The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

In December 1937 – long before the Second World War began for Americans, Brits, and most Europeans – the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Nanking, the capital of China, and committed one of the most brutal massacres in human history. Within weeks of the invasion, the army had not only looted and burned the defenseless city but systematically raped, tortured, and murdered between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese civilians. (The numbers depend upon whom you consult, of course; the atrocity has largely been denied by the Japanese government and its people.) The German diplomat and Nazi Party member, John Rabe, established a safety zone within the city to protect its inhabitants, and Chang refers to Rabe as the “Oskar Schindler of China” within the text.

Subtitled “The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II”, Chang’s book presents the massacre from the point of view of the Chinese victims, examines the efforts of non-Chinese journalists and diplomats to protect the residents of Nanking, and the explains how she came to discover John Rabe’s diaries and why the Rape of Nanking is unknown outside of China. On the first account, she refuses to mince words listing out the atrocities committed by the Japanese – the competition to behead one hundred between two Japanese military men as championed in the Japanese media, the gutting of pregnant women with bayonets whilst they were still alive, the mass rape of 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese women within a six week period – and explaining how these actions were systematically carried out with the knowledge, if not explicit permission, of the Japanese military and imperial family.

It is difficult not to flinch at the gruesome descriptions, to wonder how these violent actions were hushed up following the Second World War, but Chang explains how the atrocities on the European continent largely overshadowed those committed in the Pacific. As a condition of Japanese surrender to the United States, the Emperor and all his descendants were exempt from prosecution for war crimes. Prince Asaka Yasuhiko was appointed commander of Nanking in December 5 and provided the official sanction for the crimes which took place during and after the Battle of Nanking. As a member of the imperial family, however, he was exempt from prosecution and granted immunity following his interrogation on May 1, 1946.

John Rabe was recalled back to Germany following the Nanking Massacre and attempted to report on the events to higher-ups in the Nazi regime. (It is unclear if Hitler himself read Rabe’s report was read, but it is known that officials closest to him were familiar with its contents.) Following the surrender of Germany, Rabe faded into obscurity and was blacklisted by the new government for his connection to the Nazis. The only reason why he and his family did not starve during this time period was thanks to the efforts of the people of Nanking, who sent money and food products to the man who tried his best to protect them from the Japanese.

The efforts of John Rabe to establish a safety zone within Nanking is the only aspect of this event that I am familiar with thanks in largely part to a Chinese film on Nanking I saw at my college’s foreign film theater. But it is thanks to Chang that his diary was unearthed and now provides a first person account of the massacre and thanks to Chang that these gruesome events were moved from the collective memory of the Chinese to that of the entire world. It is incomprehensible that denial of the Rape of Nanking is tied into Japanese nationalism; similar sentiment amongst the German public would result in public outcry and marginalization. Yet so few people continue to know about these events that I would urge everyone to pick up a copy of this book and educate themselves. I, for one, am glad I stopped saying I’ll get to this one later.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Anna Fields. I ended up listening to portions of the book after I arrived home for the evening because some of the passages were too moving and too raw to listen to at work. As long as you aren’t going to listen to the book at work, I would highly recommend her narration as she manages to convey a tremendous amount of respect for the subject with her voice. I never felt like there was an inflection or a tone out of place with the words being spoken.

Book Mentioned:

  • Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Read by Anna Fields. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2005. Originally published 1997. 8 hours, 3 minutes. ISBN: 9780786180936. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Blackstone Audio. Retrieved: November 19, 2014.
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