World War 2 was a terrible time, some of the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen took place both in Europe and Asia. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War 2 by Iris Chan discusses what the Japanese did in Nanking in 1937 during their invasion of China. The Japanese empire did terrible things everywhere it went but the Rape of Nanking is the single most terrible event and is easily comparable with the Nazi death camps in its level of brutality, however in the US what the Nazis did in Europe has gotten much more attention. Every school child sees pictures of the European gas chambers and work camps but few know exactly what happened in Nanking. This is due to a number of causes including the self imposed isolation of the US before we entered the war, the fact that the US didn’t itself fight in China to the extent it fought in Europe, and the Japanese government destroying many records of their war. This book covers what is known and forces you to understand the incredible brutality which took place.
The events leading up to the six week event and then the event itself are difficult to read. The description and images of men being beheaded or bayoneted, the women raped en mass, and the huge piles of bodies stacked like wood are terrible. However, the most damning evidence is not the horrifying events themselves but how systemic, systematic, and normalized they all were. Killing prisoners wasn’t just done, it was made into a game covered by the Japanese papers. Women weren’t just raped since it was “illegal” in the Japanese military to rape women, they were then killed so that no one complained. The book covers a disgustingly large list of atrocities in detail.
A fascinating aspect to the story is the international safety zone. At this time the Japanese were not at war with the allied powers, this was a war between China and Japan only. A handful of foreigners such as Germans and Americans lived in Nanjing lived in the city at the time and decided to set up a small area within the city where the Japanese would know were civilians only. Because the Japanese did not want the war to spread to other powers they nominally respected this area. These handful of people eventually saved more than 200,000 people in the 3 square mile area. Most interesting of these people was the German John Rabe. A committed Nazi Rabe had special power with the Japanese because Germany was their only powerful ally and he used this power to save as many people as he could. There is huge irony in a kind hearted Nazi saving hundreds of thousands of people in China while other Nazis killed millions in Europe and I hadn’t ever read that story before.
I think the most compelling evidence of the scope of the massacre is in the numbers. Before the six week event approximately 600,000 people were in the city, 200,000 of which survived in the Safety Zone. Of the rest at least 300,000 were murdered, meaning that a majority of the rest of the people in the city were killed. Half of the homes in the city were intentionally burned and 3/4 of the businesses. The city was absolutely devastated, imagining more than half a huge cities population being killed (aside from the rapes and property destruction) is incomprehensible to me.