In July 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army, which already controlled a large section of northeastern China, launched an undeclared war against the Republic of China (Nationalist China). Five months later, on this date, the capital city of Nanking fell to the Japanese.
The Japanese army swept into the ancient city and within weeks not only looted and burned the defenseless city but also systematically raped at least 20,000 women, tortured both men and women, and murdered probably at least 150,000 and perhaps as many as 300,000 Chinese civilians. Rev. John G. Magee, an American Anglican pastor of the Deshen Church in Nanking and one of many eyewitnesses, wrote in a letter dated 11 January 1938:
Thousands of men, women and children have been murdered in addition to all the disarmed soldiers who have been discovered. There were dead bodies in every street and alley in the city, so far as I could tell, and I went around quite extensively including Hsiakwan…
The raping of women has been beyond description or imagination.
Here and there among the solders there have been decent men, but it seems like most of them went mad after entrance into the city. Such a ferocious body of men I have never seen and I have seen the worst type of Chinese bandits looting this city, too. The marvel is that none of us foreigners have been killed. This looks to me as though the officers could have controlled their men if they had wanted to…
What is still stunning is that this massacre was a public rampage, evidently designed to terrorize the Chinese. It was carried out in full view of international observers and largely irrespective of their efforts to stop it. And it was not a temporary lapse of military discipline, for it lasted seven weeks. The international response to the Nanking atrocities was eerily similar to the more recent response to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda: while thousands have died almost unbelievably cruel deaths, the entire world has watched CNN and simply wrung its hands. The Nanking atrocities were splashed prominently across the pages of newspapers like the New York Times, while the Bosnia outrages were played out daily on television in virtually every living room. To the larger world, the “rape” of Nanking — as it was immediately called — turned public opinion against Japan in a way that little else could have.
- “Wholesale looting, the violation of women, the murder of civilians, the eviction of Chinese from their homes, mass executions of war prisoners and the impressing of able-bodied men turned Nanking into a city of terror,” wrote Frank Tillman Durdin of the New York Times on 17 December 1937, two days after he escaped from the “reign of terror” aboard the USS Oahu.
- Archibald Steele of the Chicago Daily News called the siege and capture of Nanking “Four Days of Hell” in his dispatch on Dec. 15.
- C. Yates McDaniel of the Associated Press jotted down the following sentence in his diary on Dec. 16, which was wired to the United States the following day, “My last remembrance of Nanking: Dead Chinese, dead Chinese, dead Chinese.”
The Rape of Nanking should be perceived as a cautionary tale. Those who have studied the patterns of mass killings throughout history have noted that the sheer concentration of power in government is lethal — that only a sense of absolute unchecked power can make atrocities like the Rape of Nanking possible. In the 1990s historian R. J. Rummel, who coined the term “democide” to include both genocide and government mass murder, completed a systematic and quantitative study of atrocities in both the twentieth century and ancient times, an impressive body of research that he summed up with a paraphrase of the famous Lord Acton line: “Power kills, and absolute power kills absolutely.”
Rummel found that the less restraint on power within a government, the more likely that that government will act on the whims or psychologically generated darker impulses of its leaders to wage war on foreign governments. Atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking can be seen as a predictable if not inevitable outgrowth of ceding to an authoritarian regime, dominated by a military and imperial elite, the unchallenged power to commit an entire people to realizing the sick goals of the few with the unbridled power to establish them.
In view of countries like modern communist China and North Korea, this is a lesson that we cannot afford to forget.
- Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1997).
- In the Name of the Emperor: The Rape of Nanking, a documentary (1997) with many of the horrifyingly intense images taken from home movies made by an American missionary, John Magee, who was there in 1937. It has won: Special Jury Award, San Francisco International Film Festival, 1995; Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, 1995; Asian American International Film Festival, 1995; and Hong Kong International Film Festival, 1995.
- R.J. Rummel, Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994).