In this Dec. 1937 file photo Japanese soldiers cheer as they hoist their flag from the roof of the central government building after they seized Nanking in the Second Sino Japanese War. Japan acknowledged its wartime military caused tremendous damage to China in the "Rape of Nanking" massacre, but the two sides failed again to agree on the death toll in a report published this week. The massacre was one of the worst incidents in Japan's invasion of China during the first half of the 20th century. (AP Photo)

On Dec. 13, 1937, Nanking, then the capital city of China, fell to the Imperial Japanese Army. This Chinese military defeat ushered in one of the most horrific, barbaric episodes in modern human history — the Nanking Massacre.

Essentially a state of war had existed between Japan and China since 1931, when Japanese forces had invaded Manchuria in northern China, renamed it Manchukuo, and established a puppet government there. Low-level warfare had continued on and off between the two governments ever since, as well as occasional run-ins between the Japanese and Chinese communist guerrillas.

What came to be called the Second Sino-Japanese War began in earnest in the summer of 1937, with the Japanese winning a tactical victory at the Battle of Shanghai in November. The Japanese forces then decided to press on to the Chinese capital at Nanking, about 160 miles to the west.

In her book, “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” the late historian Iris Chang wrote, “The Japanese strategy for Nanking was simple. The imperial army exploited the fact that the city was blocked by water in two directions. The ancient capital lay south of a bend in the Yangtze River. … By converging upon Nanking in a semi-circular front from the southeast, the Japanese could use the natural barrier of the river to complete the encirclement of the capital and cut off all escape.”

Chang quoted a British journalist who documented the destruction by the Japanese army on its path to Nanking: “There is hardly a building standing which has not been gutted by fire. Smoldering ruins and deserted streets present an eerie spectacle, the only living creatures being dogs unnaturally fattened by feasting on corpses.”

Despite a heroic effort on the part of the Chinese military, the Japanese forces took Nanking on Dec. 13. Unable to care for the massive numbers of POWs that had fallen into their hands, the Japanese military leaders decided to simply execute them. The slaughter of POWs that followed perhaps had no precedent in the modern era.

That was only the beginning. Soon the Japanese conducted searches of civilian dwellings for hidden Chinese soldiers. The distinction between civilian and military soon made no difference as the Japanese began murdering non-combatants upon the slightest pretext.

Chang wrote, “Troops went from door to door, demanding that the doors be opened to welcome the victorious armies. The moment the shopkeepers complied, the Japanese opened fire on them. The imperial Japanese army massacred thousands of people in this manner and then systematically looted the stores and burned whatever they had no use for.”

In addition to outright murder, the Japanese army at Nanking was responsible for one of the largest instances of mass rapes in world history.

Several Westerners living in Nanking at the time stepped up to create the Nanking Safety Zone, a small section of the city that could afford protection for the Chinese fortunate enough to make it there. By negotiated agreement with the Japanese military leadership, these Europeans and Americans were able to provide a safe haven in the midst of the incalculable human suffering taking place.

Ironically, one of the most important figures of the Nanking Safety Zone, a man who undoubtedly saved countless lives, was a Nazi. John Rabe, “the Oskar Schindler of China,” worked for the German Siemens Corp. in Nanking and employed many Chinese workers. Rabe was instrumental in creating and leading the Nanking Safety Zone, and often his swastika armband acted as a talisman, keeping predatory Japanese soldiers from sneaking inside and kidnapping women.

While most Japanese soldiers held nothing but contempt for the American, French, and British leaders of the Safety Zone, they both feared and respected the power of their German ally and had no desire to run afoul of Rabe.

By early February 1938, the Japanese military leadership finally decided to rein in their soldiers. Order was gradually restored, Chinese citizens were encouraged to return to their homes, and the Nanking Safety Zone no longer proved necessary.

Comment on this story

With the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Second Sino-Japanese War morphed into the larger struggle of the Second World War. Japan's continued military commitment in China strained its resources throughout that conflict, helping to ensure Allied victory in 1945.

As military historian Andrew Roberts wrote in his book “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War,” “In 1937 the Japanese Army massacred 200,000 civilians and raped a further 20,000 women after the fall of Nanking. Yet the Chinese somehow stayed in the war, with the result that Japan had to divert vast forces to fighting in the interior of China, which she could otherwise have dedicated to the invasion of India, or Australia, or both.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com