Genocide is the act of a group of people killing another group because of that group’s race ethnic background, religious beliefs or political opinions. Throughout the centuries, races, ethnicities, and social groups have committed acts of genocide towards one another because of their differences; our time is not excluded from this. Most of these genocides share some of the same basic characteristics that pave the way for violence to occur. What we consider the modern world has experienced its fair share of genocides. In 1994 the world watched the tension explode between the two ethnic classes in Rwanda, the Hutus and Tutsis, as thousands of Hutu extremists began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus. This conflict in Rwanda had been built up from years of animosity against each other due to favoritism towards the Tutsis during the European colonization of Africa. Not all genocides share many similarities; turn the clock back to 1937 in Nanking, China. Chinese soldiers that were defending the city of Nanking retreated from the invading Japanese forces, soon after the Japanese soldiers began a slaughter of the Chinese soldiers and Nanking civilians. Although the Nanking genocide and the Rwandan genocide share some basic similarities, these two genocides had significantly different characteristics such as international attention, the atrocities committed during the genocides, the reasons that provoked their occurrence, and the aftermath that followed these genocides.
The Rwandan genocide and the Nanking genocide both occurred because of a disdain towards another group, but the reasons for that disdain have their own individual roots. When the European countries began colonizing Africa in the 1800s, Rwanda’s two ethnic classes were split by the Europeans; the Hutus became lower ranked in Rwandan society than the Tutsis and subjected to unfair treatment. Over the course of many years of mistreatment, Hutus developed a great hatred towards the Tutsis and eventually overthrew the social order; Hutus were now higher in society and made the Tutsis experience what they had. The Rwandan genocide was strictly a result of past conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis, whereas the Nanking genocide was more of a result of greed and previous battles between the Japanese and Chinese. Before the dawn of WWII, Japan had been envious of China’s supply of raw materials. The Japanese thought that by securing China they could gain control of vast raw materials to advance their industry.
All genocides occur as a result of tensions bursting into violence between different groups of people, but the catalysts that lead to the first eruptions of violence in the Rwandan genocide and the Nanking genocide are far different. When the President of Rwanda was assassinated in 1994, Hutu extremists began killing Tutsis and anyone else who did support the ethnic cleansing. The Rwandan genocide claimed the lives of 800,000 people in a span of 100 days. On December 12, 1937, Chinese soldiers retreated into the city of Nanking to hide from the oncoming Japanese soldiers. The Japanese saw this as dishonorable conduct on the battlefield and began hunting down the 90,000 Chinese soldiers. Many of the Chinese soldiers changed from their army uniforms into street attire in hopes of hiding in plain sight. This clothing change is what lead the Japanese soldiers to the random selection of Chinese civilians who they suspected of being a Chinese soldier without any evidence to support claims. An estimated 300,000 civilians were killed, and Japanese soldiers raped 20,000 women over a course of six weeks.
The international community plays a key role in modern day genocides. Once the international community recognizes an event as genocide, decisions on how to intervene and suppress the violence are stressed with urgency. Both the Rwandan and Nanking genocides are somewhat similar in the way the international community responded. During the Rwandan genocide the UN had sent some soldiers in the beginning, but failed to provide any more as the violence intensified. During the Nanking genocide, the international community was not aware what had taken place until after the fact. In History Space’s article, “The Rape of Nanking 1937-1938,” the author states, “Overall, most Americans had only a passing knowledge or little interest in Asia. Political leaders in both America and Britain remained overwhelmingly focused on the situation in Europe where Adolf Hitler was rapidly re-arming Germany while at the same time expanding the borders of the Nazi Reich through devious political maneuvers.”1 The Nanking genocide was cast in the shadow of Germany’s aggression and the growing concerns in Europe. In both of these genocides the international community gave little to no attention to a serious problem at hand.
It is always controversial when labeling an incident as genocide or accusing individual’s involvement because of the guilt it bears on the nation or members of a nation accused; this is why almost all genocides are disputed or denied. The guilt assigned for the Rwandan genocide has been much more accepted by the international community than the guilt for the Nanking genocide. In 1997 the first trials of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda began prosecuting the individuals responsible for preparing, organizing and orchestrating the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan genocide is widely recognized among the international community; however the UN and the United States are often criticized for their lack of action taken during the crisis. Trials prosecuting those who orchestrated the genocide were held for both the Rwandan and Nanking genocide. From 1946-1948, 28 men were prosecuted for their involvement in the Nanking genocide by the IMTFE (International Military Tribunal for the Far East).2 There was some action taken to punish those involved in the genocide; but the assignment of guilt didn’t seem to sit very well with the Japanese government. In the article, “Case Study: The Nanjing Massacre 1937-38,” the author states, “In 1991, censors at the Ministry of Education "ordered textbook authorities to eliminate all reference to the numbers of Chinese killed during the Rape of Nanking because authorities believed there was insufficient evidence to verify those numbers" (Chang, The Rape of Nanking, p. 208).”3 Even after the trials had ended and 25 men found guilty, much of the Japanese government continued to claim death tolls and accounts had been over exaggerated or deny that it ever occurred.
The Rwandan genocide is often referred to as how the international community should not act during genocide. The Nanking genocide is often referred to as the forgotten genocide of WWII, so essentially the same reputation given to the Rwandan genocide could be applied to the Nanking genocide as well. When we analyze the key differences between genocides and the responses given to them, we can learn from mistakes made during that crisis and learn how to better approach similar situations in the future, because they will undoubtedly reoccur. When we learn the history behind tension between groups, we can carefully chose the best way for the international community to respond so that a future violence can be avoided, and therefore guilt does not have to be assigned. Knowledge we gain from past experiences can only better our future decisions, although it is ultimately our choice to use and apply it.
1 History Place, The Rape of Nanking 1937-1938 300,000 Deaths, http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/nanking.htm, 3/25/08