Japanese military leadership was not pleased that a group of Westerners had stayed behind in the city of Nanjing to face the military occupation in late 1937. Everyone in Nanjing had heard that the Japanese military was pursuing the Three Alls Policy - kill all, burn all, steal all. The group of Westerners - some diplomats, missionaries, businessmen, journalists and a doctor (27 people altogether) - chose to stay specifically because they had heard what the Japanese were doing. Sharing deep friendship and love with their Chinese brothers and sisters, they realized their presence provided the slim chance that tragedy might be averted.

Under the leadership of John Rabe, the German ambassador to China, they created the Nanjing Safety Zone where 200,000 residents of Nanjing who had been too poor to flee sought protection. The approaching Japanese military authorities refused to acknowledge the Zone, yet it was hoped the Zone might be respected due to the presence and efforts of these remaining volunteers, who would be there to bear witness to the world. Indeed, Japanese leadership formally objected to the fact that neutral observers would be witness to what they knew their soldiers were going to do in that city.

Those in the Safety Zone mostly found protection, but those who had not been able to get to the Zone were at the mercy of the Japanese soldiers, who showed no humanity and no restraint. Over 20,000 women (and young girls) were raped. Over 300,000 innocent Chinese were murdered through some of the most horrific methods. Men were buried alive, live prisoners were used for bayonet practice, civilians were routinely beheaded with swords, gasoline was poured over restrained captives who were burned to death. In one of the most infamous situations Japanese soldiers entered Ginling Women’s College attempting to select 100 female Chinese students to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese soldiers. Despite American teacher Minnie Vautrin’s attempt to protect the women seeking sanctuary at her college, 21 former prostitutes came forward to placate the Japanese captors, in an attempt to protect the terrified students.

The Memorial Hall attempts to serve a few agendas. One is to document that this atrocity occurred, since there are deniers in Japan to this day who point to propaganda films made by the Japanese military to cover up what truly happened. Another agenda is to provide a chronology or history of the events which also reveals the horror and lasting trauma of what happened. A third agenda is to help the viewer connect on a level of deep compassion and grief with the victims. Finally, an attempt is made to make a plea to all visitors to demand that peaceful solutions to international crises always be explored and that we, as a globalized society, demand the highest standards of civilized and humane behavior from each other. 81 years after the Nanjing Massacre nations are still too willing to go to war, ordinary people are still too willing to succumb to feelings of hatred, racism and nationalism to support war. The Memorial Hall is a call to all of us to look at the unacceptable consequences of one of the worst massacres of the 20th century and to demand that we all rise to higher standards and live lives of mercy, forgiveness, constraint, compassion and tolerance.

Walking through the Memorial Hall is an intense and deeply affecting experience. The chief way that the Hall allows an emotional connection to the victims is through a large, darkened space where countless photos of victims are displayed from floor to ceiling. Walking through this space is a heart-breaking experience, as you can see the individual personalities, the humanity in each person, the whimsy and mirth, the kindness, studiousness, sincerity, the basic decency and innocence of these people who were brutally murdered. The anguish and horror of their suffering and deaths resonates deeply within you as you go through this room. There is a somberness and profound poignancy in this space that I have never experienced in any other museum or context. The designers of this part of the Hall have created what amounts to a sacred area.

The museum also does an exemplary job of presenting biographies of those Westerners who stayed. The Japanese attempted to keep these folks from leaving Nanjing to stop them from reporting on what was happening, but Archibald Steele of the Chicago Daily News was able to get out two days after the Japanese arrived and bribed someone to wire a story to the world that the streets of Nanjing were now filled with civilian corpses. John Rabe is, of course, the most problematic of these folks to explain. He was a member of the Nazi Party, yet he seriously expected that Hitler would do something about the situation. This was a year before Kristallnacht, but it is hard to believe that educated and successful folks in Germany had not perceived the racial and ethnic hatred underlying National Socialism. For his trouble he was fired from his post and spent the rest of his life in such extreme poverty that after the war the mayor of Nanjing traveled to Germany with donations from Nanjing residents to help him survive. During the time of occupation he was called the Living Buddha of Nanjing.

Then there was Minnie Vautrin, a woman from a small town in Illinois who had graduated from Columbia University and who became the president of Ginling Women’s College in Nanjing. She stood up to the Japanese soldiers on a daily basis as they attempted to kidnap, rape and murder her students and others in the sanctuary of her facility. She was considered among the toughest of those who tried to protect the civilian population. Yet, she was to go home a couple years after the initial occupation of Nanjing and commit suicide. She apparently felt that she had not done enough, even though many say she had been among the most heroic. Before she died she had written that if she could be blessed with ten lives, she would gladly give all of them for the people of China.

Why did the Japanese do this? One American academic suggested that the Chinese soldiers who defended Shanghai had been so fierce and brave that the Japanese soldiers were outraged by this, and took out their outrage on the people of Nanjing. This is an absurd excuse for the horrors that followed in that the attack on Nanjing followed several weeks after the end of the Shanghai campaign. The Japanese officer corps was there to demand professional military discipline and restraint and it did not. Another theory is that Japanese soldiers were encouraged by their higher ranking officers to engage in such brutality as a terror tactic: to try to frighten Chinese soldiers and civilians into submission.

When I read Iris Chang’s book on the Massacre I tried to understand what could make an individual soldier rape a pregnant woman or bayonet a living person tied to a pole. Most people would not even conceive of such things and would meet such proposals with a sense of repugnance. How does one either conceive of doing such things or find himself able to do such things once they are suggested? The individual Japanese soldier had been taught to believe that he was a member of a superior ethnic group and he was encouraged to show contempt for non-Japanese. To demonstrate his superiority among his peers he was encouraged to overcome, as it were, that sense of dread and emotional pain we feel when confronted with the suffering of others.

To feel pain due to another’s pain was a sign of weakness. To show mercy and compassion was a sign of weakness. Only by ignoring everything that made him a decent human being could the Japanese soldier meet the barbaric standards established for him by his militarized society. What happened at Nanjing shows we have a capacity to lose our humanity quite easily. But what happened at Nanjing shows we also have a capacity to risk and sacrifice our own lives defending what is precious and to be revered about ourselves. The Nanjing Massacre is one of the events of the last century which must be confronted and understood fully. This is essential for the humane development still possible for our current century. The statue representing a goddess of peace outside the Hall attests to the belief that this is, indeed, possible.