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Visiting a memorial to the Nanking massacre in China, Horace Campbell reflects on the lessons that Africa and the rest of the world can learn, both from the 1937 genocide and from the city’s response to it.

The city of Nanjing in the People’s Republic of China stands as one more monument to genocidal thinking and genocidal actions. Far more important, however, is the reality that with new thinking, it is possible to reconstruct society and to create new humans. From Nanjing one can see the great possibilities for healing after wars if humans step back from the social system and ideas of human hierarchy that inspire genocidal politics and genocidal economics.

This week, I have been visiting Nanjing, formerly known as Nanking. This city sitting on the eastern end of the Yangtze River carries with it hundreds of years of transformation and politics of Chinese society and culture. Emperors had made this one of the historic capitals. After the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and after Ching Kai Shek became the leader of the Republic of China, Nanking was the capital of all of China. This city, now a vast conurbation of close to 8.5 million citizens, is the home of the mausoleum of Sun Yat Sen. Sun Yat Sen is a national hero of China who is revered by socialists and capitalists of Chinese origins at home and abroad. Located in the south eastern area of the present People’s Republic of China, Nanjing is a city rich with history, art, museums, industries, libraries, universities, lakes, mountains and most important people who now thrive to make a good life. Yet, these people live with the memory of one of the most horrific genocides of the 20th century.

After the 1911 revolution, the nationalists were seeking to consolidate power. In the midst of the last depression, the imperial forces of Japan invaded China in 1931 and fought to subjugate the Chinese people for 14 years. As one component of this subjugation by this imperial army, there was an attack on the Nanking. These Japanese imperial forces overran Shanghai in 1937 and proceeded to capture the capital, Nanking in 1937. On 13 December 1937, the Japanese army occupied Nanking and over a period of six week to eight weeks slaughtered over 300,000 persons in an orgy of rape, theft, arson and other unspeakable crimes against humanity. Nancy Chang chronicled the heinous deeds in the book, ‘The Rape of Nanking: The forgotten Holocaust of World War II’.

On the first page of the book she wrote:

‘The chronicle of humankind’s cruelty to fellow humans is a long and sorry tale. But if it is true that even in such horror there are degrees of ruthlessness, then few atrocities in world history compare to the intensity and scale of the Rape of Nanking during World War II.’

The book then goes into great details of the military machinery and the kind of training in a society that can create humans who would kill and rape as the Japanese did in China. African people who have endured the enslavement and genocidal atrocities of colonial capitalism can easily relate to the efforts of Iris Chang to communicate to the world the need to step back from the kind of society that trains some humans to think of others as sub-humans. More recently, the experiences of Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia reminded us that colonialists did not have a monopoly on genocidal thoughts and actions. African despots, militarists and genocidaires could be as efficient as the Europeans and the Japanese in committing genocide, as we saw in the case of Rwanda. When one gets through the book on ‘The Rape of Nanking’ and follows the history, it is hard to disagree with her assessment that Japanese soldiers carried out an orgy of cruelty seldom if ever matched in world history.

Her passion to expose this genocide begged the question; where are the African intellectuals who will still document the millions slaughtered? First Nation peoples in the USA continue to hold rituals and ceremonies to educate the young of the longest and probably the most systematic history of extermination after the Columbus ‘discovery’ of the Americas. The Jewish survivors of European modernity have been dogged in their work to ensure that Jewish children never forget the Nazi Holocaust. The Armenians have made the question of the Turkish genocide of 1915 the number one issue of their foreign policy.

Yet, in the case of the ten millions slaughtered by the Belgians in the Congo, there is the civilisation narrative now buttressed with the aid and humanitarian discourse to cover up colonial crimes. Throughout Africa, whether it is the case of the millions massacred by the British or the Portuguese, or the crude atrocities of France, the European states and societies continue to teach their children that colonialism and slavery were undertaken to ‘civilise’ the peoples of Africa. Of these European states, it is the Germans who have acknowledged the crimes of genocide in Namibia and have publically apologised for the genocide of the Herero. In Japan, there is still denial about the genocide at Nanking and the textbooks in Japan, like the schoolbooks in most of Western Europe, continue to cover up and distort the real events in Nanking in 1937. Denial is one of the most important aspects of genocidal thinking.


