In the US, today marks the start of the Second World War in 1941 with the anniversary of Pearl Harbour. For us Brits it’s the 3rd of September when, in 1939 Britain declared war following the Nazi invasion of Poland. In Russia the same anniversary would be marked on 22nd June 1941 when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on the Soviet Union.
By convention and convenience the Second War is dated 1939-45. But this is a selective chronology on the worldwide struggle against Fascism – it is also a view through a specifically European lens: In 1935 Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia. In 1936’s Franco led a revolt of Spanish colonial troops in Morocco that would escalate into civil war. And in 1931 Imperial Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria.
This week in 1937 marks the fall of the Chinese city of Nanking and the start of a six week period of atrocities against surrendered troops and the civilian population that resulted in over 250,000 deaths and untold instances of rape and other war crimes.
Outside of Asian communities, this ‘other genocide’ is still largely unknown in the West. Partly because the telling of the story is clouded with the propaganda of Communist China: Partly because the Japanese authorities were not as bureaucratic as their Nazi counterparts in documenting their crimes; partly because certain Japanese nationalists have, like Western Neo-Nazis, attempted to use historical revisionism to diminish and ultimately deny these crimes. But mostly I suspect that these crimes are unknown – and those in Nanking were representative of those of Imperial Japanese Forces throughout Asia – because the evidence was not right under Western noses, and because they did not affect ‘people like us’.
Ten years ago a Chinese-American, Iris Chang, wrote ‘The Rape Of Nanking’ and did in some part redress this. The book is frankly not good history. Revisionist historians have found it rather too easy to pick holes in her reliance on some questionable secondary sources. In its analysis it strays into a Chinese nationalism that sees the Japanese atrocities of the period as the inevitable by-product of a national character exemplified by the bushido code. It is uncomfortable and shocking reading told from an undeniably partisan point of view- to the extent that after writing it the author suffered depression and finally took her own life in 2004. Even so the book still justifies compulsory reading for any Westerner trying to understand the period. And much of the revisionist criticism amount to nothing less than a nationalist-fueled blanket denial of the crimes - on a scale that no Western historian would dare suggest in relation to the Holocaust.
If nothing else it explains why in all those cheesy kung-fu movies, the karate guys are always depicted as the villains …