The Nanjing Atrocities: The Range of Responses | Facing History & Ourselves
 Chinese citizens, and American and British visitors, evacuate Nanjing in preparation for an attack by the Japanese.

The Nanjing Atrocities: The Range of Responses

Students analyze the spectrum of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations during the Nanjing atrocities.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




Two 50-min class periods
  • Genocide


About This Lesson

In this lesson, students will be introduced to a framework for understanding human behavior during the Nanjing atrocities and consider the range of choices available to individuals, communities, and nations in the midst of war. Students will read firsthand accounts in which perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, resisters, and rescuers describe their choices during this period and reflect on both the reasons behind their actions and the consequences. Students will grapple with questions of moral responsibility, and they will reflect on why some people decided to rescue and resist—by establishing the Nanjing Safety Zone—while others stood by or even condoned the atrocities that occurred.

How do nations create their identities by separating “us” from “them”? How might a sense of nationalism built around such ideas contribute to the outbreak of war, the dehumanization of enemies, and the perpetration of atrocities? 

  • What choices did individuals, groups, and nations make in response to the events of the Nanjing atrocities?
  • What factors influenced their choices to act as perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, or rescuers?

Students will analyze, discuss, and explain the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations during the Nanjing atrocities and explore the possible motivations and reasons for decision-making in this time of crisis.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 6 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 3 handouts
  • 5 readings, available in English and in Spanish
  • 1 assessment
  • 1 extension activity

From December 13, 1937, through approximately the end of March 1938, soldiers from the Japanese Imperial Army unleashed a wave of violence, murder, and rape on the population of Nanjing. In the midst of this violence and chaos, people were forced to make difficult and consequential choices.

For the Chinese, the choice was whether to resist the Japanese military, and how. Despite severe losses, the Chinese Nationalist forces did mount several successful resistance efforts. For example, in April 1938 in the town of Taierzhuang in southern Shandong, Nationalist forces trapped and inflicted heavy casualties on Japanese troops. The Battle of Taierzhuang became a celebrated effort among Chinese resistance forces and was enormously significant for the Chinese overall, as it shattered the myth of Japanese invincibility during the first years of the war. Resistance also took other, non-military, forms. In this lesson, students will learn about one facet of the Chinese resistance, the All-China Resistance Association of Writers and Artists (ACRAWA), which used literature and music to foster a revolutionary spirit among the masses and unify the country against Japanese imperialism.

For Japanese diplomats and leaders of the Japanese media, both of whom had tacit or explicit knowledge of the atrocities committed at Nanjing, the choice was whether to protest or stand by while war crimes were committed in their nation’s name. Ultimately, none of these people took action to stem the violence. This lesson provides students with the opportunity to confront this inaction by introducing them to a framework of human behavior for making sense of these decisions. They will bring this knowledge into the next lesson as they consider the complexities of who ultimately bears responsibility for the Nanjing atrocities.

Finally, for Westerners in Nanjing, the choice was whether to take action and help those targeted by violence or stand by in the midst of the crisis. While many Westerners chose the latter, a small group made up largely of businessmen, missionaries, and educators elected to defy the requests of their governments and remain in Nanjing to help those most in need. This handful of individuals organized what became known as the Nanjing Safety Zone—a demilitarized area located in the city center where Chinese refugees could seek shelter and medical care. The Nanjing Safety Zone (NSZ) stands as an exceptional episode in the midst of the Nanjing atrocities. Upwards of 250,000 Chinese survived during the height of the occupation while living within the Nanjing Safety Zone.

These individuals involved with the NSZ not only worked to provide food, shelter, and medical care but also arduously documented their daily work in letters to family, diary entries, and letters of protest sent to Japanese officials within and outside of Nanjing. By reading the diaries and letters of a few NSZ members, students will gain insight into the individual practical and moral considerations involved, as well as the perils of humanitarian intervention in the midst of wartime atrocities. They will also have the opportunity to learn and reflect upon the range of moral possibilities individuals face during periods of extreme violence, war, and atrocities.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

The readings in this lesson briefly reference the topic of sexual assault, although not in detail. School systems often have their own guidelines for talking about sexual violence in the classroom. Please check with your administrator before engaging students with the materials. To introduce topics such as sexual violence, it is critical to review classroom norms in order to ensure and maintain a safe classroom environment.

  • If you would like to devote more class time on Day 2 to the discussion and journal entry, students can forgo the suggested posters, which can be time-consuming to make. To help the class follow the oral presentations, you or a member of each group could record key information on the board while the students are speaking. Alternatively, if you have access to a document camera, you might project one copy of each group’s completed The Nanjing Atrocities: The Range of Human Behavior handout on the board during each presentation.
  • If students cannot finish the position paragraph assessment in class, you can have them finish it for homework.

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Day 1

  • Set the tone for today’s class by having students respond to the following question in their journals:

What does it take to intervene to try to save someone from violence and injustice? When do you think it is necessary to do so? What do you think might be some risks in trying to intervene? Explain your thinking.