European efforts at silencing the genocidal past and the exploitative present are not unique. Up to the present only a few Japanese admit to the heinous crimes committed in China. Iris Chang’s testimony is like a wakeup call for humans everywhere in this moment of depression.

Tens of thousands of young men were rounded up and herded to the outer areas of the city, where they were mowed down by machine guns, used for bayonet practice, or soaked with gasoline and buried alive. For months the streets of the city were heaped with corpses and reeked with the stench of rotting human flesh.

If these details were not horrific enough, the chapters on the rape of women were even more sickening. Iris Chang summed up the rape like this:

‘The Rape of Nanking should be remembered not only for the number of people slaughtered but for the cruel manner in which many met their deaths. Chinese men were used for bayonet practice and in decapitation contests. An estimated 20,000-80,000 Chinese women were raped. Many soldiers went beyond rape to disembowel women, slice off their breasts and nail them alive to walls. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons their mothers, as other family members watched. Not only did live burials, castration, the carving of organs and the roasting of people become routine, but more diabolical tortures were practiced, such as hanging people by their tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and watching them get torn apart by German shepherds.’

The tales of this genocide were so gruesome that Iris Chang took her own life after writing this book; she passed away at the young age of 36.


I visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall on Sunday and if one was overwhelmed by the details of the book of Iris Chang, the actual scene of where thousands of bodies were buried brought the reality home. Even before entering the Memorial Hall there are the numbers 300,000 emblazoned twice on the wall. These numbers were to be placed in proper perspective when one visited the exhibits of the bombings, the rapes, the shootings and the weeks of terror endured by the citizens.

One could see the care historians and city elders in Nanjing have taken to preserve the memory of this atrocity by the way in which the Memorial is organised, recreating the history in a manner that placed emphasis on the class base of the crime. While the political leaders of Japan and the imperial apologists cover up the horrors of Nanking, there is a plaque on the outside as one is leaving signed by citizens of Japan who expressed sorrow for the crimes of their government. These citizens from Japan have joined with millions who believe that the Massacre Memorial Hall should be a symbol for building peaceful relations between peoples.

The Nanjing Memorial Hall was built by the Nanjing Municipal Government in 1985 and has since been enlarged and renovated. It is a site where everyday hundreds of Chinese visit and take in the architecture, sculptures and videos that are used in the 28000 square meters of space to illustrate what happened during the Nanking massacre. Before entering the exhibition halls there is the feeling of reverence. The memorial consists of three major parts: Outdoor exhibits, sheltered skeletal remains of those who were massacred, and an exhibition hall of historical documents. As one walks through the exhibitions of the scenes of mass slaughter, killing contests, bayonetting, stabbing and rape, one asks the question, what kind of society produces humans who are capable of such crimes? Yet, in the midst of this horror there were humans who did all that was possible to save others. The diaries, pictures and articles written by those who established the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone reminded us that the world knew what was happening and stood by, just as they did during the Nazi Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.

This exhibition is hard to take in because after walking through the site of the videos and documents one is again outdoors where there are three groups of carved reliefs and 17 small tablets upon which the major sites and historical facts of the massacre are carved. These carvings are surrounded by trees and cobblestones, the wall upon which the names of the victims are listed. Even without the benefit of understanding the Chinese language, the message is unmistakable, there is an atonement tablet, which together with the images and names forms a permanent and moving record of the raping and murder. There is the area which is also called a ‘pit of ten thousand corpses’, where one can see the bones and other remains of those who perished.

Fittingly, outside the exhibition hall there is a very large sculpture of Iris Chang, the Chinese American who dedicated her life to bring to the English-speaking world the horrors of the Rape of Nanking. She was as much a victim of this Holocaust as the more than 300,000 people who perished in the eight-week period. The Japanese were defeated and driven from China after 1945 but they have left a permanent statement on the nature of the crimes of imperialism.


The last exhibit is the flame of peace with the words that call on humans to shun war as the way to solve social problems. There are words printed to the effect that peace and development is the common theme of the human beings. ‘People in Nanjing, having had much suffering from wars, cherish even more peace and life, and they are dedicating themselves to the construction of a New Nanjing.’

