Between December 1937 and January 1938, the Japanese Imperial Army seized the Chinese city of Nanking (now Nanjing) and in a period of only six weeks carried out one of the most brutal massacres in the history of war. It is estimated that the number of Chinese killed in this massacre could have been more than 300,000. The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang was published in 1997. Her grandparents had escaped from Nanking just before the Japanese invaded and Chang had travelled to China to interview those still alive who had survived the massacre. The book tells of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during those six weeks and it is harrowing and deeply distressing.
‘The Rape of Nanking tells the story from three perspectives: that of the Japanese soldiers who performed it; of the Chinese civilians who endured it; and finally of a group of Europeans and Americans who refused to abandon the city and were able to create a safety zone that saved almost 300,000 Chinese. It was Iris Chang who discovered the diaries of the German leader of this rescue effort, John Rabe, whom she calls the “Oskar Schindler of China.” A loyal supporter of Adolf Hitler, but far from the terror planned in his Nazi-controlled homeland, he worked tirelessly to save the innocent from slaughter.’
I listened to the Blackstone audiobook narrated by Anna Fields. I liked her method of narrating – dispassionate, a bit like a news report in some ways, but despite that, I had to stop listening from time to time to cry as the story was just so overwhelmingly sad. The inhumanity of the Japanese invaders was appalling. Not once was there a glimpse of compassion for their victims. The Japanese soldiers didn’t consider the Chinese to be human. They were culturally conditioned by their military training to call them pigs and to treat them like animals for the slaughter; the youngest baby or the frailest elderly person was shown no mercy.
John Rabe was among a group of Europeans and Americans who refused to leave Nanking when the Japanese invaded. There were plenty of eyewitnesses to the events, but although photographs and footage of the atrocities were smuggled out of China, the massacre was, and continues to be, denied by the Japanese government.
I looked through the WWII history books I have and only one of them even mentioned the Japanese in Nanking, but there was no mention of a massacre. It has been called the ‘Asian holocaust,’ but unlike the repatriation made by the German government, this episode was basically forgotten and there has been no formal apology from the Japanese.
Iris Chang’s research uncovered the reasons why even China had gone quiet on the massacre. It was all about politics and involved the Chinese Communist Party, the Japanese and the Americans. Even human experimentation by the Japanese was covered up by all parties – this post at Classics Considered goes into that.
‘When it became certain that Japan would have to surrender, extraordinary efforts were made to protect those responsible for Japan’s atrocities, including Emperor Hirohito, by destroying incriminating evidence.’
A holocaust forgotten is to kill twice – Elie Wiesel
Iris Chang found that the the Americans and Europeans who stayed in Nanking to help the Chinese civilians had faced tragedies of their own after leaving China.
John Rabe and his wife were destitute upon returning to Germany and nearly starved to death. When the people of Nanking heard news of him they collected money to send to him and his wife. An American doctor almost worked himself to death treating the Chinese who managed to survive their attackers. He never got over the scenes he lived through. Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary, was so traumatised that she tried to commit suicide on the journey home. She eventually succeeded when she returned to the USA.
I wanted to find out more about Iris Chang and read that she had committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 36 years.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Some Further Information (* some of these contain images of the massacre *)
A Town Like Alice – an Australian novel set partly in south-east Asia during the Japanese occupation.