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Bernhard Sindberg The Schindler of Nanjing, written by Peter Harmsen

Reviewer : Kenichi ARA Councelor iRICH

Book : Bernhard Sindberg The Schindler of Nanjing, written by Peter Harmsen (Casemate Publishers, 2024)


This book is a biography of Bernhard Sindberg, a Dane, who was living in Shanghai when the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. As the war front expanded toward Nanjing, the Danish company he was working for, fearing potential damages if the war reached its cement factory then under construction in the suburbs of Nanjing, sent Bernhard Sindberg to the factory early in December and placed him in charge of the business until March of the next year.

According to the summary stated on the book’s title page, when the alleged massacre was being committed within the walled city of Nanjing, Sindberg accepted ten thousand refugees near the factory and protected them from the Japanese military oppression. Thus, he is said to have been an Asian counterpart of Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews from the Holocaust.

Sindberg was a little known twenty-six years old young man at that time and there was not much to mention about him. So, this biography covers mostly events that happened at the early stage of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Later, Sindberg was naturalized in the United States and fought in the Pacific War. He died in Los Angeles in 1983.

The author Peter Harmsen studied history at the National Taiwan University. He is fluent in the Chinese language and worked for over twenty years as a correspondent of a news agency in East Asia. During those years, he wrote three books on the early stage of the Second Sino-Japanese War, including Shanghai, 1937, which became a best seller. Along the line of writing, this book was written and published in 2024 by Casemate Publishers in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Reviewer Ara Kenichi was born in 1944 in Miyagi Prefecture. He graduated from Tohoku University. At present, regarding the issue of the Nanjing incident, he is considered the top scholar or among the top scholars in that field. Therefore, this review has gravity. While in high school, Ara read Dai kaigun o omou (Think of the Great Navy) written by Ito Masanori and felt disheartened by the fact that Japan did not possess armed forces. Then, he came to study the history of Showa and Japan after the War. In the process, he became critical of the actions of Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, who excluded former military men when creating the National Police Reserve. His books on military history are Nanjing Incident: 48 Japanese Testimonies (Shogaku-kan, 2002), Reexamination: What Really Happened in Nanjing (Tokuma-shoten, 2007), The Second Sino-Japanese War Was Plotted by Germany—Mystery Ensconced in the Battle of Shanghai and German Military Advisors (Shogaku-kan, 2008), Secret Record: Coup d’etat Plan by Japan Defense Army (Kodan-sha, 2013) and many others.

Book review

What happened in the vicinity of Tsitsashan Temple

The name of Bernhard Sindberg has been known to those who studied the Nanjing Incident. “Document of the Nanking Safety Zone Number 60 Memorandum by Tsitsashan Temple”, submitted to the Tokyo Trials states: “Since the fall of Nanking, refugees have been coming here for shelter and aid, in hundreds daily. As this is written we have already about 20,400 people under the roof of this temple, mostly women and children. ...Beginning from January 4, we will briefly describe the daily outrages: January 4, a truck arrived with Japanese soldiers...” There were 24 and more cases of rape, 3 cases of murder and many cases of looting. “About January 20, a new detachment of troops arrived...The Lieutenant in charge of the new soldiers is a good man. Since his arrival things have been a good deal better.” This memorandum was submitted to the International Committee of the Nanjing Safety Zone by Bernhard Sindberg.

Although “Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone Number 60 Memorandum” was not read aloud in the court, when Reverend Magee took the stand, he stated that when he went to the cement factory at Tsitsashan in February 1938, a village master told him that there were 10,000 refugees in the factory and Japanese soldiers came there to demand women and when refused, they resorted to violence. Besides, the Dane told him that a man headed for the walled city of Nanking but was found killed in the city.

In the early 1990s, a record of Reverend Magee’s visit to Tsitsashan was revealed. According to the record, around February, the number of refugees at the temple of Tsitsashan was reduced to 1,000, but instead, refugees at the cement factory increased to 10,000 and Sindberg took care of them. According to Sindberg and the villagers in the area, 700 to 800 civilians were killed, and uncountable women were raped, but the invaders were still asking for more women and some people were killed.

“Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone” and the Japanese military movements

First point to mention is that “Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone” was a record of propaganda operations conducted by missionaries in Nanjing at that time and thus it cannot be considered a factual record. Besides, if we examine the Japanese military movements at that time, Magee’s statement and the record of the visit to Tsitsashan contradict the established facts.

