The High Country

The Rape of Nanking

Rape of Nanking
Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II
(Basic Books 1997).

It was Chang's great accomplishment that she made a verbal history as shocking as the photographs. She concludes that upwards of 300,000 people were murdered in Nanking after the Japanese army occupied it in December 1937 -- a figure nearly as high as those that were touted at the time, but that have been regularly modified downward. (The Tokyo War Crimes Trials put the number at 260,000, but when I used that figure in Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, the "peer review" scholars who read the manuscript objected that it was far too high, so I settled on "more than 100,000." Now it appears that the tribunal's figure was, if anything, too modest.)

Chang was 29 when the book was published, which may explain her notion that nobody remembered the Rape of Nanking. In fact, it had its own entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. That her generation is a bit vague on World War II is only to be expected, but Nanking is hardly forgotten by mine. And I wish she or her publishers had resisted the temptation to call it a Holocaust. To my mind, there is only one Holocaust: Nazi Germany's systematic annihilation of 6 million Jews. What happened at Nanking was the single greatest massacre of World War II, and perhaps of all time. (It was also one of the greatest rapes of a captive female population, many of whom were butchered into the bargain.) As an American doctor wrote in his diary:

"December 18 [1937]: Today marks the 6th day of modern Dante's Inferno, written in huge letters with blood and rape. Murder by the wholesale and rape by the thousands of cases. There seems to be no stop to the ferocity, lust and [sadism?] of the brutes. At first I tried to be pleasant to them to avoid arousing their ire, but the smile has gradually worn off and my stare is fully as cool and fishy as theirs."

One of the great ironies of the Rape of Nanking is that a small number of Americans and Europeans created a "safety zone" and thereby saved the lives of thousands of Chinese -- and that a leader among them was John Rabe, not only German but the head of the Nazi party in Nanking. Chang called him the Oskar Schindler of China, and his diaries and other documents provided much of her material. (Here too Chang betrayed her youth: she tried to compound the irony by noting that Germany and Japan were allies. But they weren't, not in the winter of 1937-38.)

But why did the Japanese rape, torture, and murder half the population of a city -- often as sport? (A decapitation contest between two officers was reported in the Japanese press like a soccer match, with the headline: "Mukai 106, Noda 105.") After all, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, this same Imperial Army apparently treated prisoners as well or better than most victorious armies.

Chang quoted scholars who spoke of "the transfer of oppression," meaning that those who are treated with brutality will in turn brutalize those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. (There is certainly something to this: American prisoners often recall that they were most badly treated by Korean guards -- men who were for all practical purposes slaves of the Japanese army. So the Japanese noncoms beat and kicked the common soldiers, who beat and kicked the Korean guards, who beat and kicked the prisoners.) Second, there was the racial contempt felt by the Japanese toward the Chinese, who were regarded as not only subhuman but literally of less worth than an animal, which at least was edible. Thirdly, there was religion, or more accurately an Emperor system in which Hirohito was not only a god, but on a higher plane than God himself. The religious aspect imbued Japanese aggression in China with a ferocity like that of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition -- and, though she didn't say so, like that of the Holocaust, for the Germans were also doing God's work in annihilating the Jews.

But all of these explanations fail. Chang concluded: "There are several important lessons to be learned from Nanking, and one is that civilization itself is tissue-thin. There are those who believe that the Japanese are uniquely sinister -- a dangerous race of people who will never change. But after reading several file cabinets' worth of documents on Japanese war crimes as well as accounts of ancient atrocities from the pantheon of world history, I would have to conclude that Japan's behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise. The Rape of Nanking should be perceived as a cautionary tale -- an illustration of how easily human beings can be encouraged to allow their teenagers to be molded into efficient killing machines able to suppress their better natures."

As you might expect, Japanese reaction to Chang's book has been critical, to say the least. Among those who've joined the argument is Ikuhiko Hata, a respected historian whose work on the Japanese Army Air Force I used in writing Flying Tigers. He finds some errors (mostly trivial, it seems to me) in Chang's book. More to the point, he tries to show that her massacre figures are no more soundly based than those published elsewhere -- that the true figure may be "only" 50,000. He also tracked down earlier copies of some of the photos used in her book and attempted to show that they were actually Chinese in origin or, if Japanese, then benign.

A book to read, and read again. (Later: to which a friend of mine added: "only if your stomach and heart can take it.") Chang suffered a breakdown in 2004 while working on a book about the Bataan Death March. She was hospitalized for depression, believed that she was being stalked by "the CIA or some other organization," and on November 9 that year killed herself with a revolver.

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