Historically, the Nanjing massacre took place in the aftermath of the Battle of Shanghai. This battle, which pitted the forces of Nationalist China (Guomindang) against the Imperial Army and Navy from August 13 to the end of October 1937 (final retreat on November 13), is one of the largest battles of the Second World War on East Asian soil with the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. And yet, it remains unknown in the West. This battle, partly urban, led to a bitter defeat of the nationalist troops, which lost some 250,000 men – a central element in their later defeat against the Communist forces. Their all-out resistance against Japanese forces and the war crimes committed on both sides led to a relentless pursuit by the Japanese who followed the Guomindang forces in their debacle towards the capital, Nanjing, in the hinterland. Then followed the fall of Nanjing and the massacre of the military and civilians between December 1937 and February 1938.
More recently, the clash that took place at UNESCO in Paris in the autumn of 2015 between the Minister of Education, Hase Hiroshi, representing the Japanese government, and UNESCO, after the recording as « memory of the world » of historical documents relating to the Nanjing massacre, recalls not only the topicality of the issue of the Asian and Pacific War – a term referring to the aggression against China and the war against the United States – but also the « blockages » in the memory of that war and the weight of lobbies in Japan today. Organizations, which must be called negationist, were able to impose this issue among the leading circles of the country, transforming it into a political issue as early as the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, at the end of 2015, the Japanese government threatened UNESCO, of which it is the first financial provider (the United States having de facto suspended its financial assistance and finally withdrawn from the organization in October 2017), to stop all payments in an attempt to carry out a coup de force that is not unlike the way Japan had already tried to have its claims recognized against the League of Nations by threat in 1932. The elements classified as « memory of the world » are not new, however. They are all recognized by historians. Most of the documents as well as many testimonies were already presented during the Tokyo trial. As it stands, Japanese historiography on the Nanjing massacre is the most developed in the world; it has developed since the 1970s through a dialogue with the historiography of both China and Taiwan. However, it cannot be considered that Western European and North American historiographies have sufficiently studied this issue and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Not only do Western works as a whole remain largely confined to European fields, but, in addition, these Japanese and Chinese historiographies are almost unknown to Western European historians, particularly specialists of the Second World War.
The Nanjing massacre is thus both a historical issue, which has not been widely studied in Western Europe, and a topical one. This conference aims, as part of an ongoing research programme on these themes, to shed light on the genealogy of East Asian historical research of the past half-century, while showing its characteristics, tensions and overlaps.
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