The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by Iris Chang, Basic Books, New York, 1997, $25.

After taking Nanking (now Nanjing), the Nationalist capital of China, on December 13, 1937, the Japanese subjected the city to an orgy of murder, pillage, arson and rape almost without equal in the 20th century. Approximately 260,000 men, women and children were killed in what Iris Chang rightly describes as a “forgotten holocaust.”

Chang, a Chinese-American, has written a searing account of the sack of Nanking. Although she is two generations removed from the events she describes, Chang first heard stories of the Japanese atrocities from her immigrant parents. She wrote this book to provide a detailed account in English of that barbaric episode.

Using primary sources such as diaries, government documents, newspaper accounts and interviews with survivors, Chang fashions a graphic tale of almost unparalleled atrocity. Men, women and children were beheaded, machine-gunned, crushed by tanks, burned and buried alive. An estimated 20,000­80,000 women of all ages were raped by Japanese troops.

Although it is clear that she is passionate about the subject, Chang gives a balanced account. She does not condemn the entire Japanese people for what occurred but does take issue with modern-day Japan’s effort–with the exception of a few brave individuals–to deny or cover up the truth.

Rape and pillage are as old as war itself, but what is particularly disturbing about the sack of Nanking is that nothing was taboo. And the horror lasted six to eight weeks.

Chang’s account is also a story of courage–of a small band of foreign residents who created a Nanking Safety Zone and rescued more than 100,000 individuals at the risk of their own lives. The Rape of Nanking is a compelling work that brings to light a horrible episode.

Eric Niderost