When one finishes this exhibition and memorial hall, then the logic of the idea of ‘Peaceful development’ espoused by the present leadership of China can be placed in a wider context. The major limitation of this orientation is that the political leaders ignore the real economic war that is now being fought with the implications for militarism. It is Helmut Schmidt, the former Chancellor of Germany who has been continuously warning that if war comes in the 21st century, it will be more deadly and more brutal than the wars of the 20th century. By denying the history of the Rape of Nanking, the current leaders in Japan are accomplices in reproducing genocidal histories.

At the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, one of the most important aspects of the programme of Action was for the rewriting of the history of the world so that humanity could heal from genocidal histories and the accompanying prejudices that emanate from these histories. The struggles over the depiction of other peoples in Asia in Japanese textbooks give more reason for a renewed effort to retreat from the texts and discourses that cover up and celebrate genocide.

There are some leaders who delude themselves that they can fight wars and kill without losing their own citizens. As I was walking through this Memorial Hall and saw images of the senseless bombings of the Japanese, I could not but reflect on the over 40,000 bombing missions against the people of Libya this year. The vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, who made the statement about fighting wars without casualties could not fully understand the moral vacuum in which he was trying to sink the people of the United States. Fortunately, at this very same moment there is a massive social movement that is willing to revisit the entire history of the United States, including the crimes committed in the name of freedom and democracy.

There are many lessons that we can take away from the ongoing struggles of the meaning of the Rape of Nanking. The most important lesson is that any society that seeks to instill patriotism, blind political obedience and jingoistic pride will train young men to be sadistic murderers. The second lesson is that international tribunals, military courts such as Nuremberg, the Rwanda tribunal in Arusha or the International Military Tribunal for the Far East that tried the Japanese will not bring out the information necessary to ensure that the mantra of ‘Never Again’ has meaning. One only has to examine the relationship between Israel and Palestine to grasp the fact that new thinking is needed even for those who suffered from genocidal crimes in the past.

The third important lesson is that the cover up of genocide is infectious and can be used as a military trigger in the coming era of depression, militarism and creeping wars. The forces of peace in Japan need to be more aggressive so that there is a true history of the role of the Emperor and the Japanese state so that there can be a frank accounting of the past with the appropriate apology so that those who continue to maintain that the war against China was justified will be isolated.

Reparative justice can serve as the basis for a new sense of healing internationally. The people of Nanking have moved on. The colonial name of Nanking has been replaced with the name of Nanjing and after the revolution of 1949 this city has been growing with pride. Although in Nanjing one does not feel the brashness of Shanghai, one gets the feeling of great accomplishment when one enjoys the cultural symbols of independence and self-confidence in this city.

Oppressed peoples everywhere can learn a lot from the reconstruction of Nanjing. In particular, mendicant Africans who seek to turn Goree Island (Senegal) and Christianburg Castle (Ghana) into tourist ventures must begin to learn that the most important audience for understanding the meaning of slavery and genocide in Africa are the African peoples, not tourists. Whether in Rwanda, Burundi, Angola or in apartheid South Africa there is a dearth of leaders who have a grasp of the history of their societies in order to give confidence to the young.

Do Africans have to await the era of socialist reconstruction before there are memorials to honour those who perished in the genocidal colonial wars? Unfortunately, Africans have to endure this leadership until they are removed because so many of these leaders want to ‘develop’ in the image of those who committed crimes in Africa.

The visit to Nanjing is one more reminder that the question of genocide is linked to the wider ideological struggle to prevent war. During the last capitalist crisis, politics became militarised and racialised as workers became frustrated and turned to extremist leaders. Hitler set in motion the forms of economic engagement that required the physical elimination of competition. When competition becomes militarised, there will be war. As the technocrats are placed ion power in Europe and ‘austerity’ measures are being imposed, humanity needs to remember the consequences of the last capitalist depression.


* Horace Campbell is professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University. See He is the author of ‘Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA’ and a contributing author to ‘African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions’. He is currently a visiting professor in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China.
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