Teaching the Nanjing Atrocities

World History

Essential Question

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?


This unit draws upon and adapts resources from the book The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War and its related media collection. This unit consists of five lessons designed to lead high school students through an examination of the war crimes perpetrated by Japanese troops in the Chinese city of Nanjing during World War II. Focusing on the historical context for the atrocities committed in Nanjing, the unit also incorporates elements of the Facing History and Ourselves scope and sequence. Students bear witness to the event through the voices of Nanjing survivors, reflect on the consequences of human action and inaction during times of crisis, and consider how to achieve justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of atrocities. Above all, the five lessons in this unit stress an appreciation of the dangers of unchecked nationalism and militarism. By examining what happens when a nation fosters a climate of superiority, intolerance, and dehumanization, students will gain a deeper understanding of the Nanjing atrocities and the events of World War II in East Asia.


Genocide & Mass Violence

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Begin here for helpful information about teaching this unit.

Lesson 1 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

Western Imperialism and Nation Building in Japan and China

Students are introduced to the history of Western imperialism in East Asia and its influence on the identities and ambitions of Japan and China.

Lesson 2 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

Japanese Imperialism and the Road to War

Students examine sources that shed light on the underlying causes of the outbreak of World War II in Asia.

Lesson 3 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

Bearing Witness to the Nanjing Atrocities

Students confront the enormity of the crimes committed during the Nanjing atrocities by listening to survivor testimony.

Lesson 4 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

The Nanjing Atrocities: The Range of Responses

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

Lesson 5 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

Justice and Judgment after the Nanjing Atrocities

Students explore the complexities of achieving justice in the aftermath of mass violence and atrocities as they learn about the Tokyo Trials.

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