Category Archives: Historians

Iris Chang’s book “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II”: Interpretations and Consideration of Victimization and Survival

The Rape of Nanking by historian Iris Chang

The Rape of Nanking by historian Iris Chang

The following work was submitted by me in the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program for Writing at the University of California, Berkeley Extension. The class was The Craft of Reading which was completed during 2015’s summer semester.

For the residents of Nanking China in 1937, the horrors and atrocities which they encountered made victims of those who were not only killed at the hands of the Japanese or had died during Japanese occupation, but also of those who had survived. While there are individual definitions for each term ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’, the rape, violence and murder blurs interpretation and definition of those who had survived. A duality exists between the terms victim and survivor, but there are succinct differences in the context of this historical event. This paper deems Nanking survivors to also be considered as victims for the physical and emotional scars which they carried throughout the remainder of their lives; moreover, all Chinese citizens of Nanking during this dark episode in history may be regarded as victims.

Determination and classic definition of the terms victim and survivor shall be considered, interpreted and contrasted to those definitions of the writer. Examples of both terms as researched and added by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II shall be included followed by supporting analysis.


The Concise Oxford American Dictionary defines victim as: “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action” (1011). When we consider the historical narrative “victims of the Holocaust” for example, we think of those who perished or were killed at the hands of Hitler’s “final solution.” As a historian, the writer defines victim along these same lines as considered in Nazi Germany’s Holocaust: a victim is first and foremost one who has lost his or her life as a result of an event. Secondly, a victim can be one who also survives an event but is negatively affected physically and/or emotionally for the rest of his or her life. The most striking example of this victim-survivor duality is highlighted by Chang, from her interview with Nanking survivor and victim Li Xouying; Chang writes:

Li would suffer both pain and embarrassment from her wounds for the rest of her life. Mucus leaked from a gaping hole on the side of her nose, and tears ran down her eyes during bad weather or bouts of illness. (Miraculously, although the Japanese had stabbed the whites of her eyes with their bayonets, Li did not go blind). Every time she looked in a mirror, she saw the scars that reminded her of that terrible day. December 19, 1938. “Now, after fifty-eight years, the wrinkles have covered the scars,” she told me during my visit to her apartment in Nanking. “But when I was young, the scars on my face were obvious and terrible (99)

It is clear from Chang’s heartbreaking narrative that although Xouying had survived her harrowing attack by the Japanese soldiers that she was also a victim of the Nanking massacre who had to live with the reminders.

Not to be forgotten is the city of Nanking. As Chang alludes to, Nanking has also become a victim. In recounting her summer of 1995 research visit to record oral testimonies for the book, she realized the loss of the old city and locations where atrocities occurred, to progress:

Sad to say, if I had visited Nanking only a decade earlier, I would have found many sites of the massacre intact, for the city was then a model of historical preservation and much of its 1930s architecture was still standing. But in the late 1980s and 1990s the city underwent a frenzy of land speculation and construction, demolishing most of its ancient landscape and replacing it with new luxury hotels, factories, skyscrapers, and apartment buildings (182).

Chang’s research and argument suggest that the city of Nanking went from survivor to victim, spurred by eventual modern-day progress along with the City of Nanking and People’s Republic of China intent on moving beyond that city’s regrettable past.


Interestingly, the Concise Oxford American Dictionary defines survivor as: “a person who survives, esp. a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died … the remainder of a group of people or things” (916). The writer adds that: a survivor can be a victim as determined by the extreme nature of the event, and by the degree in which he or she was affected.[1] Survivors can be victimized. In studying history, we must consider definitions as they may differ from those of everyday usage. In this instance, the writer’s definition adds further qualification beyond “remaining alive after an event” (916).

In Chapter 9, “The Fate of the Survivors,” Chang recounts her 1995 visit to Nanking and its post-war contrast to the modern city:

Underneath the prosperity, however, hidden from view, were the last human links to the past—the elderly survivors of the Nanking massacre. Scholars in the city guided me to a few of them scattered throughout Nanking…. What I found shocked and depressed me. Most lived dark, squalid apartments cluttered with the debris of poverty and heavy with mildew and humidity. I learned that during the massacre some had received physical injuries so severe they had been prevented from making a decent living for decades (183).

It is clear that although the remaining survivors Chang witnessed during her 1995 visit to the city were still alive, they had become victims to their own government; abandoned by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which failed to secure reparations from Japan in favor of “international legitimacy” (183). Such reparations from Japan might have given these surviving victims dignity in their few remaining years.

