They Were in Nanjing: The Nanjing Massacre Witnessed by American and British Nationals by Suping Lu Hong Kong University Press $180 A Winter in China by Douglas Galbraith Secker and Warburg $195 When the Japanese Imperial Army marched into Nanking (now Nanjing) on December 13, 1937, many residents of what was then China's capital were relieved. The outgunned Chinese army had offered little resistance and the city was spared the ravages of a siege. There was an expectation that conditions in Nanking would improve under a civilised Japanese occupation. The eight-week orgy of violence that ensued has been compared to the brutality of the Holocaust and continues to poison relations between the two nations almost 70 years later. Most historians say that more than 300,000 people were killed and that tens of thousands of Chinese women - as young as seven years old and as old as 70 - were sexually assaulted. The incident came to be known as the Rape of Nanking - coined by The South China Morning Post in a March 1938 report. Some of the most accurate accounts of the atrocities come from the 27 western nationals who stayed in Nanking. This eclectic group of businessmen, diplomats, academics and journalists worked desperately to protect Nanking's residents. When their efforts failed, they smuggled out photos and reports. The experiences of this small group of Germans, British, Americans and Russians form the basis for two recent books. Suping Lu, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, uses eyewitness accounts from the westerners as the basis for They Were in Nanjing: The Nanjing Massacre Witnessed by American and British Nationals. Were it not for the extraordinary nature of the incidents this book describes, only the most ardent history buffs would make it past the first chapters. Lu's writing is clinical and at times drowning in detail. But the book contains powerful glimpses into the personal struggle of the people who witnessed the atrocities. Lu includes excerpts from hundreds of reports western diplomats filed with the Japanese embassy in an effort to stop the atrocities. They make for a chilling read. Consider this, by Dr Robert Wilson, an American working at the University of Nanking Hospital, about a patient he treated on December 19, 1937: 'A 19 year old girl who was 6? months pregnant had a Japanese soldier try to rape her. She resisted him so he started to cut her with a knife. She has 19 wounds on the chest and several on the legs and a deep knife wound in the abdomen. The foetal heart cannot be heard.' Or this from the same doctor: 'On Dec 13 a little girl of about 11 years old was watching the Japanese soldiers march by with her father and mother. One of the soldiers bayoneted the father, shot the mother and slashed the girl's arm with a bayonet, giving her a bad compound fracture. It was a week before she could get to the hospital.' Douglas Galbraith's novel A Winter in China, uses the Rape of Nanking for an entirely different reason - as a backdrop for his story of a young English woman coming of age. The story opens with Sally Marsden planning to spend the winter in China, where her husband-to-be, Hugh, is on a diplomatic posting. She gets caught up in the occupation and separated from him and ends up having to confront questions about her own life as she watches the horror unfold around her. Galbraith weaves real events into his story, which breathe life into the novel. But it also threatens to overpower his characters. With the enormity of what's going on in Nanking, Sally's dilemmas about who to marry and how to keep her family happy seem absurdly minor. The historical references are at their best when Galbraith uses them for foreshadowing. As the Japanese are marching into the city, the British ambassador quips: 'Say what you like about the Japanese, but they're an efficient lot. It's not like being occupied by - I don't know - Italians or something.' Moments later, his car is strafed and bombed by a Japanese aircraft and the severely wounded ambassador is left to appreciate the irony of his fate. Galbraith's historical fiction shares an unlikely hero with Lu's book: a German expatriate named John Rabe. Dubbed the 'Oskar Schindler of China' for his role in rescuing thousands from execution, Rabe worked for Siemens China in Nanking. He was head of a war relief committee known as the International Committee of the Nanking Safety Zone. He was also leader of the local Nazi party and prone to praising Adolf Hitler and waving the swastika flag. The irony of having a Nazi humanitarian isn't lost on the authors, and Galbraith makes especially good use of Rabe. Unfortunately, neither author goes far in explaining how the anticipated civilized occupation by the Japanese was transformed into one of the most infamous incidents of barbaric behaviour of the 20th century. Little light is shed on the mentality of the Japanese officers or what led to the soldiers running amok. Lu admits the difficulty posed by the questions when he quotes from a letter by American missionary John Magee to a church colleague in the US. 'If I had not seen with my own eyes the things that I have seen I would not have believed that these things could have happened ... to reconcile the Japan that I have seen and the savagery that I have seen here is a problem I have not solved yet.'