Nanjing, China

By Mark D. Van Ells
7/14/2009 • World War II Time Travel

The somber Massacre Memorial in Nanjing testifies to endurance and to loss. (Photograph by Mark D. Van Ells)
The somber Massacre Memorial in Nanjing testifies to endurance and to loss. (Photograph by Mark D. Van Ells)

Today a city of six million people, Nanjing has changed a lot since 1937. But remnants of the old city remain

Nanjing is a beautiful city with an ugly history. Stately plane trees line its long avenues, their graceful branches forming a green canopy over the city’s bustling street life. But 70 years ago these very trees bore witness to a sickening orgy of murder and rape, the streets they shaded littered with bodies. Of all the atrocities committed during World War II, the Nanjing massacre stands out in its scope and brutality.

Nanjing has been China’s capital several times. In 1368, the Ming Dynasty made Nanjing its home, and constructed an immense wall around the city. The Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek returned the capital to Nanjing in 1927. This city, then with a population of about one million, became a prime target when Japan invaded China in 1937.

Japanese troops appeared outside Nanjing’s walls that November, and bloody fighting raged for weeks. Concluding that Nanjing was lost, Chiang evacuated the government and retreated deep into China’s interior. The Chinese army in Nanjing disintegrated. Many surrendered. Others shed their uniforms and fled. There were even reports of soldiers stripping the clothes off civilians in the streets. Japanese soldiers entered the city on December 13, but found themselves outnumbered with limited supplies and thousands of prisoners. It was a formula for disaster.

The cruelty inflicted on Nanjing’s citizens over the next six weeks defies comprehension. Japanese troops killed Chinese men indiscriminately, assuming them to be disguised soldiers. Prisoners were executed en masse. Many were mowed down by machine guns; others experienced far more horrifying deaths. Some were beheaded. Some were used for bayonet practice. Some were buried or burned alive. Thousands of bodies were dumped into ponds and moats, as well as into the nearby Yangtze River, where corpses washed up along the banks like driftwood.

Nanjing’s women also met a horrific fate. Thousands were raped, sometimes on the streets in broad daylight, victims ranging from young girls to grandmothers. Soldiers looted and burned nearly every quarter of the capital. The official Chinese estimate is that 300,000 people were killed.

Nanjing was home to many Westerners. As the Japanese approached, most fled, but a few stayed behind. To protect civilians, a committee of Westerners established a safety zone in the northwest portion of the city, where most of the foreign embassies and residences were located.

An unlikely bunch of war heroes—businessmen, educators, missionaries—these men and women were armed only with foreign passports, yet they shielded an estimated 200,000 people from death, interposing themselves between Chinese civilians and Japanese troops.

The most unlikely hero of all was a German named John Rabe, a Siemens employee and a Nazi, who was elected leader of the safety zone. Since Germany and Japan were allies, the Japanese treated Rabe with more respect than other Westerners. He frequently used his Nazi insignia to stop attacks, and sheltered hundreds over time in his modest home. Many others were American. Minnie Vautrin, for example, was a teacher and missionary at Ginling Women’s College who turned her campus into a massive refuge for the city’s women.

The world was shocked by the Nanjing massacre, but with the horrors that befell humanity in the years that followed, the event was nearly forgotten. Following the war, Japan played down the extent of its atrocities; some in Japan still maintain that the massacre never happened.

China was engulfed by civil war. The Communists took power in 1949 and moved the capital back to Beijing; Chiang and his Nationalist regime took refuge on Taiwan. China was isolated from the rest of the world for decades.

As a historian of World War II, I had long wanted to visit Nanjing, and a study tour of China for college faculty members last year finally gave me the chance.

Today a city of six million people, Nanjing has changed a lot since 1937. The sound of construction is ever-present here as skyscrapers burst forth into the heavens. The oft-heard joke in China today is that the national bird is the crane.

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