December 28, 1914 A Little Kindness

Small acts of kindness abound throughout the long and sordid history of human strife. You need only look for them.

John Rabe was a German businessman working for Siemens China Corporation for thirty years first in Mukden, Peking and Tientsin and later Shanghai and finally, Nanking. Along the way he joined the Nazi party rising to Deputy Group Leader, in local party operations.

Germany had longstanding economic ties with China during this time while WW1 found Germany and Japan, on opposite sides. During the 1930s, aggressively militaristic views brought the former adversaries, into common cause. Meanwhile, the Great Depression brought about a slowdown in Sino-German trade. The second Sino-Japanese war saw Nazi Germany take sides with Japan, a conflict culminating in one of the great atrocities of a century, full of government atrocities. The 1937 rape of Nanking.

Rabe estimated the Nanking massacre resulted in the death of 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese civilians while later estimates put the number, as high as 250,000. Committed Nazi though he was Rabe used his party credentials to appeal to Japanese authorities delaying the inevitable and allowing nearly a quarter million, to escape.

Scene from John Rabe, the movie

Returning to Berlin in 1938 Rabe delivered lectures featuring films and photographs of Japanese atrocities, in Nanking. He wrote Hitler himself asking the Fuhrer to intervene but the letter, was never delivered. He was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo before being released, at Siemans’ behest.

Rabe was arrested and interrogated after the war first by the Soviet NKVD and later, the British Army. A lengthy “de-Nazification” process and subsequent legal appeals left the Rabe family impoverished subsisting on wild seeds, dry bread, and little more. Dire as they were the family’s circumstances could have been worse. On hearing of their plight the citizens of Nanking raised some $2,000 USD, to help. Nanking’s Mayor personally traveled to Berlin in 1948 to deliver a stockpile of food, for the family. From mid-1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking continued to send the Rabe family a “Care package”, every month.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, der Löwe von Afrika

Much the same could be said of the “Lion of Africa“, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. Returning home from German East Africa in the wake of WW1 Lettow-Vorbeck was a conquering hero, the only German commander of the Great War, undefeated in the field.

Vorbeck came to detest the upstart Hitler who eagerly attempted to recruit him, to the Nazi party. But for his war hero status Vorbeck’s invitation that Hitler go “f–k himself” may have earned him a firing squad. As it was the man lived out his days financially destitute with his home destroyed by allied bombs and heartbroken, over the loss of two sons. For a time Vorbeck was able to survive mostly by the help of food packages sent by adversaries from the earlier war, British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts.

The Hutu are an agricultural people living in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, the largest of three distinct groups with 85% of the population in Rwanda, and Burundi. The Tutsis are a cattle herding people who, despite minority status represent the historic ruling class in a three-tiered patronage/client system not unlike the social system, of ancient Rome. At the bottom are the Twa people, an ancient pygmy hunter/gatherer caste representing less than 1 percent of the population.

In late 20th-century Rwanda, political power lay with the Tutsi minority. Rwanda entered a four-year civil war in 1990 with the aid of neighboring, Uganda.

Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcast between July 8, 1993 and July 31, 1994. Called by many “the soundtrack to genocide” RTLM reached most of the Rwandan population with a program of contemporary music interspersed with a vile stream of racist hate propaganda directed by Hutu hardliners toward the Tutsi minority, Hutu moderates and others.

Kantano Habimana was a regulair on-air personality fond of suggesting that “those who have guns [to] immediately go to these cockroaches [and] encircle them and kill them…” The station’s only female presenter, Valérie Bemeriki would exhort listeners to “not kill those cockroaches with a bullet — cut them to pieces with a machete”. Belgium born Georges Ruggiu, the station’s only white personality reminded listeners that “graves were waiting to be filled“.

Talk about Hate Radio.

A vile youth group came into being during this time, called the Interahamwe. The name translates as “Those who work together” but native speakers understood. “Work” referred to killing. Guns were distributed to older members while the younger militia stockpiled machetes and other farm implements. Teachers instructed children to ask parents about their ethnicity and report their findings, back to school. Lists were compiled.

Rwanda under President Juvénal Habyarimana was a one-party dictatorship rife, with electoral fraud. The spark came on April 6, 1994 when the aircraft carrying the president was shot down, with no survivors.

The call went out within hours, across RTLM radio. It was “time to cut down the tall trees“. The average Tutsi stands nearly five inches taller than the average Hutu with many reaching seven feet and more. No one doubted what that meant.

Husbands turned on wives, neighbor on neighbor in a 100-day orgy of violence shocking, even by 20th century standards. Interahamwe militias and others fanned out across Rwanda with guns, machetes, hammers and clubs, savagely attacking Tutsis, even moderate Hutus and Twa. Every ten to twelve seconds for 100 days someone was murdered. Usually, hacked to pieces.

Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, managed the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali. Rusesabagina’s wife Tatiana, a Tutsi, fled with the children but never made it to Kigali airport. Targeted by messages broadcast on RTLM radio Tatiana’s truck was singled out from her convoy, and attacked. She was among the lucky ones and managed to flee, to the hotel. Like African Oskar Schindlers the couple took in 1,268 Tutsi and Hutu refugees and hid them, for the duration.

They were the lucky ones. Tatiana herself lost her mother, brother, sister-in-law and four nieces and nephews in the genocide. Her father paid Hutu militia to shoot him outright and not subject him, to a more painful death.