Victims of the Nanking massacre were not only Chinese. Heroes of the Nanking Safety Zone lost their health or their lives early due to the strain of enduring hardship: Robert Wilson the sole surgeon in Nanking could not work past the age of 40 (186); Wilhelmina Vautrin, of Ginling Women’s Arts and Science College took her own life in 1940 (187); and John Rabe, “The Nazi who Saved Nanking” died of a stroke, in 1950, following a difficult and destitute life back in Germany under Hitler and post-war Germany (194). Again, we see the blurred lines, or duality of victim and survivor. Although the three aforementioned heroes briefly survived their time in Nanking, they ultimately became victims.


The historical evidence brought forth by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking strongly suggests consideration for redefining of victim and survivor in this historical context. While victims of the Nanking massacre may either be dead or alive, survivors are victims who live.

In summarizing the rape of Nanking in context today (at the time of its writing), Chang writes: “But what makes the blemish particularly repugnant is that history has never written a proper end to the story. Even in 1997, the Japanese as a nation are still trying to bury the victims of Nanking—not under the soil, as in 1937, but into historical oblivion” (219-220). However we might interpret the blurred lines between the terms victim and survivor as they relate to the rape of Nanking, by denying responsibility for their own genocide in China, Japan is dismissive of those who victims who survived their brutal occupation of Nanking.

Works Cited

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: BasicBooks, 1997. Print.

Concise Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.


[1] There may be no more extreme event than that of war.


The Need for Wider Perspective from International Historians


Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War

American historians who have had their work published are occasionally suspected of partiality in transmission of their histories of the Second World War. Read enough of what others have to say about this history to-date and you’d likely hear assertions similar to “the Americans think they alone won the war,” or “they take the credit for victory.” Have we as U.S. readers unknowingly become programmed to accept our national collective literature and POV (point of view), and none other? Could it be that less international work is translated and published here domestically?

We know that Japan and Germany are reluctant to openly recognize their aggressive roles in the 1930s and 40s. Thus we see few books domestically from Japanese or German historians of their historical perspective. The former Soviet Union had been an altogether different case due to censorship and Stalin’s documented “rewriting of Soviet history.” But can you recall just one book published about the War on the Eastern Front, written by a Russian historian or Soviet-era writer, that we have been offered here in the United States?

This dilemma begs many questions. Are more Second World War histories written by American historians than others around the world, which in turn might lead to this perception of nationalism? Asked another way, are American writers turning out more history books on World War II to satisfy a huge American market, more than historians from other countries, save for the British possibly?

In all fairness, it was the Allies who won the war. Great Britain strongly embraces its history in both World Wars. They both provide a sense of national pride. The Telegraph’s website has a wonderful in-depth microsite dedicated to World War II. British historians are second only to their American counterparts in published histories of the war. Some of the finest works have been authored by British historians including: Antony Beevor, Richard Evans, Niall Ferguson, Max Hastings, Ian Kershaw, Richard Overy, and Anna Reid to list just a few.

As research historians we are implored to consider all facts—whether determining a thesis or writing new histories. The same should hold true for us as readers of history. We need perspectives of writers from many countries. For additional viewpoints, there are superb contributions to the history of the Second World War written by historians from other countries and different ethnicities. After all, it was a world war, wasn’t it?

Here are but a few recent contributions from historians outside the U.S.

Karl-Heinz Frieser – Germany

Karl-Heinz Frieser’s The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West from 2005 is an exceptional contribution to the history of Germany’s early trample through Western Europe. Frieser was a colonel in the German army at the time of this book’s publication date. It is interesting perspective from Frieser; himself an officer in today’s German military who seeks to dispel the blitzkrieg myth. His arguments are persuasive and convincing. The reader becomes acutely aware of the inevitable downfall of this European bully once Germany’s focus turned eastward in June 1941.

Eri Hotta – Japan

The very latest contribution on Japan’s initiation and involvement in Asian and Pacific aggressions comes from historian and Professor Eri Hotta. Her 2013 book Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy is a fresh look back at the events which led to Japan’s Asian and Pacific hostilities. Born and educated in Japan as well as the United States and United Kingdom, Dr. Hotta taught at Oxford and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Halik Kochanski – Great Britain

The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War is an outstanding new contribution to the history of Poland during World War II. Published in 2013 by Harvard University Press, Halik Kochanski covers a subject that should have greater awareness among the literature of the war. She has taught at King’s College London and University College London. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.


Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Historians, WWII in Europe


Richard Hofstadter: Consensus Historian & Voice for Today

Historian Richard Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter’s (Aug. 6, 1916 – October 24, 1970) influence and school of thought as a “consensus historian” and noted intellectual of the 1950s has stature and relevance today. Born and raised through the tumultuous eras of the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War, these trying times helped to shape his zest for critical thought on the social and political issues of his own day, and their historical impact.[1] Hofstadter has been widely regarded to be as much a part of the history in which he wrote. Hofstadter’s writing on historical issues spanned the three decades of the 40s, 50s and 60s. His untimely passing came while working on a three-volume set on American political culture in 1970. His wife, Beatrice Hofstadter ensured that his first contribution to the three-volume set, America at 1750 (1971) saw publication per her late husband’s wish. His books are still highly regarded and widely utilized as text books in colleges and universities today. Most comfortable in academia, Hofstadter decided against a family-influenced entry into law school in favor of graduate and doctoral study at Columbia University in New York following graduation from the University of Buffalo.[2]  Hofstadter’s first published work Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) happened to be his doctoral dissertation and a portent of future distinction. Influenced early on in his academic career at Columbia by famous historian Charles Beard (Nov. 27, 1874 – Sept. 1, 1948) Hofstadter broke from Beard’s school of thought which held that “economic and environmental explanations for historical causation” were the basis for historical movement.[3] Hofstadter held that Progressive historians (conflict model) had taken their ideas and school of thought as far as it could go: “Historians were now eager to emphasize the multiple roots of causation (rather than a single economic interpretation) and borrowed heavily from the social sciences to explore the moods and mentalities of their subjects.” [4]Hofstadter’s most important publications as books include: Social Darwinism in American Thought, (1944) The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, (1948) The Paranoid Style in American Politics, (1952) The Age of Reform, (1955) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. (1962) These five contributions to historical thought have defined Hofstadter as historian and provide a showcase for the liberal consensus view. Also noteworthy contributions however comprising less contemporary times for Hofstadter are: Great Issues in American History: From Settlement to Revolution, 1584-1776, (1958) Great Issues in American History: From the Revolution to the Civil War, 1975-1865, (1958) Great Issues in American History: From Reconstruction to the Present Day, 1864-1981, (1958; revised by Beatrice Hofstadter in 1982) and America at 1750: A Social Portrait. (1971; published after the author’s passing)

Hofstadter’s Consensus View Relevant Today
Social Darwinism, Hofstadter’s first slice of brilliance written in 1944 as his doctoral dissertation holds the most promise as a single body of work and one that could have easily been revised and marketed today. Criticized at the time for its lack of primary research and sources, Social Darwinism theorizes that under the guise of “only the fittest shall survive” (Spencer) the less fortunate and able in our society cannot advance. Hofstadter cites the sociological/biological theories of men like Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Lester Ward and the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin to great effect. Driving his point home through the usage of related quotes by notable names from businessmen of the era, Hofstadter solidifies the work and its thesis of natural selection in American society. From John D. Rockefeller: “The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…. The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it.” [5]

Hofstadter closes Social Darwinism by adding that: “… such biological ideas as the ‘survival of the fittest,’ whatever their doubtful value in natural science, are utterly useless in attempting to understand society…” [6] Just as quickly as he postulates the validity of biological theory to understanding society Hofstadter refutes the ideas. Some of the theories do hold relevance today, most notably in today’s business climate and need no further elucidation here.

No “sophomore slump” for the newly-minted preeminent historian Hofstadter four years later with his next book The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. In this enduring classic Hofstadter dares to shed new light and interpretation on American heavyweight leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, and FDR. With no concern for historic sentiment, Abraham Lincoln is cast in a new light which only a liberal consensus historian as Hofstadter can achieve… or get away with: “Had he lived to seventy, he would have seen the generation brought up on self-help come into its own, build oppressive business corporations, and begin to close off those treasured opportunities for the little man.” [7] Ever the skeptic, Hofstadter has his most fun with fellow liberal FDR whom he calls “The Patrician as Opportunist”. While the President did come from a privileged background, there was no blueprint for successful leadership in these difficult times as Hofstadter adds. [8]  Hofstadter’s writing in this second literary contribution borders on cynicism and provocation but never loses its brilliance.  Hofstadter expressed his doubts at Roosevelt’s ability to affect his post-war plan for America with its sweeping utopian vision. FDR’s legacy remains intact as a result of his untimely death while in office:

“Roosevelt died in the midst of things, and it is still possible for those under his spell to believe that everything would have been different if only he had survived to set the world on the right path in the postwar period. Further, the very lack of confidence in the American future and of a positive program of ideas increases popular faith in the wonder-working powers of the great man.” [9]

In this post-war period now devoid of Roosevelt’s vision, Hofstadter gains solid footing as an historian and intellectual. The emergence of the Cold War in 1947 and the political turmoil in America with McCarthyism became a fertile backdrop for Hofstadter. In his view the Cold War was in fact brewing at the end of the Second World War: “At the time of his [Roosevelt] death the pattern of the ‘cold war’ was only beginning to emerge.” [10]

Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics written in 1952 is a collection of essays written over the course of 14 years of which the author explores the recurrence of extremist views of conspiracy in politics throughout American history. In what Hofstadter terms “pseudo-conservatism”, his profile of the right-wing authoritarian appears throughout his writings and career:

“The restlessness, suspicion, and fear shown in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the anguish which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics in the past twenty years.”

