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Lessons from the Rape of Nanking

Today marked the 74th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, and as I wrote last year, it is a day that for me is inescapable (you should read that post because I won’t be rehashing much of it). I am surrounded by the history of that dark time, but am also buoyed by the memories of those who risked their lives for the common people of China. Today I’d like to share a few lesser known facts from those six weeks.

One of the most important things to understand about the Nanjing International Safety Zone, is that the foreigners involved with it never lost their faith in the rule of law. Time and again they brought cases directly to the Japanese embassy and Japanese military command, and demanded that the soldiers involved be punished for their actions.

This led to mixed results. Often consular police would find a tiny detail in a witness’ story that was incorrect, like the placement of a lamp in a room, and discount their entire testimony. At other times they would publicly scold soldiers, which seemed to serve as a very mild warning to other soldiers. While this deeply disappointed the foreigners in the Safety Zone, they continued to bring daily reports to the consulate.

Ultimately these reports, along with testimony given by the Safety Zone members, led to the convictions of those directly responsible for many of the atrocities at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

Even six weeks after the Japanese occupation had begun, it was not safe to leave the zone (six weeks is the length commonly cited for the duration of the Rape of Nanking). Families were ordered to return to their homes by Febuary 4th, but this order came as news of robberies, rapes, and murders continued to be reported. In many cases, the only thing that was powerful enough to stop Japanese soldiers was the presence of foreign faces.

In a letter to his wife, dated January 31st, Dr. Robert Wilson reported that just the day before, Mr. Rabe had actually lifted a soldier off a woman in the street not far from the hospital, and that on the 29th a truck had been seen abducting women. The women of Nanjing at that point were well aware of the dangers of Japanese troops. Letters available here and here (pdf)

Dr. Wilson’s other letters provide dozens of accounts of the atrocities that were committed on a daily basis during the months that followed the initial invasion. He refers to his own location as the “so-called Safety Zone” due to the number of incidents that occurred within its boundaries. The soldiers made no distinction between young and old, and murdered indiscriminately. Dr. Wilson alone attended to hundreds of cases in just the first few days, and it clearly took a toll on him and the other volunteers. Sadly, one year after the invasion, Minnie Vautrin ended her life regretting that she had not been able to do more to protect the women who had sought refuge behind her walls.

In Nanjing today, the massacre is rarely discussed, unless there is a need to turn public opinion against Japan (Today’s Global Times articles suggest that we shouldn’t hold the past against the Japanese of today). Even the doctors who work in Wilson’s hospital know little of his efforts to save the lives of hundreds of innocent victims. My co-workers today went so far as to complain about the noise of the air-raid siren meant to remind us of the tragedy. One said, “It was too noisy, I couldn’t work at all for thirty-minutes.” To which the other replied, “It’s OK, we just have to do this once a year.”