Foreigners establish Safety Zone and intervene to save civilians during Nanking Massacre, 1937-1938


To save the lives of Chinese civilians from the indiscriminate civilian killings from Japanese army during Nanking Massacre.

Time period

December, 1937 to February, 1938



Location City/State/Province

Jump to case narrative


John Rabe
International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone


Not known

External allies

Not known

Involvement of social elites

Not known


Japanese soldiers

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Not known

Campaigner violence

None known

Repressive Violence

Sometimes, the members of the International Committee of Nanking Safety Zone were subjected to violence when they tried to intervene when the Japanese soldiers raped and/or were trying to kill the Chinese civilians. In those instances, they were mostly beaten up. In some extreme cases, some even received cuts and blows from swords. While there have been cases in which Japanese soldiers shot at these members of the Committee, they were fortunate enough to avoid being killed.




Third-party nonviolent intervention

Group characterization

Chinese civilians and former soldiers

Groups in 1st Segment

Chinese civilians and former soldiers

Segment Length

Approximately 10 days

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

4 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


0 out of 3 points

Total points

5 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

It is estimated that the Nanking Safety Zone saved the lives of 250,000 Chinese civilians. But more than 250,000 were killed as a result of the massacre.

Database Narrative

As soon as the Sino-Japanese War broke out in July 1937, Japanese dominated the tide of the war, seizing major cities of northern parts of the China (Beijing, Tenjin, etc.). By the end of November, the Japanese army captured Shanghai; the great number of deaths and casualties was unprecedented in the war. As the hostility toward Chinese grew among Japanese soldiers after the hard-won battle in Shanghai, the Japanese army advanced toward the city of Nanking. 

On 10 December the Japanese army delivered an ultimatum: Japan would have no mercy on Chinese if they decided to resist. However, the Chinese army refused to surrender, and fighting began.

Concerned about the looming threats and dangers upon the lives of Chinese, a small band of foreigners who had resided in Nanking decided to stay and initiate systematic efforts to save the lives of the Chinese civilians. In early December, these people established the Nanking Safety Zone, a 3.86 square kilometer piece of land in the western part of Nanking, whose purpose was to offer a refuge for civilians during the battle. They planned that the zone would provide food, shelter, and medical care for these refugees, and if necessary, protective intervention against the attack of Japanese soldiers. The foreigners formed an International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone consisting of 7 Americans, 4 Britons, 1 Dane, and 3 Germans.

The head of the committee was John Rabe who worked at the Siemens China Company; he was also the leader for the Nazi Party in Nanking. On 25 November 1937, Rabe sent a telegram to Hitler and his friend General Counsel Kriebel for the “Fuehrer’s kindly intercession in asking that the Japanese government grant the building of a neutral zone for those who were not fighting in the battle for Nanking.” Although he did not receive a reply, he sensed a change in patterns of aerial attacks at the certain point in the process of the battle.

Other members of the committee worked hard to establish several refugee camps—mostly set up around the US embassy (which was within the zone). They also sewed large national flags of their countries and installed them around the grounds near buildings within the zone to warn the pilots from bombing their properties. As the battle broke out, the refugees surged into the zone, and by December 13, roughly 250,000 people filled in the space. Some people were fortunate enough to reside in the buildings; others occupied lawns, trenches, and bomb dugouts. It was very usual for people to sleep in the streets.

The Japanese army occupied Nanking by 13 December. Around 500,000 to 600,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers failed to evacuate the city due to the speed of their defeat. Japanese soldiers were ruthless towards the Chinese. In some instances, there were reported “beheading competitions” in which Japanese soldiers competed for who killed Chinese soldiers-of-war most effectively with their swords.

As soon as they occupied the city, the Japanese soldiers first systematically executed all the prisoners of war who could be potential threats. The Japanese promised prisoners safety to coax them in the first place, divided those who surrendered into groups, took them to different places, and then executed one group after another.

Civilians were no exceptions. Contrary to their initial propaganda that civilians who surrendered would save their lives, the Japanese soldiers indiscriminately killed civilians. Civilians were gunned down, beaten down, buried alive, bayoneted, and beheaded with swords. Women were vulnerable to both indiscriminate rapes and killings.

One of the first systematic efforts that the Committee began after the Japanese army declared its victory was to try to save former Chinese soldiers. Rabe persuaded the Chinese soldiers to throw away their weapons and join the refugees. He said if they stopped being potential threats in the eyes of Japanese army, he would try to persuade the Japanese military personnel to let go of these former soldiers. And even if the Japanese did not comply with his appeal, they will not be able to find the former Chinese soldiers if they were to change their clothing and mingle with civilians inside the Safety Zone. The former Chinese soldiers agreed and followed Rabe, and he wrote a letter explaining the situation and begging for mercy to a Japanese military official.

