uncomfortable with your country’s history. It is very admirable. But I need you to put that aside for the duration of this film. Focus on what Japan did in Asia, not on what Germany did in Europe. Or put it this way: Do not think of John Rabe as the Oscar Schindler of China. Instead, think of Oscar Schindler as the John Rabe of Poland.”

The irony is that the director could use his German identity to assume the moral high ground. (I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.) Florin said in an interview, regarding the atrocities in Nanking, “I’m German, so I can’t really point fingers.” True enough.

However, I do think that, as a German, he has a right to point a finger at what Japan has done in the decades since the war.

Highly respected Japanese history professors publish best selling books arguing that the massacre at Nanking never happened. Japanese school children regularly learn about the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they rarely learn anything about the War Crimes Japan committed during the war. They do not hear about Manila massacre of the Philippines, which killed 100,000 people, roughly 5% of the population. They do not hear about Emperor Hirohito’s “scorched earth policy,” which ordered Japanese forces to “kill all, burn all, and loot all.” They do not learn that the Japanese experimented on Chinese civilians, freezing their limbs and amputating them without the use of anesthesia, vivisection, and exposure to pathogens for use as biological weapons. They don’t learn about the torture of prisoners of war or burying people alive. Japanese textbooks rarely discuss these events. (This is a huge and frequent bone of contention in Asia. There are frequent protests in Asian countries whenever Japan publishes textbooks that omit these facts.)

The Japanese government denies all of these atrocities on its better days. On its worse days, politicians such as the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, states that the comfort women were “necessary.”

“In the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind, the soldiers are running around at the risk of losing their lives,”

“If you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that.”

Toru Hashimoto, May of Osaka, May 14h 2013

In response to his quote, the education minister said that “his remarks came at a bad time.” (When is it a good time to say that rape is necessary? When is that?)


Florian got a taste of this when he began to cast and film John Rabe. His cast is truly international and the Japanese soldiers were played by Japanese men. At first, many Japanese actors simply refused to do a movie about Nanking. Those who did, had to do a tremendous amount of research, since they were unfamiliar with the scope of the Japanese brutality. (They were horrified to learn what their countrymen had done.) Florin stated in an interview that he was shocked to discover how little the Japanese people know about their own history.
He expressed the hope that his film would begin a conversation in Japan about history and responsibility. Unfortunately, his film never received that chance. John Rabe never received a commercial release in Japan. Japanese film distributors refused to even screen the film.

It is possible to understand Japanese film distributor’s reluctance to show this film. It is also possible to understand the Japanese reluctance to watch this film. It would be, of course, like watching Schindler’s List in Germany.

But here’s the thing. Schindler’s List was released in Germany. It became one of the highest grossing films in German history. Germans wanted to use the film as a model to revitalize the film industry. 100,000 people saw the film in the first 4 days, despite the fact that there were only 45 copies in all of Germany. Politicians encouraged Germans to see it as an act of national duty and urged teachers to take their students to see it. Teachers sought, and soon received, instructional aids to help them talk about the film with their students. Newspapers published numerous interviews with the “Schindler Jews” as well as with other Holocaust survivors. Ignitz Bubis, a businessman and a Frankfort Jew, wrote an article that became a kind of manners guide to seeing the film.  The article answered questions such as “Am I allowed to avert my eyes at particularly gruesome parts?” and “If I see my neighbor eating popcorn doing the film, should I do something to stop him?” German newspapers also published articles lamenting that few Americans knew about, or believed in, the Holocaust, and criticized black students in Oakland who were said to have laughed during the film.

(This information is taken from “The Tale of the Good German: Reflections on the German Reception of Schindler’s List” by Liliane Weissberg found in Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler’s List edited by Yosefa Loshitzky)

Quick comedic aside: I really hope Germans never see Seinfeld.

Of course, by the time Schindler’s List was released in Germany, a cultural movement had paved the way for its acceptance. The movement is called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which apparently means, “the struggle to come to terms with the past.” In true German fashion, the Germans started this struggle by taking two long words (Vergangenheit=past) (Bewältigung=coming to terms with, mastering, wrestling into submission) and combining them to create an impossibly long, uber word. (And when the Germans do that, you know they’re serious! 🙂 ) This movement is incredibly broad in scope, encompassing art, literature, philosophy, religion, politics, and education. Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that Germany is perfect. I am saying that Germany has tried, and is still trying.

There is nothing comparable to this in Japan. There is no movement, to my knowledge, of attempting to come to terms with the past, because there is no past. It is not the same as it is in Germany. Yes, in Berlin, vandals paint swastikas on the Holocaust Memorial. But in Tokyo, there are no such memorials to vandalize. The closest I could find was a monument to a factory on Okunoshima Island where the Japanese made poison gas weapons. (If anyone knows of a Japanese monument to the sufferings of the Chinese, Koreans, and Philippinos at the hands of the Japanese, please send me the name, location and a picture if possible and I will gladly post it.)

(I also want to point out that The Berlin Holocaust Memorial was also not created by the Allied forces in the aftermath of the war. It was the brainchild of six ordinary Germans who built a grassroots movement and eventually won the support of the local government. I am skeptical that a similar movement would ever happen in Tokyo, though I would love to be proven wrong. Once again, I am not saying that everything in Germany is perfect now. I am saying that there are many honest, good Germans who are earnestly trying to come to terms with the past, to remember it and learn its lessons, and for that, they have my sincere admiration, gratitude, and respect.)

Are the Germans inherently better than the Japanese? I doubt it. They have, for my money, chosen the better path. They are also reaping some of the benefits of that. A few months ago, world leaders gathered at Normandy to honor the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, was invited and received very warmly. Even Germany and Israel have strong economic ties. (Seriously, the fact that there is any kind of relationship between Germany and Israel is somewhat miraculous, let alone a positive one. Indeed, Moshe Katsav, President of Israel, even called used the phrase “special relationship” to describe the relationship between Germany and Israel. He used the same term that the British and Americans use to describe our relationship!)

There is still a tremendous amount of tension between Japan and its former adversaries. A similar meeting of WWII participants in Asia would be marked by protests in China and South Korea, and possibly other countries. On the other hand, I am unsure that the Emperor of Japan would give a speech similar to the one former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder gave in 2004 at the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

Taiwan comfort women protest

(I should point out that it is not entirely grim. I talked to one young woman in South Korea who told me about her Japanese boyfriend. On the other hand, some of my students would tell me that they hated Japan and wanted to kill them. So it’s complicated.)

Phillipines Comfort Women

I could go on, but this a blog post, not a dissertation.

I realize that I ask too much of a film, though film can have a tremendous impact on a culture. (See the disastrous and tragic effect that Birth of a Nation had in the United States.) I suppose it is too much to ask that Florian could go to Japan and shout, “What the fuck are you doing?!?!?” That would also be unproductive. And even so, I harbor a secret wish. I wish that, at some point during the filming, the Japanese actors turned to Florian and said, “I had no idea Japan committed such horrible crimes during the war.” And I dearly wish that Florian responded, compassionately and yet seriously, in the following manner. “You know, in Germany, we talk about what we did during the war. We learn about it in school. Why do you think Japan does not do that?”

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2 Responses to The Oscar Schindler of China: John Rabe Review and Problems of Perspective, History, and Responsiblity

  1. maranar says:

    An incredibly thought provoking read. Thanks.

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