Nanjing fell on December 13, and the troops that had advanced to Nanjing were ordered to move to a new deployment on the 20th. It was decided that the 16th Division would guard Nanjing and other divisions would move to Suzhou and Wuhu and elsewhere and they began to move around the 24th. The main part of the 16th Division was positioned within the walled city of Nanjing to guard it and other parts were stationed at Molingguan, Xiaohuamen, Tangshuizhen, Tsitsanshan, Xintang and Danyang in the suburbs of Nanjing.

Tsitsashan is located 25 kilometers northeast of Nanjing City. Leaving Nanjing City in the morning, you will arrive at Tsitsashan by the evening. Along the railroad connecting Nanjing and Shanghai, there is Tsitsashan station and around the station are located the Tsitsashan Temple and a large cement factory.

In the suburbs where the 16th Division was deployed, at first, the Chinese Army had been positioned to defend Nanjing. Then, the Japanese Army heading for Nanjing advanced with air attacks and the Chinese Army was defeated and ran away. The Japanese Army advanced through the area to Nanjing City and the area became the rear zone.

The 16th Division fought in North China in September 1937, then moved to Central China and Nanjing and guarded Nanjing. In the suburbs, guarding and training were the main tasks. While officers were busy making detailed battle reports and keeping a staff diary, soldiers could afford to relax and rest leisurely.  

There was not enough food until the fall of Nanjing, but after the fall, the transport corps arrived and by late December, food began to arrive via the Yangtze River. The New Year’s Days nearing, mochi rice, kazunoko (herring roes), kachiguri (dried chestnut) and canned sea bream arrived and “mochitsuki” (making mochi event) was held here and there. Though some troops were kept engaged, the railroad between Shanghai and Nanjing was restored and things were peaceful and quiet in general.

Troops deployed at the cement factory were the 1st Company and 1st Machine Gun Squad of the 1st Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment of Nara. There is a record of an interview of Corporal Okazaki Shigeru by Mr. Higashinakano Shudo (The Front Line of Nanjing Incident Study, combined 2005-2006 edition, Tenden-sha, 2005). Okazaki Shigeru was the chief of the Light Machine Gun Squad and supposedly had led a platoon, had a good command of soldiers’ actions and fully understood how soldiers lived at the cement factory.

According to the interview, there was no civilian house around the factory. Barbed-wire fences were put around the factory and there was no free entrance or exit. Food was enough and all that soldiers did was to take care of the weapons. The soldiers were fed up with boredom, having nothing to do. Card games became very popular and a soldier deeply in debt from losing attempted to run away. Except this incident, nothing out of order or discipline occurred. At Tsitsashan Temple, several kilometers away, probably the rest of the 1st Battalion was stationed.

Although the 16th Division was deployed, it was decided to move the troops on January 8. Soldiers were told that they were leaving Nanjing, but no further information was given to them and so, many thought that they were making a triumphant return. On the 13th, an order was issued, and preparation began. It would take several days for the direction to reach everyone, but a farewell party was to be held at the Division Headquarters on the 17th. The Japanese Army spent about twenty days at Tsitsashan and during the last week, all were busy preparing for the departure.

Upon leaving Nanjing, some troops headed for Shanghai on board of a ship and some headed for Shanghai by train. The troops guarding Tangshuizhen marched to Zhenjiang, closer to Shanghai, and then took the train to Shanghai. The troops at Tsitsashan probably took the same route. They left Nanjing between the 20th and the 28th of December. The 16th Division headed again for North China from Shanghai.

These movements of the Japanese Army show that the 16th Division was not at Tsitsashan, contrary to the alleged claim that at Tsitsashan Temple Japanese soldiers kept asking for women even after January 20th and were making the same demands at the cement factory even in February.

Questions about this book’s descriptions   

According to this book, Bernhard Sindberg, The Schindler of Nanjing, there were many refugees at Tsitsashan and refugees took shelter in Tsitsashan Temple, lived in makeshift huts made of straw and bamboo, rarely escaping from snow and cold. Soon, the refugees at Tsitsashan Temple moved to the cement factory.

On January 11, Sindberg wrote in a letter that the factory was a safe place and there were 100 employees and their families. Around the factory, there were 3,000 to 4,000 refugees. Food could be sustained until mid-February.

