Book Review: Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City


by Peter Harmsen

Philadelphia & Oxford: Casemate, 2015. Pp. 336. Illus., maps, append, order of battle, notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1612002846

The Battle for Nanjing

Nanjing in 1937 appeared simply destined as a whistle stop along Japan’s ongoing conquest of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, known in China as the War of Resistance. Following Japan’s hard fought win over Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi)’s determined defense of Shanghai, Japan seemed just shy of total victory with an anticipated capture of China’s then capital, Nanjing (or Nanking). Harmsen’s latest work provides a military narrative of the Battle for Nanjing, the end of which led to the Nanjing Massacre, drastically changing the complexion of what Japan had called the “China Incident”. Harmsen has ably continued his narrative of the early period of World War II, when China stood alone against Axis aggression while the West wallowed in appeasement, writing from the end of Harmsen’s previous Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (Casemate 2013, reprinted 2015), up to the time of the Nanjing Massacre. Harmsen deftly explains events from diplomatic and martial perspectives, movements from armies down to individual soldiers, including strategic and tactical concerns, both Chinese and Japanese, while skillfully laying the background for Nanjing’s fall. Details such as how some Japanese units were reservists who wanted to avoid fighting, and stubborn Chinese willing to die for their capital, humanizes both sides beyond the usual abbreviated accounts of fanatical Japanese or retreating Chinese. A particularly damning conclusion could be drawn from the realization that Japan at that time was actually unprepared for war, which further condemns the international community’s failure to resist aggression effectively, not the least of which were the multiple times that naïve Westerners convinced Chinese troops to surrender, only for the prisoners to be brutally slaughtered. The book exhibits some questionable choices, such as a somewhat reflexive description of China’s then First Lady, Madam Chiang as “flamboyant” or apparently an incomplete explanation of China’s historical resource limitations when criticizing China’s medical and logistical weaknesses.  

But if Harmsen’s account would be most faulted, it may be that the political and emotional context of the Battle for Nanjing could have been developed more fully to explain the historical importance of the Nanjing Massacre, which today still provokes a region-destabilizing anger far beyond any tired academic reference to “reverberations”. To be fair, however, if Harmsen had attempted to explain the strategic sociological context for what is also known as the Rape of Nanjing, Harmsen would have had a near impossible task of retreading the horrific groundwork, despite any academic flaws, by Iris Chang in Rape of Nanking (Basic Books 1997, paper edition 2013).   He, and likely anyone else, would have had difficulty in exceeding the visceral details that Iris Chang had grimly accepted as her duty to provide about a massacre mostly ignored in the West despite occurring in full international view. And if Harmsen had deliberately avoided a full repetition of Chang’s work, he was wise in doing so. Just as a narrative concerning the Allied military drive towards Berlin could be distracted by sickening minutiae of the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking could overwhelm any of what military readers could accept as the typical wages of war. 

Harmsen is clearly aware of the Nanjing Massacre’s historical importance, not only in ending any credibility for Japan to negotiate an honorable peace, but also in steeling China’s resolve to resist despite paltry international support, which ultimately resulted in over 20 million Chinese deaths, and the crippling of a nascent state that, instead of evolving into a genuine democracy such as enjoyed currently by Taiwan, trapped a quarter of the world in totalitarian extremism for decades. Harmsen’s yeoman work in describing China’s role during World War II avoids more biased accounts usually found in English language products tainted by ideology, politics, and even racism. While Nanjing 1937’s military narrative perhaps should be read in conjunction with a work like Rape of Nanking that has more details on the aftermath to provide a full context; Harmsen continues to offer a welcome, readable, multi-faceted look at the origins of World War II in Asia which other reports usually gloss over in their haste to reach the events after Pearl Harbor.


Note: Nanjing 1937 is also available in a digital edition, ISBN 978-1-61200-285-9


Our Reviewer: Ching Wah Chin, a member of NYMAS, has lectured and written widely on East Asian History. His most recent review for Strategy Page was The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable
Reviewer: Ching Wah Chin    

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