The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, Basic Books, $25.

It may seem improbable that an account of a sixty-year-old atrocity has been on the best-seller lists for weeks. But apparently sales of The Rape of Nanking have been fueled by a demand in Chinese communities on both coasts. One thing is certain. Iris Chang’s account of the Japanese army’s six-week-long orgy of slaughter that began on December 13, 1937, with the fall of the temporary capital of the Republic of China, will do little to unfreeze the chilly relations between China and Japan.

Even for readers familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust, her book makes for harrowing reading. “Tens of thousands of young men,” she writes, “were rounded up and herded to the outer limits of the city, where they were mowed down by machine guns, used for bayonet practice, or soaked with gasoline and burned alive.” Between 260,000 and 350,000 were murdered–more than the combined total of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Stacked on top of one another, the bodies would have reached the height of a seventy-four-story building–and that is just for the lower fatality estimate.)

Nanking was a public rampage, designed to spread terror. (Humiliation of women through gang rape was another part of that deliberate policy.) But terror, as the Nazis also discovered, has a way of backfiring. Nanking helped to turn much of the world against Japan, long before the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. Just as important, Chinese resistance did not crumble, and the war would go on, with an ever-increasing pitch of bitterness, for another eight year. But since World War II, Japan has escaped blame, Chang feels, largely because the United States, faced with the threat of Communism, wanted “to ensure the friendship and loyalty of its former enemy. In this manner, Cold War tensions permitted Japan to escape much of the intense critical examination” that Germany “was forced to undergo.”

Chang is determined that Nanking will not remain a “forgotten Holocaust.” She has obviously succeeded.

Robert Cowley