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July 17, 2010

Book Review: The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

Good book, with serious caveats. It was probably a bit overpraised when it was first released over a decade ago. But no one had done it before, or as well, at least in English.

Basically, Chinese-American author Iris Chang -- who would later commit suicide and become the topic of another book herself -- details the events of the 1937-1938 capture and occupation of the Chinese city of Nanking (now we say Nanjing) by the invading Japanese. She used both well-known and her own originally retrieved archival and interview sources. She tells a story so horrible that it convincingly makes clear that her “forgotten Holocaust” subtitle may possibly not be an overwrought figure of speech.

The actions of the Japanese forces as a whole, after the city’s fall -- if one grants her numbers (still the subject of fierce debate) and crunches them over a time period -- do amount to a sadistic massive extermination campaign in which the term Rape was also anything but a metaphor. Perhaps 50% or more of captives were killed, totaling in the 200,000 to 400,000 range in a matter of weeks (figures may be less, depending on estimate-bases and, of course, biases and methods).

Tens of thousands of Chinese civilians do appear to have been raped, often gang-raped then murdered. Torments and cruelties were inflicted that included beheading contests and impalements. The mass scale and savagery are beyond debate, whatever the precise numbers.

There were even actions which resembled the “selections” seen in later Nazi concentration camps (though I don’t think Chang points that out explicitly). These selections were often of women and even children for sexual violation and torture. The presence of reporters, and even unashamed pictures taken by some Japanese soldiers, allow for a grisly photographic display in the book of some of the effects of these actions.

Japanese reporters were also there and many were appalled. Initial stories of the post-victory slaughter were actually carried somewhat favorably in Japanese newspapers until international opinion became aroused.

The Nanking post-capture actions were key events feeding anti-Japanese sentiment leading up to the global war a few years later.

One can gripe about a lot in the book. A pompous-ass-ish pedantic but thorough critique at this site notes some actual or probable errors of detail and substance worth considering. Some of Chang’s own arguments in the book definitely do seem partly unjustified. For example, she complains about the absence of detailed accounts or even of mentions of the Rape of Nanking event inside many World War II history books, forgetting the point she makes earlier herself that the event took place two years before that war officially began.

Another problematic area is her chronic denunciation of an alleged collective amnesia among the Japanese about the Nanking atrocities at the time of her research and writing, the mid 1990s. But her complaint is somewhat undone by her own book. It reports that Japanese public figures who have attempted to mitigate or deny the Nanking horrors and Japan’s World War II record have been disowned from within Japan.

Reading her account one would think that modern Japan has never demilitarized and never addressed the war crimes issue. Yet Japan has actually become today, and was becoming even as Chang was preparing her work, something of a semi-pacifist polity, with public and official remorse about actions of the time.

Related to that is her analysis of the Nanking atrocities’ causation. It is a comprehensive discussion but maybe with misemphasis. I think she brings out all the necessary facts one way or another. But in emphasizing the militarism in Japanese society she tends to highlight things that are not specifically Japanese but universal to all armed forces training or to traditional societies anywhere, such as the general militarization and state-worship in youth organizations since the time of the Boy Scouts.

(Also, her history of modern Japan seems not especially penetrating or useful, and may overemphasize the effects of Commodore Perry’s visit.)

The most likely causes of the massacre -- long-term ones being anti-Chinese racism enhanced by the Japanese emperor-worship’s devaluation of the individual alongside the elevation of the Japanese above others, medium-term ones being desires to punish recent Chinese resistance and the general wartime acceptance of cruelty, and short-term ones being command level orders and take-no-prisoners logistics -- do not get enough systematic analysis.

Still, by citing the sadism and bigotry and information-control of warfare, she does address effectively enough factors to cover atrocity causation in a general way.

But I would have emphasized one factor that is very significant and controllable, however: the order-giving factor, or specific command responsibility. Troops certainly do run amok in war in general. After all, organized community-approved human slaughter is what war is all about. So there is always a risk of such horrors happening.

But the book does provide enough information to show that the slaughter and rape practices, along with other mass atrocities in and around Nanking, were essentially ordered,r encouraged, indulged more or less explicitly and consciously from above, and responsibility lay heavily right there.

Military commands can and do inhibit or prevent such excesses if they want to. But they also can incite and encourage them, even through simple failure to stop them. The commanders are usually decisive in determining sustained behavior.

In the particular case of Nanking in 1937, Chang provides good evidence that the orders for killing Chinese military prisoners – the first stage of the killing -- came from an uncle of the emperor, or his staff. She cites evidence that it happened despite the probable opposition of the ailing Japanese area commander, General Matsui, and also in violation of the prevailing official codes of conduct of the Japanese Imperial forces (although some outside research more powerfully argues that the Emperor himself had cancelled international law-based protections for prisoners in a secret order not much earlier.)

