Taiwan Today recently featured Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze in a superb article, saying it “has all the elements of a fabulous historical novel”. Below is the full text of the publication’s Q&A with the book’s author Peter Harmsen:
Where did you get the idea for the book?
I have been interested in the Second Sino-Japanese War for the past 15 years, and it’s been a source of constant wonder to me that there is so little literature about the subject in English and other western language. After all, it’s not exactly a small part of the war. China tied down a large number of Japanese troops that could have been used in the Pacific, and it also prevented Japan from seriously considering an attack on the Soviet Union to assist Hitler. I gradually decided to try to tackle the issue in a book of my own, but I soon realized that the conflict was so vast and touched the lives of so many millions that no one could do it justice within a single volume. So I gradually narrowed down the topic and eventually ended up doing a book on the most important battle in the first, very violent months of the conflict.
How long did it take you to research and then write it?
In a broad sense, it’s taken me 15 years to prepare this book. That’s how long I have been reading about the war. Since I’m a journalist, I have also interviewed veterans whenever I could. For example, I had the privilege in 2005 of talking to the last known survivor of the so-called “Lost Battalion,” a Chinese unit that was left behind in downtown Shanghai in the fall of 1937 after the rest of the army had withdrawn. The reading and the interviews have all been part of a lengthy process of collecting material for the book, and once I had enough – more than enough, to be more precise – the actual writing of the book took only about a year.
A lot of the photos are listed as “from the author’s collection.” How did you obtain them?
Some of the photos I obtained in antique shops and second-hand bookstores in mainland China. But such items have become vastly more expensive as people on the mainland have become more interested in the war and also have become more prosperous and able to pay more serious money for collectors’ items. So recently I have obtained most of the photos from Japanese collectors.
What about the secondary title, “Stalingrad on the Yangtze.” Is this a sales ploy for the Western market or are you serious?
The term “Stalingrad” is not meant to postulate a complete equivalence between the two events. It’s meant to convey the sense of total war in a densely populated city, a big urban battle waged with little concern for the civilian population – the Chinese civilians, that is. The westerners, who lived in secluded areas of Shanghai at the time, were largely spared because both warring parties were keen to avoid alienating international public opinion.
Do you think WWII really started in 1937?
By saying that the war started in 1937, I hope to persuade readers to abandon some of the usual Eurocentric ways of looking at history. What we have is a gradually escalating conflict between two rather fluid camps that began little by little in the late 1930s before gradually morphing into Armageddon in 1945, the worst slaughter in human history. It wasn’t a world war when Japan invaded the heartland of China in 1937, but neither did it become a world war two years later when Hitler attacked Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany. The conflict only became truly global in the second half of 1941, when the Soviet Union and the United States got involved. So you could say that strictly speaking World War II only lasted from 1941 to 1945. Until then, it had been a gradually expanding fire consuming more and more nations, and the question of when exactly it started is open to interpretation and any decision on a starting date is, in my opinion, somewhat arbitrary. You could say it began in 1939 in Europe, or in 1937 in Asia, or even in 1931, when Japan launched a full-scale invasion of Manchuria, then as now a fully integrated part of China.
You’ve used sources from a wide range of languages. Were there any that presented particular difficulties?
The biggest difficulty was to translate the diaries and memoirs of the Chinese and Japanese soldiers of the time into acceptable English prose for the 21st century. To give one example: In a certain passage that I used for my book, a Japanese soldier was writing in his diary about the other soldiers in his platoon. The challenge was to find a term for the other soldiers that conveyed a certain degree of affection without overdoing the pathos, while also avoiding the opposite trap of sounding too modern and anachronistic. “Comrades” sounded too red. “Buddies” sounded too American. In the end, I settled for “brothers.” In another example, a Japanese soldier described the experience of being fired at by one’s own. My initial impulse was to describe it as “friendly fire”, but again it sounded too contemporary. And I eventually decided to simply have him say, “We are being shot at by our own”.
How about maps? Are there problems getting good maps for the campaign?
