When we look for villains in history, World War II provides a comfortingly easy dichotomy. But as terrible as the Axis leaders were, the individual footman in every army was just a human being—frightened, thrown into war, and doing his best to survive. For all the horror, a few men stepped across military lines and saved the lives of enemy soldiers in need.
Before the war began, China hired German soldiers to train their men. When Japan invaded in 1937, some of those German instructors were stuck inside China.
Without orders from Hitler, the men agreed that “there could be no question of leaving our Chinese friends to their fate.” The German-trained 88th Division mobilized to protect China. They went out to the front lines at every opportunity and fought fiercely against Japanese troops.
When the Japanese reached Nanjing, the Chinese government ordered the Germans to go home, believing they had no chance of defending it. Even so, some in the 88th Division stayed on, doing their best to save their Chinese friends.
Most of the Germans who fought in Nanjing died in the battle. According to some stories, though, some Germans survived, escaped into the wilderness, and spent the rest of the war fighting alongside Chinese guerillas.
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