Hofstadter’s efforts in The Paranoid Style mark the first time we begin to see his brilliance in challenging the conservative political right; one that had remained an underlying tone for the remainder of his career.

Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Age of Reform from 1955 still resonates today: “The Age of Reform, Columbia historian Alan Brinkley declared thirty years after its 1955 publication, ‘is the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth-century America.’ It remains in our own day a sparkling achievement in historical analysis, widely read, provocative, and persuasive.” [11]

Hofstadter’s political analysis of the Populist to Progressive movements in The Age of Reform is highlighted by the industrialization of America and this transitional phase. Taking dead aim at the Populist movement, Hofstadter shows his disdain for the farmers in the chapter From Pathos to Parity. Section three entitled The Vanishing Hayseed leaves little room for doubt of his stance.

Balancing views of anti-Semitism against this backdrop opened up criticism from those close to him before the book’s publication: “A full history of modern anti-Semitism in the United States would reveal, I believe, its substantial Populist lineage…” [12] Despite his harsh tone of the agrarian society and the farmers the book was still well-received among historians.

Hofstadter was every bit as part of the history in which he wrote, and was especially quite at home in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life written in 1962. At war with McCarthyism and the political “right” in the 1950’s, Hofstadter found great ease as an historical actor himself, fighting the anti-intellectualism which he saw. Reaching back to 18th century America, Hofstadter wrestles with the beginnings of this phenomenon in Protestantism in New England. An obvious intellectual himself, he highlights the vacillations of anti-intellectualism in the business world between the “self-made men” such as Andrew Carnegie and others and the ultimate necessity for educated men in the business world at the beginning of the 20th century. America’s evolution from an agricultural society to that of more industrialized culture and society provides the impetus for the continued rise in educational attainment as Hofstadter sees it. This growth in education leads not only to better “big business” but to more efficiently operated farms from the 1800s and into the 1900s. Hofstadter shifts his emphasis from the rise in intellectualism in business to the educational systems itself. His analyses of the problems faced by educators in America’s school systems at the time of this book’s writing are still topical today.

Whether Richard Hofstadter has earned his place at the forefront of the elite group of 19th and 20th Century historians such as Charles Beard, C. Vann Woodward, Frederick Jackson Turner and others will be debated. The legacy left by Hofstadter is two-fold: he was very much an actor in the history of which he wrote. At times his writing may have breached the dreaded barriers of bias, challenged by his own passion and closeness to the subject matter. It is in his passion for contemporary history where the liberal Hofstadter puts his stake in the ground.  The writing he has left has behind serves as a model for critical thought in academia and intellectual circles for the intertwined social and political issues of today.

Had Hofstadter lived to see America in the 21st century he would have gained an even greater and more appreciative audience. He would have relished revising Anti-Intellectualism in American Life for example, arguably his greatest work, to include the current cultural, social, and political chaos in America.

Or is it better that Hofstadter and his genius remain fixed to their place in history, just as the greatness of Roosevelt and his post-war vision was never tested?

Brown, David S. Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform. 1955. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1960.
———. America at 1750. 1971. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
———. The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It. 1948. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
———. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. 1962. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
———. Great Issues in American History, Vol. I: From Settlement to Revolution, 1584-1776. 1958. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 1969.
———. Great Issues in American History, Vol. II: From the Revolution to the Civil War, 1765-1865. 1958. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 1969.
———. Great Issues in American History, Vol. III: From Reconstruction to the Present Day, 1864-1981. 1958. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 1982.
———. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. 1952. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
———. Social Darwinism in American Thought. 1944. Reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

[1] David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), xv.

[2] Ibid, 18.
[3] David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 33.
[4] Ibid., 53.
[5] Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; repr., Boston: Beacon Hill, 1992), 45.
[6] Ibid., 204.
[7] Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948; repr., New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 137.
[8] Ibid., 414.
[9] Ibid., 455-456.
[10] Ibid., 454
[11] David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 99.
[12] Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Vintage Books, 1955) 81.

Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Historians

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