The Horror

Should the Japanese atrocities in Nanking be equated with the Nazi Holocaust?

READERS fascinated by the sanguine and the macabre will not be disappointed by this book. Chang describes many incidents of unshirted mayhem in excruciating detail, and supplements her written account with a gallery of photographs whose grotesqueness no mere vocabulary can match. By any measure the Rape of Nanking was a catastrophic horror—and Chang gives us several measures, including an estimate of the height to which the stacked bodies of the Chinese victims would reach, and even a calculation of the weight of the blood spilled during the Japanese rampage.

But if a penchant for the sensational, along with a certain credulousness, occasionally colors Chang's recounting of some of those incidents, there can be no doubt that the evidence amounts to a crushing indictment of the Japanese army's behavior. The Rape of Nanking stands out in the long and sorry annals of warfare and its crimes as an exceptionally heinous monstrosity. Even the Japanese Foreign Minister, Hirota Koki, reported after an inspection trip in January of 1938 that the "Japanese Army behaved . . . in [a] fashion reminiscent [of] Attila [and] his Huns. [Not] less than three hundred thousand Chinese civilians slaughtered, many cases [in] cold blood."

Brutality intruded even into the ironically named Safety Zone, a section of the city where thousands of refugees took shelter under the precarious protection of a hastily organized "International Committee" composed of some two dozen foreign nationals resident in Nanjing. The committee repeatedly protested to Japanese officials about the bacchanalia of violence, and set out to document formally what its members somewhat delicately called "cases of disorder." It published its sober, legalistic record of the Rape of Nanking in 1939, listing 425 such cases. To that testimony Chang has added reports of additional incidents, some taken from the records of the postwar Tokyo War Crimes Trials, some from papers later deposited in the library of the Yale Divinity School by the handful of American missionaries marooned in Nanjing in 1937, and some from an extraordinary document that Chang herself first brought to light—the diary of the chairman of the International Committee for the Safety Zone, John H.D. Rabe.

Rabe was by any account a remarkable figure, and an unlikely hero. "Why the devil did you stay?" a puzzled Japanese officer asked him in the midst of the pandemonium engulfing Nanjing. "What does all this matter to you?" "My kids and grandchildren were born here, and I am happy and successful here," Rabe replied, adding, "I have always been treated well by the Chinese people." Rabe was a German businessman, born in Hamburg in 1882. He had lived in China since 1908, working mostly for the Siemens Company. He had learned the Chinese language, had grown to love the country, and was extremely solicitous toward his Chinese employees. He was also a Nazi. Along with a few other foreigners who worked under his guidance, Rabe shielded numberless Chinese from the Japanese juggernaut, sometimes thrusting his swastika armband at Japanese soldiers and flashing his Nazi decoration as a way to assert his authority. Not without reason, Chang calls him "the Oskar Schindler of China."

BUT if this improbable tale reminds us of the enigmas of good and evil and the infinite mysteries of the human personality, Chang does not bring an analogous sense of complexity to her effort to explain why the Rape of Nanking happened at all. How did military discipline first degenerate into disorder and then slide into such stupefying depravity? Were Japanese actions the result of deliberate high-level policy decisions to terrorize the Chinese? Did the Imperial Japanese Army's atrocities flow from some moral defect in the Japanese national character? From willful military indoctrination that cultivated race hatred toward the Chinese? From the bent minds of crazed local commanders? From wholesale insubordination by an ill-educated and hard-used soldiery? Or did the whole history and atmosphere of the Yangtze—especially the bloody 1937 campaign from Shanghai up the valley, which culminated in the nightmarish condition of Nanjing on December 13—somehow unbridle the demons in men's souls?

Chang explores some of these possible explanations, but pursues none of them rigorously. She is clearly tempted to argue that the Rape of Nanking resulted from formal political decisions taken at the highest levels, an argument whose virtually lone proponent is the historian David Bergamini, whom Chang repeatedly cites. In a decidedly eccentric book, Japan's Imperial Conspiracy (1971), Bergamini tried to lay the blame for Nanjing and much else squarely at the feet of Emperor Hirohito. Chang is obliged to concede that "unfortunately, Bergamini's book was seriously criticized by reputable historians." That's putting it mildly. One reviewer observed that Bergamini was "believable only by violating every canon of acceptable documentation." The historian Barbara Tuchman said that Bergamini's thesis "appears to be almost entirely a product of the author's inference and of his predilection for the sinister explanation." Yet Chang cannot resist concluding that at the very least "Hirohito must have known about the Rape of Nanking"—far from causing it to happen, but an assertion that represents the unmistakable if meager residue of Chang's infatuation with Bergamini's long-discredited thesis.

Elsewhere Chang serves notice that "this book is not intended as a commentary on the Japanese character," but then immediately plunges into an exploration of the thousand-year-deep roots of the "Japanese identity"--a bloody business, in her estimation, replete with martial competitions, samurai ethics, and the fearsome warriors' code of bushido, the clear inference being, despite the disclaimer, that "the path to Nanking" runs through the very marrow of Japanese culture.

In the final accounting, this book does a much better job of describing the horrors of Nanjing than of explaining them. Part of that deficiency is owing to Chang's sources. With but a handful of exceptions, Chang tells her tale from the point of view of the Chinese victims in Nanjing or the Caucasian witnesses in the Safety Zone. Her evidence offers little basis for any insight into the mentality of the perpetrators. Her focus on the events in and around Nanjing, which two students of the Imperial Japanese Army describe as "only one tidemark left by a sea of atrocities inflicted by the Imperial Army on the Chinese," also compromises her effort to find a comprehensive explanation for Japanese behavior. She offers little that is comparable to the carefully nuanced analysis of the motives behind Nazi brutality that one finds in works like Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men (1992) and Omer Bartov's The Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (1985), or even to the sustained argument found in Daniel Goldhagen's one-dimensional but provocative Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), which in effect indicted the entire German nation for the crime of the Holocaust. Thus despite Chang's shocking description of the events in Nanjing, she gives the reader little reason to conclude that what happened there should be compared to the systematic killing of the Holocaust, an episode that was surely the loathsome spawn of Hitler's purposeful policy—not an incident of war or the mere excrescence of individual cruelty or the result of a poorly disciplined army run amok. The Holocaust entailed a methodical application of all the apparatus of the modern bureaucratic state and all the most advanced technologies of killing to the cold-blooded business of mass murder.

ACCUSATION and outrage, rather than analysis and understanding, are this book's dominant motifs, and although outrage is a morally necessary response to Nanjing, it is an intellectually insufficient one. To what purpose is Chang's outrage directed? Nothing less than hauling Japan "before the bar of world opinion" and forcing it to acknowledge its war crimes. She assails both the Western world's alleged ignorance about the Rape of Nanking and the refusal of several prominent Japanese figures to admit that it even happened. Japan "remains to this day a renegade nation," she writes, having "managed to avoid the moral judgment of the civilized world that the Germans were made to accept for their actions in this nightmare time." Western indifference and Japanese denial, she says, amount to "a second rape," violating the memory of the dead and profaning the claims of history. Why, she asks, is there no equivalent of Schindler's List for Nanjing? How can a Japanese nationalist like Ishihara Shintaro, the author of The Japan That Can Say No, get away with calling the Rape of Nanking "a lie.... made up by the Chinese"? Chang concludes,

At a minimum, the Japanese government needs to issue an official apology to the victims, pay reparations to the people whose lives were destroyed in the rampage, and, most important, educate future generations of Japanese citizens about the true facts of the massacre.

Her charges are not so much wrong as exaggerated. Similarly, her demands on present-day Japan are less unwarranted than at least partly redundant.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In