The Horror

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

Into this scene of incomprehensible bedlam the first Japanese troops marched on December 13. After a decade of civil disorder and Nationalist marauding, and after weeks of savage bombardment by Japanese warplanes, as well as mutinous rioting and bareknuckled intimidation by their own soldiers, the city's Chinese inhabitants were so traumatized that many of them welcomed the Japanese army as a disciplined military force that might at least impose a semblance of order on the chaotic hell of bleeding, burning Nanjing. That expectation the Japanese abruptly and cruelly demolished.

The Japanese occupiers immediately began combing the city for the abandoned Chinese soldiers who had gone to ground. The procedure was certainly allowable under recognized rules of war, but Matsui's troops carried it out with wanton ferocity. They rounded up all young men of military age and proceeded to kill them in wholesale machine-gunnings and serial decapitations, sometimes in full view of horrified onlookers. Worse soon followed. Roaming bands of Japanese troops began murdering civilians at random, indiscriminately assailing the young and the old, men, women, children, and unborn fetuses alike, with bludgeon, bayonet, rifle, torch, and sword. Matsui's soldiers used both living and dead Chinese for bayonet practice. They mutilated, tortured, and maimed countless victims. According to Chang's account, they hanged people by their tongues and marinated them in acid, dismembered them, grenaded them, impaled them and burned them and flayed them and froze them and buried them alive. They also raped countless women, bestowing upon this unholy episode the name by which it has forever after been known and which furnishes Chang's title: the Rape of Nanking.

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?

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