Although the Japanese official promised the safety of these former soldiers, the Japanese army broke the promise and entered into the zone to search for them. Even Rabe’s strategy to make these Chinese former soldiers indistinguishable from civilians did not succeed. The Japanese soldiers resourcefully examined people’s body—hands (because the use of guns caused calluses on certain parts of a soldier’s finger), shoulders (because the backpack they wore left a mark), and feet (because the long marches caused blisters). As a result, roughly 1300 men were detected and herded together to be killed on 14 December.

By this time, Rabe and his committee realized that they needed an active strategy if they were to ensure that the lives of Chinese refugees inside the zone would be spared. They had not only faced multiple instances in which Japanese officials broke promises made with official documentation, but they also witnessed indiscriminate killing and rape even inside the Safety Zone. While it was true that the Japanese respected the Zone to a certain extent (fewer killings inside the zone than outside the zone), some soldiers covertly killed, raped, and kidnapped in the zone in the absence of committee members.

Rabe and two other Germans finally decided to elevate the level of involvement—to actively seek out the scenes of violence and rape, and to confront and obstruct the Japanese soldiers. They thought they would be able to exploit the alliance relationship between the Japan and Germany and the domineering reputation of the Nazi Party to dissuade the Japanese soldiers from their assaults.

Every day, Rabe wore party symbols and swastika armbands and drove through Nanking to offer help for the assaulted. Usually, some family members of the victims stopped Rabe’s car and asked for his help. Rabe let them hop into the car and made them direct him to the scene of assaults. As Rabe reached the scene, he did anything to chase away the Japanese soldiers from the victim. He bellowed at the Japanese soldiers, showed his Nazi markings, and even physically lifted the raping soldiers in some instances. On the New Year, as usual, he roamed around and encountered a scene of rape. As he approached the raping soldier, he yelled, “Happy New Year!” and the surprised soldier scampered off with his pants in his hand.

After realizing the effectiveness of the tactic, Rabe also handed out whistles to the refugees living within his house, and instructed them to blow the whistle when they were assaulted or witnessed other people assaulted. Whenever the Japanese soldiers climbed the wall around his house and rushed toward the women, they would blow their whistles to call Rabe, who would rush out to protect the women and chase the soldiers away.

Although Rabe and two other German members of the Committee sometimes felt frustrated due to the lack of enough people to completely fulfill their goals, they struggled not to show any signs of weakness to the Japanese army. They knew that they needed to overwhelm the Japanese soldiers with a forceful appearance and energy in order to stop them. 

While the Japanese seldom cared about the presence of other foreigners—and sometimes, even beat foreigners when they intervened—they were afraid of the members of Nazi Party. Once, when Eduard Sperling, another German committee member, approached the scene of a rape with a swastika armband and domineering appearance, the Japanese soldiers shouted, “Deutsche! Deutsche!” and ran away from him.

On 24 December 1937, Japanese military officials posted bulletins throughout Nanking that ordered the civilians to register for “good citizen’s papers”. A passport-like document issued by the Japanese government, these papers would, according to the military officials, “ensure the safety of the innocent civilians.” The civilians lined up to register from 28 December to 14 January. During the registration periods, some young men were arrested as former soldiers. When the arrests occurred, the leaders of the Committee rushed to the scene to persuade the Japanese army to release the prisoners; The Committee members succeeded in some instances, and failed in others.

In late January, the Japanese declared that they had “restored order”, and dictated that the civilians return to their homes. The Nanking Safety Zone was evacuated of most refugees on 18 February, and it almost ceased to function afterwards. The Japanese officials established a governing body of Nanking with Manchurian candidates as leaders to effectively control the city. It is estimated that around 250,000 civilians’ lives—roughly half of the remaining population—had been saved by the Nanking Safety Zone despite the massacre. Although some random killings and rapes occurred afterwards, the incidence significantly dwindled. And there were no more instances of systematic massacre.


Father Jacquinot de Bessage established a neutral area that sheltered more than 450,000 Chinese refugees in November 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai (part of Sino-Japanese War). It inspired the Presbyterian missionary W. Plumer Mills, one of foreigners who resided in Nanking to make a similar effort that will save the lives of civilians. (1)


Brook, Timothy. (1999) "Documents on the Rape of Nanking" The University of Michigan Press

Chang, Iris. (1997) "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II". Basic Books

Chen, David W. “At the Rape of Nanking: A Nazi Who Saved Lives.”The New York Times, December 12, 1996

Kaiyuan, Zhang. (2001) "Eyewitnesses to Massacre: American Missionaries Bear Witness to Japanese Atrocities in Nanjing". An East Gate Book

*Pictures of Nanking Massacre can be found on:

Additional Notes

This researcher did not watch the movie "John Rabe" (2008). But it is said to be a great film that documents the effort of John Rabe in saving the lives of Chinese civilians.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Soul Han, 18/11/2012