Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mercy from Nazis.

In November of 2004, author and historian Iris Chang shot herself in the head. Chang wrote The Rape of Nanking, one of the most complete and important books about the Japanese invasion of Nanking during World War II.

Chang's book was instrumental in tearing the veil of an atrocity that Japan was eager to cover up (and the United States and even the People's Republic of China's government was willing to try to forget). But the buried don't always stay that way, and Chang and a small group of determined historians and researchers deserve a great deal of the credit for wresting a (grudging, insincere, and unaccompanied by any monetary reparation for the survivors of the massacre) apology from the Japanese government.

The phrase must-read gets bandied about too easily, but Rape is one of them, a book essential to trying to wrap your head around hell on earth.

What makes Rape even more unusual is Chang's inclusion of a chapter about the Germans and Americans in Nanking who tried to protect the civilians from torture and murder by the Japanese soldiers. Two members of the Nazi party, Christian Kroeger and John Rabe, established a safe zone and worked tirelessly to shield those inside it from the Japanese.

Mercy. From Nazis.

Rabe wrote to Adolf Hitler and members of the Nazi party, including photos and footage shot of the destruction, begging Hitler to respond and try to influence the Japanese military to show mercy to the Chinese civilians.

Mercy. From a Nazi.

Rabe, having spent the entirety of World War II in China, returned to Germany and was promptly arrested by Nazi officials. He was released, World War II ended, Hitler ate the barrel of his gun, and Rabe was arrested again, this time by the British. And again, by the Soviets.

Starving in the British section of Berlin, Rabe and his family were unable to get work or ration cards because of Rabe's status as a former Nazi officer. When survivors of the massacre heard about his plight, they sent money and packages of food to Rabe and his family, for the man who had used his swastika armband to convince Japanese soldiers to spare the civilians in Nanking.

History is funny like that. Not funny-funny, but sad-funny. The Merciful Nazi of Nanking.

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