Bringing the Nanjing Atrocities into Your Study of World War II | Facing History & Ourselves
Person holds The Nanjing Atrocities Crimes of War book

Bringing the Nanjing Atrocities into Your Study of World War II

Use Facing History’s collection of resources about the Nanjing Atrocities to expand students' understanding of the scope and impact of World War II across the globe.

December 13 marks the anniversary of the Nanjing Atrocities, a seminal event in the history of World War II, yet one that is often overlooked.

In most classrooms in the US the study of World War II begins in Europe 1939. But the accounting of the history of World War II in East Asia and the mass violence that took place in Nanjing two years before is missed by many Westerners.

Extensive scholarship exists about the atrocities, and many films explore the events. There are numerous organizations dedicated to educating and remembering this history, including China's Nanjing Memorial Museum, which opened its doors in 1985. Yet despite these important efforts, the context and importance of the atrocities is not a well-known part of our collective past.

A Brief Overview of the Events

On December 13, 1937 Imperial Japanese forces began their occupation of China's capital city, then called Nanking. Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army carried out a spree of violence, mass rape, looting, and murder of civilians and noncombatants throughout the city that lasted until approximately the end of February 1938. The carnage did not go unnoticed. Journalists and Westerners living in the city documented the violence in photographs and film, and wrote about the atrocities for the world to know. And within China, stories of the Japanese Imperial troops' brutality before, during, and after the attacks spread far and wide.

Facing History’s Nanjing Atrocities Collection offers a comprehensive set of resources, lessons, and activities to guide you as you bring this history to your classroom. 

Consider the following reasons to teach about the Nanjing Atrocities.

Broaden Your Teaching of World War II Beyond a European Focus

Fran Sterling, who helped research and write Facing History’s The Nanjing Atrocities Collection, reflected on acknowledging her own lack of awareness about this history:

“I began to ask myself, ‘Why, as a student and teacher of World War II, and as an educator deeply committed to teaching about the Holocaust, don't I know very much about how the war played out in China and throughout Asia? Why was Imperial Japan's record of war crimes and crimes against humanity during World War II often overlooked or outright ignored in my classroom—and many others like it in the western world?’”

Studying the particular history of the Nanjing Atrocities can give young people and teachers a more balanced and complex understanding of World War II and its legacies today. It can also widen students’ perspectives and foster global awareness. Dr. Jing An, an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of South Dakota who uses Facing History’s Nanjing resource to prepare future educators, states: 

“If teachers don’t teach these topics, generations will eventually forget they ever happened. This won't help students with their global awareness and it will deprive students of the opportunity to compare and contrast similar historical events that happened between different groups of people during the same time.”

Explore the Range of Human Behavior

This history provides an opportunity to examine human decision-making in many forms. To begin to comprehend the gravity and legacy of the Nanjing Atrocities, we need to look at much more than the immediate events of 1937 and 1938. We need to know the context and factors that led to the outbreak of violence: longstanding tensions with Western colonial nations in the region, conflict between China and Japan and differences between the two cultures, and decisions individuals and leaders made at the time. 

Studying the atrocities committed in Nanjing allows for inspection of the consequences that can arise when nationalism and militarism remain unchecked. And by exploring stories of resistance and rescue, including those of the individuals of the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee, who risked their own safety to document the atrocities and rescue upwards of 200,000 Chinese nationals during the height of the violence, this history underscores the power and importance of upstanders.

Acknowledge a History That Is Often Forgotten

Evidence of the atrocities exists in the testimonies of survivors, soldiers, and witnesses, as well as in photographs, films, and legal records. Yet this history is widely unknown outside of East Asia. At the same time, the differing ways this history has been treated within East Asia have important repercussions in contemporary geopolitics. Learning about the events in Nanjing sheds light on the significance of historical legacy and collective memory, and the consequences when atrocities are forgotten or denied. The annual commemoration of the Nanjing Atrocities provides an opportunity to acknowledge and reflect on that horrific event, and to consider what steps we can take to avoid such horrors in the future.

The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War by Facing History & Ourselves

The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War, a companion to the Nanking Atrocities Collection, details the events that unfolded in China and Japan in the years leading up to World War II and the Japanese occupation of Nanjing. Following our scope and sequence, this book lays a broad framework and contains an in-depth examination of the war crimes known today as the Nanjing Atrocities.

At the heart of Facing History’s study of the Nanjing Atrocities are these questions:

  • How can we help to prevent these atrocities?
  • How can our study of this moment in history be more comprehensive, so that we as citizens of today can help prevent similar atrocities from taking place?

The forward to Crimes of War was written by Benjamin Ferencz, a Facing History speaker who served as the Chief Prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. "It must be recognized that there is no such thing as a war without atrocities," Ferencz writes.

Used together or individually, our resources on the Nanjing Atrocities offer an opportunity for students to confront the consequences of war while also illuminating this watershed moment in history. It is a small step in preventing future war and crimes against humanity.