Nanjing 1937

Nanjing 1937

Battle for a Doomed City

Peter Harmsen

Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia, 2015, 368 pages

Book Review published on: March 30, 2017

The second Sino-Japanese War is attracting increased attention as a more balanced view of China's role in World War II is emerging in Western historiography. Harmsen's two books on the opening phases of this conflict contribute to this new view. The first, Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, details the savage four-month battle for that city. In the volume being reviewed, Harmsen documents the five-week Japanese campaign to seize Nanjing, China's capital


The Japanese advance over the approximately two hundred miles between Nanjing and Shanghai was marked by a series of fierce battles. This resistance by the outnumbered and under-equipped Chinese armies enraged the Japanese, who believed they were rescuing China from foreign domination; brutality increased as the fighting intensified. The Japanese government assumed Chiang Kai-shek would sue for peace after Nanjing was captured, and they would be free to make China a Japanese client.

Harmsen uses numerous published Chinese, Japanese, English, Russian, and German sources to present this story. His narrative shifts between combatants as he relates tactical and operational details, always emphasizing the confusion that occurs in battle, and then explains strategic views from the Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and German perspectives.

One little known aspect of the campaign is Soviet aid to China with aircraft and pilots despite the government's fervent anticommunism. Joseph Stalin sent aid because his goal was to prevent Japan from advancing into the Soviet Far East from Manchuria. Harmsen also shows the tension between the Japanese army factions which wanted to advance into China and those which wanted to invade the Soviet Union. Members of the former urged the local army commanders to advance without explicit permission from Tokyo.

A second little known aspect was the German government's unsuccessful diplomatic effort to reconcile China (their old ally) and Japan (their new ally). The German Military Mission, which equipped and trained Chiang's army was one part of a Sino-German cooperative relationship that blossomed in the 1920s. Some German officers remained in China working for the Kuomintang government after the mission was recalled in 1938. Harmsen also outlines the unsuccessful diplomatic efforts China made to draw other powers with interests in Asia into an anti-Japanese coalition. One can contrast the experiences and sympathies of the Germans who tried to broker a settlement between China and Japan with Soviet military support to China to prevent Japanese expansion. Harmsen also underlines Japanese brutality and the fissiparous nature of the Chinese polity.

Finally, he relates the position and role of foreigners in Nanjing during these weeks, specifically detailing the ways they tried to shield Chinese civilians from Japanese brutality. Using diaries, letters, and memoirs he explains their motivations, fears, and hopes as the Japanese army drew closer. He details a semi-familiar story of establishing a safety zone to protect civilians from atrocity—men from torture and summary execution, women from rape and murder. Given the circumstances, no exact number of the dead or raped is available, but estimates of the atrocities committed on civilians range from forty thousand to three hundred thousand dead.

He places all these events in their contemporary context, delineating both Chinese and Japanese motivations and the consequences of these events. The Japanese shelling foreign ships, sinking the USS Panay, and their general lack of respect for both the Chinese and foreigners foreshadow an aggressive Japanese imperialism that aimed to replace foreign colonialism with its own brand, under the guise of liberation. A close reading of Harmsen's book shows that the past is never really past, but lives on in our lives and helps explain some of the anti-Japanese feeling in China and Southeast Asia.

Book Review written by: Lewis Bernstein, Woodbridge, Virginia