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One thing that studying history does is tend to turn you into a pessimist. Regardless of what period of history you study, you’re eventually going to come across accounts of some pretty horrendous acts by humans against each other. From the dawn of time to the present day, massacre appears to be one of human beings’ favorite activities.

The anniversary of one such horrendous example is upon us today. Seventy-six years ago today, on December 13, 1937, the city of Nanking, the capital of Nationalist China, fell to the Japanese Army. A massacre of almost unfathomable proportions began almost immediately and lasted for six bloody weeks. It wasn’t just murder, though–the invading Japanese army went on a rampage throughout Nanking, looting and burning buildings, maiming and butchering people alive and dead, and raping tens of thousands of women. In part because of the magnitude and centrality of sexual assault to what happened, the event has come to be known as the Rape of Nanking.

The violence that was done to the people of Nanking–the majority of them unarmed civilians–is hard to accept. The nearly 60,000 Chinese prisoners of war who were roped together and machine-gunned on December 18 (the Straw String Gorge Massacre) got off easy. As they scoured the city for valuables, resistors or women to rape, Japanese soldiers bayoneted women, infants and children, dragged women into alleys and streets to assault them, and organized elaborate gang-rape rituals often involving numerous members of military units. For some reason pregnant women were a particular target, often raped repeatedly before (or after) being stabbed in the stomach with their unborn children literally ripped out of them. Bodies of the dead were desecrated. Heads of beheaded men would be set up on fences and walls with cigarettes sticking out of their mouths. Japanese soldiers often rammed foreign objects into the vaginas of women after they were finished with them. One particularly awful eyewitness report records seeing the severed breasts of women lying in the streets. The conservative estimates place the dead at 200,000.


Almost 80 years after the massacre in Nanking, the bones of its victims are still being exhumed.

The question is unavoidable: why did this happen? It wasn’t as if there was a particular political or cultural reason why Nanking was singled out for such punishment. By December 1937 Japan had been at war in China for about five months, although Japanese meddling on the Chinese mainland–particularly Manchuria–had been going on since 1931. A militarist-leaning government was coming to power in Japan more or less peacefully, but, although the Japanese were turning toward a general policy of seizing resource-rich lands by force, Japanese fascism lacked the same sort of ideological underpinnings that eventually powered the Nazis’ Shoah (Holocaust) against the Jews in Europe. The war in China had been brutal and bloody, but the Japanese treatment of Nanking seems way out of proportion to what was at stake in that war. Explanations are difficult to come by.

Put in the context of its times, however, the Rape of Nanking is disturbingly congruous with the pattern of violence that marked the first half of the 20th century. The battlefield conflicts of the world wars (1914-18 and 1939-45) were bloody enough, but in both world wars the military battles often accompanied broader patterns of mass slaughter that arose in revolutionary, racist or colonialist contexts. While World War I was still going on, and after it, millions were destroyed in the Armenian massacres of 1915 and then the Russian Revolution, which I think fairly encompasses both what historians call the Russian Civil War (1918-21) and the famine of 1921. The Rape of Nanking can be viewed as the beginning of a decade of mass killing, encompassing Stalin’s purges, the Shoah and the violence that broke out upon the partition of India in 1947, a decolonization project arising directly out of the war.

Controversial historian Niall Ferguson argues in his 2006 book War of the World that the violence of the mid-20th century arose out of a convergence of factors, including the rise of authoritarian political ideology, racial attitudes and resentment against the exploitation of a colonialist system. That could be true, but it doesn’t get us much closer to understanding what happened in Nanking in December 1937. Are human beings just naturally savage? Do we tend, for perhaps reasons we don’t understand, to organize our affairs–political, economic and social–in a way that makes massacres like Nanking tantalizingly easy for us to devolve into? Is it psychological? Mass hysteria? These questions are difficult to answer.

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The scale of the violence committed at Nanking in 1937 is almost impossible to comprehend. It goes far beyond wartime cruelty, into something truly monstrous.

A friend of mine, a historian, made an argument to me recently that the world has generally become a less violent and murderous place in the decades since 1945 than it was before. This argument is supportable. Generally, large-scale conflict between advanced military states has been avoided, yet the post-1945 wars the world has seen still pack plenty of destruction. A minority of African historians have begun to argue that the conflicts that occurred in Africa, particularly between 1997 and 2003, deserve to be called “World War III.” The massacres in Rwanda in 1994 bear a lot of similarities to the Rape of Nanking, including the very short period of time in which it occurred and the centrality of rape and sexual abuse in the atrocities. It’s clear this kind of thing keeps happening. Counting bodies seems to miss the point, as does quibbling as to whether they were killed by Japanese bayonets in 1937, American atom bombs in 1945 or Rwandan machetes in 1994. It’s also not as easy as blaming a particular culture or ethnicity for being “savages,” as some have done regarding the Japanese.

There’s something very dark in the human soul, I think. When it comes out into the sunlight for all to see, as it did in the streets of Nanking in December 1937, it provokes a lot of questions that many people would rather not deal with. But being human means we have to deal with them. If this darkness resides in us, shouldn’t we attempt to understand its nature?

The modern photo of Nanking massacre victims being unearthed is by Flickr user R0016619 and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.