On January 23, Sindberg took 20 ducks to a member of the International Committee of the Nanking Safety Zone within the walled city. Food was more abundant at the factory than within the city. Although Sindberg had nothing to do with the International Committee of the Nanking Safety Zone, it was only an hour’s ride by car from the cement factory to Nanjing and he frequently travelled between the factory and the walled city. On December 20, Sindberg visited the International Committee of the Nanking Safety Zone for the first time and met Chairman Rabe, Smythe and Rev. Magee.

According to the book, Japanese soldiers never entered Tsitsashan Temple. A paper notice was posted on the cement factory and when Japanese soldiers came to the factory for women, the factory showed the Danish national flag, and the Japanese soldiers went away. Sindberg never actually saw civilians murdered. The book’s descriptions are far from the evidential materials submitted to the Tokyo Trials.

Incidents mentioned as atrocities committed by the Japanese Army did not exist at all in the first place or they were committed by defeated Chinese soldiers or outlaws. As “Documents of the Safety Zone” which allegedly recorded what took place within the walled city turned out to be records of imaginary events, “Documents of the Nanjing Safety Zone Number 60 Memorandum” and the record of Magee’s visit to the area would have been of the same nature.

What did Peter Harmsen intend to write?

What did Peter Harmsen intend to write? Did he intend to write about Japan’s atrocities and illegal acts?

However, he did not even think of referring to the Japanese Army’s sources to verify whether the Japanese Army was actually at that spot at the time. He just copied the records of the Tokyo Trials and the missionaries and attributed the damages at the factory solely to the Japanese Army.

Did he intend to write how cruel and miserable the battlegrounds were? There were refugees in the region due to the military operations on both sides. Here again, Peter Harmsen attributed it all to the Japanese Army, paying no attention to the Chinese Army at all. Sindberg reportedly rescued refugees, but when it comes to the true situation of rescuing them, they were rescued not from the Japanese Army but from the defeated Chinese soldiers and Chinese outlaws.

Did he try to write about Sindberg’s gallantry?

Sindberg left for China at the age of 23. On the way, aboard the ship, he hit the boatswain and tried to stab another crew member with a knife, and had to be confined. Three years later, he was assigned as a manager of the cement factory. On his way to the factory, he was admonished to follow the Japanese Army’s orders. At the factory, he threatened people around him with a pistol. He was forced to resign from his managerial post in March 1938. He was a violent person rather than a brave man.

Why was he compared to Schindler?

The subtitle of the book reads The Schindler of Nanjing.

Schindler ran a munition factory in Germany and employed Jewish workers. He sympathized with the Jewish people and was on good terms with the officer of the concentration camp. He saved the lives of 1,200 Jews in the camp on the pretext of raising the norm.

Bernhard Sindberg: The Schindler of Nanjing describes how the German national flag that brought millions of deaths was used to save lives in Nanjing. He compares refugees in Nanjing to rescuing Jews in Germany.

In Europe, there has been a history of anti-Semitism. During World War II, Germany persecuted Jews. While there was anti-Semitism in Europe, there was Pan-Asianism in East Asia. It aimed to cope with Europe and America through Japan-China cooperation. The Second Sino-Japanese War broke out and Japan and China fought against each other. However, Japan did not try to annihilate the Chinese people nor to oppress Europe and America.

Schindler was the kind of person who tried to forge report cards. He operated as a spy in Czechoslovakia and made a lot of money and expanded his factory through black market trading. I cannot help but think that Sindberg is compared to Schindler based on such human characteristics they had in common.

There was another person who was also compared to Schindler in the past. When the diary of the German John Rabe was published, Rabe was compared to Schindler for having saved Nanjing citizens.

Rabe was engaged in trade in Nanjing and after Nanjing fell, he worked to rescue citizens. However, civilians were not killed in Nanjing, so Rabe did not protect citizens from killing. Rabe’s actions were directed against Japan and only helped delay the restoration of Nanjing. There was no comparison to Schindler.


Why, then, has such a book been published now?

The book Bernhard Sindberg: The Schindler of Nanjing bears nothing new, from the aspect of historical sources and materials, only citing sources from the war trials conducted to exact revenge, with nothing added in terms of new evidence. I dare to say that since Japan has not at all been eager to correct the history records and disseminate the truth, there has been a global trend to make it permissible to write anything about Japan, even if it is not based on facts. The publication of this book reflects that trend.