Seventy-five years ago, on December 13, 1937, the world saw firsthand the scope of horror which followed the marriage of totalitarianism and modern technology. The Rape of Nanking, which lasted for weeks and produced perhaps 380,000 tortured and murdered women, children, and men, happened while the world watched. The sheer rate of murder has not been surpassed in modern history. The total number of deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz was greater than at Nanking, but the rate of dying was not. The Gulag absorbed tens of millions of innocents with perhaps twenty million dead, but this happened over decades.
The savagery of Japanese soldiers at Nanking appalled European missionaries and businessmen, who had seen mind-numbing carnage twenty years earlier in the First World War. The sheer scale of rapine was not exceeded until the Red Army marched as our "liberating ally" through Eastern Europe and raped, often to death, young girls, old women, and pregnant women of all nationalities and creeds -- a crime against humanity which, like all crimes against humanity committed by communists, was mockingly dismissed by Stalin when confronted by Tito's deputy, Milovan Djilas.
The long and ugly war of Imperial Japan against China, often overlooked because of the Japanese maltreatment of European soldiers and civilians, would claim millions more and would include the deliberate dropping of all sorts of chemical and biological weapons on the Chinese -- something even the Nazis did not do in waging war. But Nanking was special.
Nanking was proof that great evil, inflicted on an innocent people while the whole international community watched, would not provoke war. In this respect, it differed from the genocidal campaigns of the Turks against the Armenians -- the Turks were already at war with the Allied Powers. It differed from the Holomodor, the mass extermination of millions of Ukrainians (and others) within the Soviet Union, because Ukraine had historically been part of Russia.
Nanking, in sheer numbers of deaths and atrocities, was perhaps one thousand times more murderous than Kristallnacht, which was also committed against German nationals (although Hitler had by then stripped German Jews of citizenship). Nothing in the Spanish Civil War, infamous for its bloodthirsty character, remotely approached the Rape of Nanking. Guernica, for example, the Spanish Nationalist attack on a small Spanish town, was as modest beside Nanking as the Spanish Republican artillery attacks on other towns of Spain (which have been scrupulously washed from most histories).
What happened at Nanking still lives in the heart of China. It is as real to Chinese as the Holocaust is to Jews, and for similar reasons: peaceful, civilized, established communities were disemboweled by totalitarian armies that belied the cultural heritage of their homelands. Japan and Germany have both proven civilizations as brilliant as any on earth. If we rely upon art, culture, social cohesion, and related creations of men to stop evil, then there should never have been a Rape of Nanking or a Holocaust.
Those interested in what caused Nanking and Auschwitz need look no farther than the elevation of man above God, which was well understood at the time. Pierre van Paassen wrote in his 1939 book, Days of Our Lives, that Germany was farther on the road to dechristianization than even the Soviet Union. Stewart Herman, the pastor of the American Church in Berlin and an implacable foe of the Nazis, who left Germany after Pearl Harbor, noted: "In my six years in Germany I never saw an impartial, to say nothing of favorable, article on Christianity." There were two separate books, both The War Against God, describing what was happening in totalitarian regimes at the time (Carmer, 1943 and Dark and Essex, 1938).
Imperial Japan was hostile to Christianity, like the Nazis, and Japan was also hostile to Jews. An Italian writer in the 1930s, Vespa, noted at the time: "Japanese infamy reached its heights in the attacks against the Jewish organizations and synagogues." Maurice Hindus noted in 1942: "They [the Japanese] have embarked on a campaign of anti-Semitism which in the virulence of its language is comparable to that of Nazi Germany. All the more extraordinary is this campaign because the Japanese know hardly anything about Jews."
Who were the heroes at Nanking? Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary, risked her life so courageously that she is still remembered today. Ernst Rabe, who because he was a German was given special respect by the Japanese, was just as heroic. What motivated him? Rabe, like Vautrin, stated without hesitation that God was his guide. His diary on December 24, 1937 records: "I'll close today's entry with a prayer in my heart: May a gracious God keep all of you from ever again having to face a crisis like this one in which we now find ourselves." On May 9, 1945, when Rabe saw, again, nearly every woman he knew raped by Red Army soldiers, his diary showed no loss of faith: "When need is greatest, God is nearest."
What stands between us and that depthless evil the world saw at the Rape of Nanking? Not faith in ideology or in progress or in civilization. The only hope we have from evil is faith in a loving God.