The overall high command was in fact so much behind the atrocity campaign that it appears one leading general personally engaged in a series of rapes of Chinese women.

Chang does not miss the irony of the fact that what heroic life-saving and personal protection did go on in Nanking during the post-victory atrocities was led by a card-and-swastika-carrying Nazi. The German Nazi party leader in Nanking, China, John Rabe, a long-term overseas employee of Siemens, had organized an international safety zone, originally with foreign nationals in mind and more out of fear of the Chinese troops getting out of hand. This effort, which ultimately extended to Chinese civilians and some soldiers, may have saved hundreds of thousands.

Americans, not then at war with Japan, played a significant role in humanitarian care and protection, as well as publicizing the facts of the slaughters and related atrocities. The fact that the slaughter and rape and torture of Chinese were official acts also comes through in the fact that the Japanese troops only gingerly or intermittently (with significant exceptions) violated or mistreated the internationals.

Japan’s purported war justification was thus at its most hollow and ironic. Theoretically, they were taking over Asia to protect Asians from Europeans, but instead they were tiptoeing around Europeans to slaughter Asians.

Chang did a fine job of tracing the fate of John Rabe, the Nazi savior of Nanking. He later wrote a full report back in Germany to Hitler, and even spoke publicly there about the Japanese atrocities. Then, suddenly enough, he Gestapo arrested him and ordered him to be silent.

Chang speculates on whether Hitler himself saw the report which was later actually returned to Rabe. It makes one wonder whether, if Hitler indeed saw it, it served as a do’s and don’t’s guide to his own genocides to come. Chang doesn’t speculate but perhaps she should have.

In any event, Rabe, whose family claimed he never really embraced the nastier aspects of Naziism, merely liking the socialistic anti-class system part, suffered the hardships of de-nazification after World War II. Unemployable and near starvation, he eventually made his fate known to the people of Nanking who responded, as Chang notes, like the townspeople in It’s a Wonderful Life, rallying money and food shipments so that he could have a safe older age. He died a few years later.

Some of Chang’s points, in particular her assertion that the Cold War engendered intentional forgetfulness about the crime in the postwar period in order to integrate Japan into the anticommunist world, are probably true to varying extents. And Communist China sought trade relations with Japan at the cost of dropping the past. At least until recently.

She may, however, overstate her point that Japan was never called to task in the way Germany was. There were trials and we know details of the event from the public trials of those executed for their crimes. But it is apparently true as she alleges that Japan, unlike Germany, did not pay out cash reparations. A poignant episode is her tracking down an aging poor traumatized survivor of the Rape living in a hovel-like existence in Communist China. For that person then, even $100 would have made a qualitative difference in life. (There is room here for some creative litigation or agitation, if it hasn’t happened already.)

I suspect that the Rape of Nanking registers less in the West than the crimes of Germany is partly because it happened before the global war, partly because it happened on a smaller scale than Nazi Germany’s genocides, partly because it was further away geographically, and frankly greatly because our habitual prejudices tend to make us care less about Asians on a human level than we do about Europeans.

Another factor is that Imperial Japan did have the civilians of its own cities massively incinerated (and not just by atomic weapons) and thus their cities did suffer a rather drastic climactic punitive pummeling and slaughter in a way that Germany did not. The temptation to equate the killing of Japanese civilians in the nuclear blasts with the events of Nanking 1937 might arise, but what makes the Nanking experience more visceral is that it involved face-to-face prolonged sadism, with little or no ostensible military purpose.

Chang’s book’s structural organization is interesting but it leads to some problems. We first follow the Japanese forces up to and through the slaughter and then afterwards through to the regretful testimony of some veterans (one of whom is a doctor) in more recent times. More than one speaks about how frankly they enjoyed what they had been doing at the time. Then we follow the Chinese side, and finally the Westerners and the international safe zone.

Not wholly bad in theory, as design, but it leads to some narrative confusion and repetition.

One rather shallowly annoying feature of the book is the cover. The title word “Rape” is far more prominent than the word "Nanking" and other words and illustrations. So if one reads Chang’s book in public places, one has to wander about carrying a something that from a distance simply boldly announces the word “RAPE”.

Nevertheless, because of its generally accurate, thoughtful, and well-told comprehensive treatment of one of the 20th century’s great but lesser known horrors, Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II ” remains a very worthy book to consider, if not necessarily The Final Word, if that even can be.

Posted by Matthew Hogan at July 17, 2010 09:23 PM
Filed Under: Egghead Stuff , Random Personal , World War 2


Thanks for this review. A Chinese filmmaker made a film about Nanjing that I saw at TIFF, it renewed my interest in following up with this massacre... Any other English language books to recommend on this topic?

Posted by: Guybrush Threepwood at February 16, 2011 01:06 PM

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