Eighty years ago today, on December 13, 1937, one of the most shameful and tragic events in modern history occurred in and around the city of Nanking, which was then the capital city of Nationalist China. Japan had been at war with China for several months, and after the Chinese capital fell, the Japanese army occupied the city and began a slaughter of almost unimaginable dimensions. Over 200,000 (some say 300,000) people, the vast majority of them Chinese civilians, were shot, bayoneted, beheaded, buried alive, beaten or even raped to death. This utterly senseless slaughter left piles of corpses in the streets and the waters of the Yangtze River literally running red with blood. The paroxysm of violence tapered off in January and February 1938, but the war on the mainland of China continued until 1945.

I have written about the Nanking Massacre before, and also on its anniversary, here. The purpose of this article is not to rehash the terrible events yet again, but to draw attention to the fact that, insofar as historical memory is concerned, the Nanking Massacre is particularly and peculiarly endangered. While its existence has been undeniable and documented in historical fact since the day the killings began in 1937, the event tended to be glossed over or even forgotten in most Western history books until relatively recently. In 1997, historian Iris Chang published her seminal book The Rape of Nanking, which shocked many people with its accurate historical accounts of the massacre. How could such a vast slaughter remain so obscure in historical memory? The answer is complicated, but it has to do with the fact that the existence of the Nanking tragedy is politically inconvenient for many people.

Photos like this–showing piles of bodies of Chinese civilians killed at Nanking in December 1937–are unfortunately quite numerous. This is one of the tamer ones; you don’t want to see the ones I chose not to post here.

After the Communist government of Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949, a dozen years after the event, the Communists didn’t talk much about the event, for fear of disturbing relations with Japan, now rebuilt in the postwar image of its World War II conquerors, principally the United States. In Japan itself, where collective responsibility for World War II-era crimes is a difficult thing to face, most textbooks, while admitting the massacre occurred, soft-pedaled the magnitude of the event; most, for example, did not refer to the mass rapes of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers. History is, to a large extent, about national identity. No one wants to be identified with the kind of people who did these terrible crimes in Nanking. Although certainly not alone in a time of unique brutality–the 1930s and 1940s were a time when the world bathed in the fire of mass violence–there seems something particularly ugly and barbaric about Nanking, as if it’s the kind of thing that should only have been able to happen in the Middle Ages. Yet it happened in the lifetimes of people you know.

Nanking also resonates in our own time for another reason: it is, bizarrely, now on the forefront of a culture and information war being waged over history and ideology. There are many people who deny that the Nanking massacre happened, or that it was as bad as historians have clearly documented it to be. This form of denialism is a by-product of right-wing ideology, which distorts history in many ways. Until a few years ago, Nanking massacre denial was found only in nationalist Japanese circles. Now, however, it is on the rise in the non-Japanese world, especially on the Internet. The reasons for this are complex, but it has to do with the resurgence of fascism and nationalist movements becoming more powerful in various Western countries (and Japan), and a troubling tide of anti-intellectualism that seeks to scapegoat historians as lazy, incompetent lackeys of shadowy powers-that-be who want to manipulate the past for nefarious ends. Precisely because it is so uncomfortable to acknowledge, the Nanking massacre is near the top of the list of historical events that face a danger of being distorted or deliberately forgotten by future generations. Indeed, Iris Chang’s book, now 20 years in the past, may have opened merely a temporary window of awareness onto this terrible event, and that window might be closing.

Japanese general Tani Hisao was found guilty by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal of being partially responsible for the horrific massacre. He was executed for his crimes in 1947.

We must remember Nanking, though, and not merely out of a desire to keep true historical scholarship from being eclipsed by “fake history.” Beyond assigning blame to particular people or nationalities–which is not the point, and very far from the point, of remembering the Nanking massacre–the event shows humankind what we are still capable of, and what can still happen quite easily given the right circumstances. The generations who grew up after World War II heard sentiments like “never again” quite often, especially when referring to the Holocaust. But far from never again, massacres and genocides have happened many times since 1945–in Cambodia in the 1970s, in Africa and the Balkans in the 1990s, and in various places in the Middle East in this century. Collectively we don’t seem to have learned much from Nanking about how nationalism, militarism and ethnic hatred can poison the human spirit. This is a lesson we must learn. If there is any tiny morsel of positive good that can come out of so much monstrous evil, maybe that is it.

The enormity of Nanking can be difficult to grasp. Iris Chang, the historian, had a hard time dealing with it. Even after moving on to other topics, she couldn’t shake the disturbing implications of what she had helped bring into public consciousness; she committed suicide in 2004. Terrible events like the Nanking massacre live on for decades after they’re ostensibly finished, still ending or ruining lives in a myriad of complex ways. This too is something we must understand from Nanking: scars like this, deep in the psyche of humanity, take a long time to heal. On some level even the deniers of the massacre, who know or understand nothing about how history is done and who does it, understand this. They too are disturbed by it, so much so that psychologically they can’t even bring themselves even to accept that it happened. No amount of historical proof would ever convince such misguided people that it happened, but in a way they too are psychic victims of it, or at least they live in the darkness of its shadow.

Chinese-American historian Iris Chang, who died in 2004, is honored in this bronze statue at the Memorial Hall in Nanking for her contributions to understanding the massacre.

I greatly enjoy history and I’ve devoted a large part of my life to it. But history can be profoundly disturbing as well as illuminating. We must not shy away from it. The Nanking massacre happened. The hundreds of thousands to whom it happened are long dead. It is up to us, to whom it did not happen, to gain from it some kind of meaning. That process is terrible, but unfortunately necessary.

The header photo (faces of Nanking massacre survivors at the Memorial Hall in Nanking) is by Flickr user WL and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo of the Iris Chang statue, also in Nanking, is by Flickr user x li and is also Creative Commons 2.0. The other photos are public domain.

If you are a denier of the Nanking massacre, don’t even think about leaving a comment here.