Hell on Earth: George Fitch

In many places in China foreigners were bystanders to the conflict, but in Nanjing something very different occurred. In China’s capital city a small group of Westerners chose to remain while others stood by or fled the city. This small group formed the Nanjing safety Zone Committee and provided immediate refuge for those Chinese remaining in the city. While these foreigners were not trained diplomats but missionaries and businessmen, their voices, abundant letters, and diaries documented the atrocities and served as firsthand accounts to the violence engulfing the city. They regularly appealed to the Japanese embassy, wrote to friends, family, and international organizations all in a desperate effort to spread awareness in order to stop the horror raging through Nanjing.

One member of the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee, George Ashmore Fitch (1883–1979), was born in Soochow (Suzhou), China, and was the son of Presbyterian missionaries. He graduated from the College of Wooster in Ohio and obtained a bachelor of divinity at Union Theological seminary in New York. in 1909 he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church and returned to China to work with the Young Men’s Christian organization (YMCA) in Shanghai.1

Photograph of George Fitch, an American Protestant Missionary in China when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Nanjing in December of 1937. George Fitch was the administrative director of the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee responsible for trying to create an area of protection from the marauding army. George Fitch and other members of the Nanjing Safety Zone kept diaries that document the extent of the atrocities committed by the Japanese army at the time.

By 1937 Fitch was head of the YMCA in Nanjing when the city was invaded. He promptly joined efforts to form and maintain the Safety Zone Committee, soon serving as its director. When the Chinese government fled the city, Fitch also served as acting mayor of the city until the Japanese occupational forces installed their administration.

During the first several months after Nanjing was occupied, Fitch took and collected still and moving pictures depicting the Japanese atrocities. In February 1938 Fitch smuggled these images back to the United States in the lining of his overcoat and traveled throughout the country giving lectures and showing his collection of films and other evidence of the Japanese atrocities.

In the following letter home, Fitch describes what struck him as a “hell on earth” with “no parallel in modern history,” urgently depicting conditions that he knew few people could testify to and he feared few would even hear of. His account was not written retrospectively but as the events unfolded in front of his eyes. Fitch also sent the letter to Wellington Koo (Koo Wei-jun), the Chinese representative to the League of Nations, and to Australian reporter Harold J. Timperly of the Manchester guardian. Portions of Fitch’s letter were later published in anonymity in Timperly’s book What War Means.2  An excerpt from George Fitch’s letter:


Nanking, X’mas Eve, 1937.

What I am about to relate is anything but a pleasant story; in fact, it is so very unpleasant that I cannot recommend anyone without a strong stomach to read it. For it is a story of such crime and horror as to be almost unbelievable, the story of the depredations of a horde of degraded criminals of incredible bestiality, who have been and now are, working their will, unrestrained, on a peaceful, kindly, law-abiding people. Yet it is a story which I feel must be told, even if it is seen by only a few. I cannot rest until I have told it, and perhaps fortunately I am one of a very few who are in a position to tell it. It is not complete—only a small part of the whole; and God alone knows when it will be finished. I pray it may be soon—but I am afraid it is going to go on for many months to come, not just here but in other parts of China. I believe it has no parallel in modern history.

It is now X’mas eve. I shall start with say December 10th. In these two short weeks we here in Nanking have been through a siege; the Chinese army has left, defeated, and the Japanese have come in. On that day Nanking was still the beautiful city we were so proud of, with law and order still prevailing; today it is a city laid waste, ravage, completely looted, much of it burned. Complete anarchy has reigned for ten days—it has been a hell on earth.  Not that my life has been in serious danger at any time; though turning lust-mad, sometimes drunken soldiers out of houses where they were raping the women is not, perhaps, altogether a safe occupation; nor does one feel too sure of himself when he finds a bayonet at his chest or a revolver at his head and knows the Japanese Army is anything but pleased at our being here after having advised all foreigners to get out. They wanted no observers. But to have to stand by while even the very poor are having their last possession taken from them—their last coin, their last bit of bedding (and it is freezing weather), the poor rickshaw man his rickshaw; while thousands of disarmed soldiers who had sought sanctuary with you together with many hundreds of innocent civilians are taken out before your eyes to be shot or used  for bayonet practice and you have to listen to the sound of the guns that are killing them; while a thousand women kneel before you crying hysterically begging you to save them from the beasts who are preying on them; to stand by and do nothing while your flag is taken down and insulted, not once but a dozen times, and your own home is being looted; and then to watch the city you have come to love and the institution to which you had planned to devote your best years deliberately and systematically burned by fire—this is a hell I had never before envisaged.

We keep asking ourselves “How long can this last?” Day by day we are assured by the officials that things will be better soon, that “we will do our best”—but each day has been worse than the day before. And now we are told that a new division of 20,000 is arriving. Will they have to have their toll of flesh and loot, of murder and rape? There will be little left to rob, for the city has well nigh been stripped clean. For the past week the soldiers have been busy loading their trucks with what they wanted from the stores and then setting fire to the buildings. And then there is the harrowing realization that we have only enough rice and flour for the 200,000 refugees for another three weeks and coal for ten days. Do you wonder that one awakes in the night in a cold sweat of fear, and sleep for the rest of the night is gone? Even if we had food enough for three months, how are they going to be fed after that? And with their homes long ago burned, where are they going to live? They cannot much longer continue in their present terribly crowded conditions; disease and pestilence must soon follow if they do.

Every day we call at the Japanese Embassy and present our pro- tests, our appeals, our lists of authenticated reports of violence and crime. We are met with suave Japanese courtesy, but actually the officials there are powerless. The victorious army must have its rewards—and those rewards are to plunder, murder, rape, at will, to commit acts of unbelievable brutality and savagery on the very people whom they have come to protect and befriend, as they so loudly proclaimed to the world. In all modern history surely there is no page that will stand so black as that of the rape of Nanking.3

George Fitch continued to advocate on behalf of aid to China throughout the span of World War II. His images, diaries, and letters later proved instrumental in an affidavit he filed during the Nanjing portion of the international Military Tribunal for the Far East where he also personally testified. Fluent in Chinese, Fitch did not leave China after the war but remained in the country working for relief organizations until the Communists took over in 1949. He then lived in Taiwan for many years and returned to live in the United States in the early 1960s. He died at the age of 95 in Pomona, California.


  • 1 : The YMCA was founded in 1844 in London, England, by 22-year-old George Williams. The original organization was established as a refuge for Bible study and prayer for young men seeking to escape the hazards of life on the streets of London. The YMCA in China was established in Shanghai in 1900 and in Beijing in 1909.
  • 2 : In the United States this same book was published under the title The Japanese Terror in China.
  • 3 : George Fitch letter home, January 6, 1938, Yale Divinity School Library.

Connection Questions

  1. George Fitch repeats several times that he had “to stand by” and watch the atrocities around him take place in Nanjing. Some may define his action as being a bystander. Professor Ervin Staub defines the bystander as “people who witness but are not directly affected by the actions of perpetrators.”1 According to Staub’s definition was George Fitch a bystander? Why or why not?

  2. Despite the efforts of George Fitch and other members of the Nanjing Safety Zone, their protests to Japanese officials are “met with suave Japanese courtesy, but actually the officials there are powerless.” He notes, “it is the victorious army that gains the rewards.” Do you think the Japanese officials were powerless? What does he mean when he talks about rewards? What are the rewards that the Japanese army gained in Nanjing? How would you describe Fitch’s characterization of the Japanese army and the Japanese officials he met?


  • 1 : Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, (Cambridge University Press, 1989) 86-87, quoted in Margot Stern Strom, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior Resource Book, (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 1994), 370.

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