'Good Nazi of Nanjing' sparks debate

A film about a member of the Nazi party who saved thousands of Chinese during the massacre in Nanjing recently opened in Germany. The BBC's Zoe Murphy looks at the possible impact this unlikely hero's story may have on Sino-Japanese relations.

On Christmas Eve in 1937, German businessman John Rabe visited the mortuary in China's then capital, Nanjing.

He later described in his diary the charred body of a civilian man whose eyes had been gouged out, and a boy of perhaps seven, whose corpse was punctured with bayonet wounds.

"I wanted to see these atrocities with my own eyes, so that I can speak as an eyewitness later," he wrote. "A man cannot be silent about this kind of cruelty!"

The Second Sino-Japanese War was raging.

Japanese troops had stormed the capital, carrying out mass executions and raping tens of thousands of local women and girls, in a six-week orgy of violence that became known as the Rape of Nanjing.

Risking his life, Rabe remained in China and, along with a handful of Westerners, set up a "safety zone" in Nanjing that is thought to have prevented the massacre of more than 200,000 Chinese during one of the bloodiest episodes of the Japanese invasion.

As Germany and Japan were allies, Rabe used his Nazi party membership to do all he could to protect civilians in the zone - including 650 sheltering refugees in his own house and garden.

With a flash of his swastika armband and through sheer force of personality, he intervened in acts of looting and attempted rape by the Japanese troops.

The diaries of this unlikely and unsung hero only became public knowledge in the late 1990s, when they were published in Germany. They have now been made into a film, simply titled John Rabe.

The biopic, which premiered recently in Germany, may stoke historical tensions between Beijing and Tokyo. But it is hoped that Rabe's story may renew debate and ultimately help heal old wounds.