  • Tell students that in this lesson they will be building on their study of the Nanjing atrocities by examining the responses from individuals and nations. Before they do, students will need to understand some terms that describe a range of human behavior in response to unjust and troubling actions.
  • Pass out the handout Human Behavior Vocabulary Terms and instruct students to use the context clues in the sentences of the first column to predict the definitions of the underlined words.
  • After asking a few students to share their predicted meaning of each word and how they came to that conclusion, you can share the dictionary definition and have them record the information in the third column of the chart.
    • Perpetrator: A person carrying out a harmful, illegal, or immoral act. Victim: A person being targeted by the harmful, illegal, or immoral acts of a perpetrator.
    • Resister: Someone who refuses to comply with something, through either action or argument.
    • Bystander: A person who is present but not actively taking part in a situation or event.
    • Upstander: A person speaking or acting in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.
    • Rescuer: A subcategory of the term upstander: one who takes action directly to save people from harm, including hiding them, taking their children into their homes, helping them get visas to flee to safe countries, or helping in other critical ways.
  • Invite students to critique the dictionary definitions. Do students have any questions about these definitions? How are they similar to or different from the students’ own definitions? Are the dictionary definitions adequate, or do they need to be further revised?
  • You might point out to students that these dictionary definitions are written in the present tense (“carrying out” and “being targeted”) and ask them to consider the fact that a person may act as a perpetrator or bystander at one moment in time and be targeted as a victim at another moment in time. Therefore, these are roles that people play rather than permanent identities.
  • Divide the class into five groups, and assign each group one of the following readings:
    1. All-China Resistance Association of Writers and Artists
    2. The Nanjing Safety Zone
    3. Western Diplomats
    4. Japanese Diplomats 
    5. The Japanese Press
  • Explain to the class that today they will be collaborating with their group members to read stories of perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers during the Nanjing atrocities and then answering questions. Each group will make a presentation about its reading in the next class period.
  • Distribute one of the readings to each group, along with the handout The Nanjing Atrocities: The Range of Human Behavior for each student. Read the instructions on the handout aloud so the groups are clear about the steps for reading, annotating, and discussing the questions together. Tell students that they will have time to prepare their presentation at the start of the next lesson. If any groups did not finish responding to their reading’s questions, they should do so outside of class for homework.

Day 2

  • Tell students that they will be presenting their readings to the class, focusing on the choices, motivations, and consequences of the decisions that were made. So that they can be mindful of time, let students know at the outset of the activity the time at which they will begin their presentations.
  • Each group should prepare a poster that draws from the information they collected yesterday on the handout The Nanjing Atrocities: The Range of Human Behavior and includes the following information:
    • The individuals, groups, or nations described in the reading
    • One significant choice that individuals, groups, or nations made in the reading
    • A motivation, reason, or explanation for this choice
    • The possible or actual consequences of this choice
    • A sentence describing how the individuals, groups, or nations in the reading characterize those to whom they are responsible and for whom they are accountable
    • A sentence describing where in the range of human behavior (perpetrator, bystander, upstander, rescuer) the reading’s individual, group, or nation falls, and why (could be more than one category)
    • A significant quotation from the reading
  • After the groups have finished preparing their posters, ask them to select two students to provide a brief summary of their responses and present the information to the class. Alternatively, you might ask each group to present, with each student sharing one or more aspects of the poster.
  • Pass out the handout Choices and Consequences for students to record notes on during the group presentations, and have one pair from each group present their information to the class.
  • Students in the class should record notes on the handout as they listen to their peers. There is space at the bottom of the handout for students to add their own questions.
  • To help students synthesize the material presented in this lesson, lead a class discussion about decision-making in times of crisis using the following question:
    • When looking at these readings as a whole, what similarities and differences do you notice as you consider the circumstances under which people chose to perpetuate violence, stand by, or take action?


  • After learning about the range of responses to the Nanjing atrocities from individuals, groups, and nations, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to reflect, synthesize, and clearly communicate their thoughts on human behavior and rescue.
  • The following two quotations come from scholars writing about rescue efforts during the Holocaust, but they can be applied to responses to other atrocities as well. Ask students to choose one of the following quotes and write a paragraph that uses evidence from the readings to support or refute the author’s viewpoint.

Author Cynthia Ozick writes:
For me, the rescuers are not the ordinary human article. Nothing would have been easier than for each and every one of them to have remained a bystander . . . I do not—cannot—believe that human beings are, without explicit teaching, naturally or intrinsically altruistic. I do not believe, either, that they are naturally vicious, although they can be trained to be. The truth seems to be somewhere in the middle: most people are born bystanders. 1

Author Malka Drucker writes:
Categorizing the rescuer can be misleading; it separates us from reality. We may prefer to believe that these people, examined collectively, possess incomprehensible heroism or goodness, because then we don’t have to speculate how we would behave in similar circumstances. Perhaps it is easier to acknowledge evil because we do not want to know that we have the same capacity for goodness. To understand these people as no different from us, possessing the same doubts, fears, and prejudices, raises the uncomfortable question, “Would I do what they did?” 2

  • 1Cynthia Ozick, "Prologue," in Malka Drucker and Gay Block, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust (Holmes & Meier, 1992), xii.
  • 2Malka Drucker and Gay Block, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust (Holmes & Meier, 1992), 6.

Extension Activities

The concept of universe of obligation provides a useful framework to help students understand the ways that nations define who deserves protection and who does not. Sociologist Helen Fein, who coined the term in her study of genocide, defines “universe of obligation” as the circle of individuals and groups within a society “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.” 1

Consider using resources and activities from the lesson Understanding Universe of Obligation to introduce this concept to your students and help them understand the factors that might lead societies, governments, or individuals to tighten or expand their universes of obligation.

  • 1Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), 4.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the two 50-min class periods lesson plan.

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