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More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound
New details about the Second World War's "forgotten Holocaust"
by Jack Beatty
November 19, 1997
Years before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor they had started a war against their neighbors in Asia. Manchuria was their first victim; China was next. By the summer of 1937 the Japanese army had the forces of Nationalist China on the run. That year, after the Japanese captured Shanghai (an operation that took longer and cost more lives than anticipated), they turned inland to attack China's capital, the ancient city of Nanking. A Chinese army defended Nanking, but early in the Japanese attack Chiang Kai-shek, China's leader, ordered his army to retreat. Nanking, a city of more than a million, lay open to the Japanese. What they did there is the subject of a gripping new book, The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, a twenty-nine-year-old Chinese-American who provides the documentation to justify her subtitle: "The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II." Her narrative is an important contribution to the literature of atrocity during the Second World War.
The Japanese army entered the gates of Nanking on December 13, searching door-to-door for soldiers in hiding and killing any civilians who got in their way. In a barbarous frenzy the Japanese used Chinese civilians as targets for bayonet practice, machine-gunned some 14,000 soldiers that they had taken prisoner, burned many alive by dousing them with gasoline and then shooting them, igniting them into human torches, and beheaded men and boys in waves of carnage that lasted for days (each group had to throw the bodies of the group before into the river). The Japanese broke into apartments and homes, killing everybody except young girls, whom they carried off to unspeakable service in their brothels. Even pregnant women were thrown down on the pavement and raped by whole military units; afterwards, many killed themselves. "The Japanese drew sadistic pleasure," Chang notes, "in forcing ... fathers to rape their own daughters, brothers their sisters, sons their mothers."
An American missionary estimated that there were 1,000 rapes every night. A British national in Nanking gave this account:
On the night of December 15 a number of Japanese soldiers entered the University of Nanking buildings at Tao Yuen and raped 30 women on the spot, some by six men.... At 4 P.M. on December 16 Japanese soldiers entered the residence at 11 Mokan Road and raped the women there. On December 17 Japanese soldiers went into Lo Kia Lu No. 5, raped four women.... On December 17 near Judicial Yuan a young girl after being raped was stabbed by a bayonet in the abdomen.... From the primary school at Wu Tai Shan many women were taken away and raped for the whole night and released the next morning, December 17.Chang takes great care to establish an accurate accounting of the dimensions of what is known as the Rape of Nanking. She estimates that 80,000 women and young girls were raped, most in the first six weeks of the occupation, and "most were killed immediately after rape." The total she gives for people killed is 350,000; of these nearly 150,000 died "individually" by the sword -- beheaded, stabbed, mutilated, cut into pieces and fed to dogs. And Nanking was not an aberration; it was merely a grotesque concentration of atrocity in a war against the Chinese people that took an estimated 19 million lives.
Chang includes a heartening chapter on the heroics of the handful of Europeans and Americans left in Nanking, who set up a two and a half square-mile safety zone for as many Chinese as could squeeze into it. "If half of the population [that remained in] Nanking fled into the Safety Zone during the worst of the massacre," Chang writes, "then the other half -- almost everybody who didn't make it to the zone -- probably died at the hands of the Japanese." The leader of these Westerners, John Rabe, would drive across the city pulling soldiers off women and stopping casual massacres. Ironically, he was the head of the Nazi Party in Nanking, and when he returned to Germany he wrote Hitler beseeching him to intercede with the Japanese. He never got a reply. His 2000-page diary, newly discovered by Chang, provides the fullest account extant of the Rape. After the war, he was "de-nazified" -- pardoned, in effect -- by the Allies for his humanitarianism.
You would think that the Japanese government would have long since apologized for the Rape and paid compensation to its survivors. Wrong. To this day, as Chang shows in a concluding chapter, most Japanese history textbooks either say nothing of the Rape of Nanking, or they whitewash it unrecognizably. "Sad to say," she writes, "the world is still acting as a passive spectator to the second Japanese rape -- the refusal of the Japanese to apologize for or even acknowledge their crimes in Nanking."
How could men have done such things? Chang wrestles with that question, aware of its contemporary applicability to Bosnia, Rwanda, Algeria, and elsewhere. Japanese racism toward the Chinese, whom the Japanese regarded as "sub-human," played a large part. "Perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman," one former Japanese soldier said in an interview for a documentary, "but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig."
Evil, made routine, becomes contagious. It's tempting to ascribe the horrors of Nanking to the Japanese national character at that time, but the ubiquity of mass murder across this planet argues that blame should instead be placed on the human character. To use a distinction Karl Jaspers made about German war guilt, Nanking showed the human essence in the Japanese form. We didn't all do it -- but the bloody annals of this century suggest that we could have.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.