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?
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.
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.
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.
Introduce Universe of Obligation
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.”3
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.