“ With their machetes they would cut your left hand off. Then they would disappear and reappear a few hours later to cut off your right hand. A little later they would return for your left leg etc. They went on till you died. They wanted to make you suffer as long as possible. There was one alternative: you could pay soldiers so they would just shoot you. That’s what her [Tatiana’s] father did”.

Paul Rusesabagina

Rusesabagina himself lost four of eight siblings, a “comparatively lucky outcome” for a Rwandan family.

The Rusesabaginas were not alone in grasping for some shred of decency in the charnel house that was Rwanda during those three months, in 1994. The 22-year-old Hutu Olive Mukankusi found herself walking down a row of torched and burned out homes when she chanced upon two Tutsi girls 15 and 17 dazedly walking among the rubble. Former neighbors, Mukankusi knew what awaited these girls when the militias returned. She hid them in a banana beer pit, behind her two-room dirt floor home.

Olive knew that she herself would be killed if found out and yet she added a third, a 55-year-old woman, to her backyard hiding hole. The best of our kind met the worst when Olive was betrayed to the Interhamwe, by a neighbor. Brought to one of many killing places the four were saved only by the discovery of 20,000 francs sewed into the hem of Olive’s skirt, equivalent to $140 USD. She had just sold the year’s crop. It was all she had.

Olive Mukankusi, now 47

Taking the money the would-be killers wandered off, probably in search of something to drink. Olive’s husband supported her throughout the ordeal and yet was imprisoned for twelve years suspected of being a killer, and not a protector. No good deed goes unpunished.

No fewer than 300 such episodes have been identified during those 90-days in Rwanda when as few as a half-million were hacked to death by their neighbors and perhaps, as many as 1.2 million.

With over 200,000 combatants the Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the largest and bloodiest battles, of the American Civil War.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland gathered up as many canteens as he could carry and stepped into the no man’s land, between the two watching armies.  Sergeant Kirkland stayed out there for an hour and a half while no one fired. None so much as even moved.  There between two hostile armies which had only yesterday torn each other to bits, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” tended to the wounded and dying adversary here straightening out a shattered leg and there covering a wounded man with a warm overcoat and always, the mercy of a drink of water.

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Under cover as a visiting nurse Irena Sendler removed as many as 2,400 Jewish infants and children and another 100 teenagers from the Warsaw ghetto with the help of a little dog, trained to bark at Nazi soldiers.

Irena Sendler

Sendler would travel daily to the ghetto, and soon started to smuggle Jewish babies out in the bottom of a medical bag.  She’d place soiled bandages around and over sedated babies to keep guards from looking too closely. She carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck. Sometimes she’d use that or even a coffin to smuggle larger children and even teenagers out of the ghetto, other times leading them out through cellars or sewers.

She was caught by the Gestapo in 1943, betrayed by a colleague under torture, and by a nosy landlady.  Nazi interrogators beat her savagely, but she never gave up any of those children.

Irena lasted 100 days in Pawiak prison, a place where the average inmate survived less than a month.  She was at last returned to the Gestapo and stood against a wall for execution, too broken to care. One SS guard said “not you” and roughly shoved her out of the door, and into the street. He’d been bribed by her friends and was himself later discovered, and executed.

The B-17 bomber “Ye Olde Pub” made a successful run against the munitions factory in Bremen, but paid a terrible price. The aircraft was savaged by German fighters, great parts of the air frame torn away, a wing severely damaged and part of the tail torn off. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns.

Pilot Charles Brown had been knocked out at one point and came around just in time to avert a fatal dive. Barely able to maintain altitude and well inside of German air space the pilot’s blood ran cold at the sight of that sleek German fighter arriving just off his left wing tip.

The two men were so close they could look into each other’s eyes.

“He’s going to destroy us,” the American said out loud. This was his first mission.  He was sure it was about to be his last.

Franz Stigler needed only one more kill to become an Ace and this one, was going to be easy. Except, peering into the eyes of his adversary Stigler remembered the words of his flight instructor, Hans Roedel. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy” Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

Stigler knew the Nazis would shoot him if he got this close without making the kill and so he signaled “proceed”, and he peeled away.

Charles Brown and Franz Stigler met many years later and became fast friends, and frequent fishing buddies. The pair died only six months apart when Stigler was 92 and Brown, 87.

In their obituaries, each man was mentioned as the other’s “Special Brother”.

Perhaps the best known of many such acts of human kindness began on Christmas eve 1914 and continued through this day and in some sectors, for another two weeks.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year. The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear. The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard singing.  The low sound of a Christmas carol, drifting across no man’s land…Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.

Tommies responded back. Silent Night. They saw lanterns and small fir trees.  Messages were shouted along the trenches.  In some places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs. Alles schläft; einsam wacht, Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

In the wake of the Doolittle raid of 1942, 250,000 Chinese civilians were destroyed by Japanese soldiers in the hunt for the American flyers. Not one was ever betrayed.

So, as we close this Christmas season 2021 and turn to a new year we might remember, that these stories are but a few. Our kind is capable of great savagery but also, great kindness.

What if it’s as simple as that and it’s always been, nothing more than a choice?

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

3 thoughts on “December 28, 1914 A Little Kindness”

  1. It’s good to know that amongst all the terrible things that man does to his fellow man, there are a few who can manage to find that humanity and decency that sets us aside from all others. Thanks goodness for them. Happy New Year Rick to you and your kin.

    Liked by 1 person

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