In late 1937, over a period of six weeks, Imperial Japanese Army forces brutally murdered hundreds of thousands of people–including both soldiers and civilians–in the Chinese city of Nanking (or Nanjing). The horrific events are known as the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking, as between 20,000 and 80,000 women were sexually assaulted. Nanking, then the capital of Nationalist China, was left in ruins, and it would take decades for the city and its citizens to recover from the savage attacks.
Preparing for Invasion
Following a bloody victory in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese turned their attention towards Nanking. Fearful of losing them in battle, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek ordered the removal of nearly all official Chinese troops from the city, leaving it defended by untrained auxiliary troops. Chiang also ordered the city held at any cost, and forbade the official evacuation of its citizens. Many ignored this order and fled, but the rest were left to the mercy of the approaching enemy.
A small group of Western businessmen and missionaries, the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, attempted to set up a neutral area of the city that would provide refuge for Nanking’s citizens. The safety zone, opened in November 1937, was roughly the size of New York’s Central Park and consisted of more than a dozen small refugee camps. On December 1, the Chinese government abandoned Nanking, leaving the International Committee in charge. All remaining citizens were ordered into the safety zone for their protection.
Arrival of the Troops
On December 13, the first troops of Japan’s Central China Front Army, commanded by General Matsui Iwane, entered the city. Even before their arrival, word had begun spreading of the numerous atrocities they had committed on their way through China, including killing contests and pillaging. Chinese soldiers were hunted down and killed by the thousands, and left in mass graves. Entire families were massacred, and even the elderly and infants were targeted for execution, while tens of thousands of women were raped. Bodies littered the streets for months after the attack. Determined to destroy the city, the Japanese looted and burned at least one-third of Nanking’s buildings.
Though the Japanese initially agreed to respect the Nanking Safety Zone, ultimately not even these refugees were safe from the vicious attacks. In January 1938, the Japanese declared that order had been restored in the city, and dismantled the safety zone; killings continued until the first week of February. A puppet government was installed, which would rule Nanking until the end of World War II.
Aftermath of the Massacre
There are no official numbers for the death toll in the Nanking Massacre, though estimates range from 200,000 to 300,000 people. Soon after the end of the war, Matsui and his lieutenant Tani Hisao, were tried and convicted for war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and were executed. Anger over the events at Nanking continues to color Sino-Japanese relations to this day. The true nature of the massacre has been disputed and exploited for propaganda purposes by historical revisionists, apologists and Japanese nationalists. Some claim the numbers of deaths have been inflated, while others have denied that any massacre occurred.
This article originally appeared on history.com