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Salon: "Wartime Everydayness"

Nov 15, 2018 05:00 pm to 07:00 pm
Organiser: Transcultural Forays

Discussants:

Hans Martin Krämer (Japanese History)
Mirjam Schnorr (History of the 20th century)

"Wartime Everydayness"

Episodically horrific but historically insignificant: this assessment remained the consensus about China’s Second World War in English language scholarship well into the 1990s. The real driver of change had been the revolution that had erupted out of village China and that had propelled the Chinese Communists to power. The Nationalists came in for harsh criticism: they had contributed little to the defeat of Japan, let alone Germany; they largely avoiding fighting the Japanese in order to gather up Allied supplies to use them late against the Communists; and they had been an incompetent and dictatorial regime. If Western historians had little reason to research China’s war against Japan, those in the PRC had even fewer; for them, to argue anything else than that the Communists had triumphed because they had led a momentous rural revolution was simply dangerous. In their version, the Nationalists had fought the Japanese in a limited way only because the Chinese Communists had pushed them to do so. Communist guerrilla warfare had been far more effective.

Things have changed. Now most historians, including in China, agree that the Nationalists did most of the fighting while the Communists sat out the war in the hills of northwest China. The Nationalists, the argument is, conducted a defence of their country that was surprisingly effective given the state of its economic development. They led an agricultural society to resist invasion by a modern industrialized army, doing so alone for four long years while the Western powers in Asia - the UK, the USA, France, and the Netherlands – stood idly by.[1] Their adoption of a defensive strategy aimed at exhausting the Japanese was not a sign of Nationalist incompetence, but the only available means for them to conduct the war. Historians no longer dismiss China’s Second World War as historically inconsequential: the survival of China as a country and a culture had been at stake.

Despite these advances, we still know little about the war beyond the battlefield. The Nanjing Massacre, the chemical warfare experiments of Unit 731, and sexual slavery are well-known, including beyond academic circles. These were horrific events, but the fighting had other, more mundane but just as pervasive, consequences. In eight years of fighting, hundreds of thousands soldiers battled across the country, tens of millions of refugees fled their homes, and commodity flows of for instance rice, wheat, oil, and salt, all critical to survival, were disrupted repeatedly. Shops closed, banks became bankrupt, and markets shut down. Temples, churches, schools, and universities were wrecked. In mobilizing their societies, governments improvised new administrative structures, pioneered new ways of acting as states, and extracted huge sacrifices from their subjects. The war was disruptive, but people had to adjust and develop new normals. My interest is in these everyday consequences of the war.

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