China Headlines: World War II started from China, in 1937: historians

While most in the western world believe World War II started with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, there are a growing number of historians who believe the official date should be amended to 1937, when Japan began its full-scale invasion of China.

Robert Frank, Secretary General for the International Congress of Historical Sciences (ICHS), is one of the strongest advocates for the date change. He wrote his arguments in the book "1937-1947 World War", which was published in France in April.

Jointly written by 40 historians, it contains a specific chapter named "War begins in Asia." Other chapters elaborate on the resistance of Asian countries, the Japanese occupation, and the resistance and suffering of the Chinese population.

"In France we call it the war of 1939-1945. But it' s a world war. Not only a European war, and it did not begin in Europe," Frank said. "The war began here, in Asia."

He said the starting date could even be considered as early as 1931, when the Japanese first attacked Manchuria in northeast China. However, he and his fellow historians chose 1937 because that's when general war broke out between China and Japan.


"It must be surprising for European and French people. They are not accustomed to the date," Frank said. "But we want to break the classical Eurocentric chronology, showing the global history of a global war."

Frank is not the only historian who supports a more objective look at the war history.

Professor Rana Mitter from Oxford University published his book named "Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945" in the UK and the U.S. in 2013 and 2014. It was named as the book of the year by both The Economist and Financial Times.

"China was the first country to face the onslaught from the Axis Powers in 1937, two years before Britain and France, and four years before the United States," he wrote in his book.

A book review from the New York Times said "World War II, Mitter points out, started not on the plains of Europe but with an accidental firefight in 1937 at the Marco Polo Bridge, a few miles southwest of Beijing."

Mitter published an op-ed piece in the New York Times which says "China's resistance to Japan is one of the great untold stories of World War II. Though China was the first Allied power to fight the Axis, it has received far less credit for its role in the Pacific theater than the United States, Britain or even the Soviet Union, which only joined the war in Asia in August 1945."

Tao Wenzhao, researcher with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said reviewing history from a transnational perspective has become a new trend in historical studies. It may also be the reason for the change of attitude among western historians towards China's role in the war.

Frank said more western historians have agreed to consider 1937 as the beginning of World War II, and his book aims to reveal the truth to more people in Europe.


During seminars at the ICHS conference, around 2,600 historians from more than 90 countries and regions discussed the contribution and sacrifices of Chinese people during the world anti-Fascist war, and China' s role in maintaining world peace.

China was one of the five permanent seats of the UN when it was first established, Frank said.

"That means that even though China was invaded and occupied, other powers were aware that it plays a central role in international relations," Frank said. "It can be seen as a recognition of China's standing in the war."

"China was the first country invaded and that means the first movements of resistance against occupation were in China," Frank said, emphasizing China's role in the war.

Zhang Haipeng, president of the Association of Chinese Historians, believes the Japanese troops might have moved to southeast Asia, India or the Middle East and cooperated with German troops if Chinese soldiers had not engaged them on the domestic battlefield.

"If we wish to understand the role of China in today's global society, we would do well to remind ourselves of the tragic, titanic struggle that the country waged in the 1930s and 1940s, not just for its own national dignity and survival, but for the victory of all the Allies, west and east, against some of the darkest forces that history has ever produced," Mitter wrote in his book.

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