Yes. There is no shortage of historical maps of downtown Shanghai, but even the best of them often lack details crucial for understanding the battle. For example, many Chinese historians claim that the battle started with a skirmish in mid-August 1937 at a place called Bazi Bridge, or “Eight Character Bridge”. But exactly where was this bridge? I looked over dozens of maps, and none of them showed the bridge, until I finally had luck and purchased a map via eBay indicating the exact location. It was a Japanese map produced in late 1937, so it was more explicit than most about the location of places that had turned out to be important in the battle. An even bigger obstacle was to find maps with the location of the villages in the countryside near Shanghai. Modern maps are little use, as the villages have long since been swallowed up by urban sprawl. Again a Japanese map published in 1937, during the events or right after them, came to the rescue.
What were the hardest things about writing the book?
There wasn’t really anything that was particularly hard about writing the book. Once all the material was there, it really wrote itself. The battle was a self-contained story, with a clear beginning and a clear ending, lending itself fairly easily to a coherent narrative.
There is no shortage of atrocity accounts in the book. Were you writing it with the Nanjing massacre in mind? Or were the two armies already so brutal in 1937?
I did have the Nanjing massacre in mind in the sense that I wanted to show that, as horrible as it was, it did not come out of nowhere. Rather it was the culmination of a gradual accumulation of ever-worsening atrocities, beginning with the Japanese army’s often senseless torture and summary execution of civilians in downtown Shanghai during the battle, followed by the even more brutal treatment of the population in the countryside on the way to Nanjing. It’s somewhat parallel to the history of the Holocaust. Auschwitz didn’t just pop out of the blue but was at the end of a twisted road marked by gradually more pronounced radicalization of the Nazis.
Judging from the glowing online reviews, the book has been very well received. Any plans for your next book?
I am grateful and overwhelmed by the positive feedback, so yes, I’m currently considering three separate topics, all related to military in Asia in the 20th century. Outside the US participation in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, it’s an area that has really been neglected by western historians and writers.
The book feels like you had so much material you could have made it 1,000 pages long. Did you have to be very selective in what you focused on?
Yes. I could easily have written 1,000 pages, or even 2,000, but I had to respect the limitations of the format, a popular military history book for the interested lay reader. So I had to be selective, and it wasn’t really that hard. I adopted the same criteria that I would for a news story about something that happened today. So I went for the short, poignant story that at the same time told a much bigger story. And I also focused on what I knew would come as a surprise to many – for example the fact that Japanese soldiers didn’t always fight to the death, but often fled the battlefield when outnumbered or outgunned, and sometimes even surrendered. On the other hand, it was relatively easy to decide what to leave out: The nitty-gritty detail about battalion X moving to hill Y at Z hours. I deliberately sought to eschew the traditional way of writing military history, containing long pages of troop movements that no one can remember anyway.
The role of Chiang Kai-shek’s German advisors seems to have received little coverage before. Why is that? Were they really as important as you imply?
At the start of the battle for Shanghai, they were extremely important. After all, they were the products of the Prussian military academies and represented the peak of military professionalism at the time. And many of them had four years of experience from the Great War, which was really a dominant frame of reference for everyone in the 1930s, if you read the sources. There is some scholarship especially in German on the subject, but generally you’re right, the topic has been ignored. I think one of the reasons is that the battle of Shanghai has also been neglected, and the advisors are collateral damage, so to speak. Another reason is that their presence in China quickly became an embarrassment to all parties. It was embarrassing for the Germans as they soon developed their Axis alliance with the Japanese and didn’t like being reminded that German officers had only very recently been directing the killing of Japanese soldiers on a massive scale. Similarly, after the Germans withdrew from China in 1938, they were replaced first by Soviet advisors, and then, after Pearl Harbor, by the Americans of course. It was very awkward for the Chinese to admit that they had been so dependent on Nazi assistance. And after the war, few Germans came forward with memoirs about their time in China. My guess is it was because most of them were either dead or in Russian prisoner camps.