Looking back to Nanjing
I’m German, born in 1952 –after WWII. As a German I’ve always been confronted with the holocaust and the atrocities committed by Germans during WWII. I’ve studied social sciences and German literature and worked as a teacher at high school for 20 years. There has not been a single year in which I haven’t taught in one way or the other about German history and what present and future generations can – and have! – to learn from it.
I’m also a Buddhist priest. Since 1996, I’ve taken part in several Bearing Witness Retreats at the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau organized by the Peacemaker Community and I’m organizing meditation retreats in the former concentration camp Weimar-Buchenwald since 2001.
Four weeks ago I took part in a 4-day-conference in Nanjing on the Nanjing Massacre organized by Kazuaki Tanahashi (AWWA – A world without Armies) and Prof. Dr. Zhang Lianhong (Nanjing Massacre Research Center).
It was not evident that this conference could take place:
I used the word ‘Nanjing Massacre’ and I do so, because I see enough evidence that a massacre of more than 300.000 women, men and children took place 70 years ago in Nanjing and that more than 80.000 women have been systematically raped by Japanese soldiers. (For historians it may be important if it were exactly 300.000 or 270.000 or 310.000 and they may continue to discuss this for further decades. For me the exact figure is not that important: It’s the suffering of each single person, each single family that counts.)
There is a very strong denial of the Nanjing Massacre in Japan. – And the deniers seem to be in powerful positions: Some of the Japanese participants were afraid that they may be attacked by deniers after their return to Japan. – People who have criticized the role of the Japanese emperor in the Japanese invasion of China have been killed by Japanese nationalists.
The conference was only possible because the agreement was reached to speak about the ‘Nanjing Tragedy’ instead of the ‘Nanjing Massacre’. So the official title of the conference was:
Bearing witness to the past, for living together in the future:
On the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Tragedy
The conference had two parts: The first two days were dedicated to a remembering on a more personal level, whereas the second two days were a symposium for historians and other scholars from both China and Japan with about three to four papers an hour. – As the detailed history of the events is not the focus of my interest, I only participated in the events during day 1 and 2. I don’t want to give an account of all that happened during the two days, but just mention certain things that are important to me.
At the beginning of the conference two survivors of the massacre, a man and a woman, told their stories – and the stories of their families – to an audience of about 150 people, among them 15-20 Japanese, two US-Americans and one German.
It’s important for survivors to be able to tell their stories in public and to be listened to. It’s a kind of public recognition of their suffering. – At the same time – having heard quite a number of testimonies at several concentration camps – I ask myself the following questions:
- How often have these survivors already told their stories?
- Is that really helpful on the personal level or does it fix the identity as ‘victim’?
- Is there any help for the survivors to overcome the traumas or are the traumatized survivors used in an ongoing process of ascription of guilt?
Who takes care of the man who told how his whole family was killed by Japanese soldiers after he has told his story?
Who takes care of the woman who told that she was raped at the age of 12 several times by Japanese soldiers after she has told her story?
It’s also important for the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators to listen to the testimonies. That’s part of the process of bearing witness. There are always things we don’t want to see, things we don’t want to hear. If we open up to the suffering created by our family, our friends, our nation in the past – despite the pain that it creates for us now – we integrate our common history. That makes us feel more complete than before.
The Japanese who came to Nanjing were willing to see and hear. We all went to a place near the banks of the Yangtse river, were hundreds or thousands Chinese have been killed. The place has been praised for its beauty over centuries. Now, on a cliff there is a small stone column commemorating the killing that took place only some meters away. Stone steps are leading up to the column that is protected by traditionally built roof on three pillars. One after the other we walked up the steps and offered a flower.
In a touching ceremony the Japanese participants covered the steps to and the floor around the memorial column with white linen. They took of their shoes, walked to the memorial column again, bowed down to the ground and mourned for several minutes.
The next day, some of them told, that they had been afraid to come to Nanjing, that it had been very hard for them to be in Nanjing, but that the ceremony at the memorial column had changed there feelings. Now they felt relieved and peaceful.
The process of healing through bearing witness and integrating the shadows of history I know from the retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Weimar-Buchenwald also worked at Nanjing.
An afternoon was dedicated to the suffering of women during the Japanese invasion. Tenth of thousands of women were raped in Nanjing and many of them killed in ways that are painful to imagine.
Having heard so many stories about rape and murder not only in Nanjing but also in Serbia, Dharfur and other places, I have difficulties to see those rapes and killings as parts of the respective wars: Isn’t it more correct – or at least as correct – to see these acts as part of an ongoing war of men against women that in it’s most violent forms manifests as rape and murder? If we consider that hypothesis as possibly true: How is this war manifesting in our every day lives now? What can we – especially we men! – do to end this ongoing war around us?
I thank Kazuaki Tanahashi for having asked me to come to Nanjing. The days in China have broadened my view.