Dutch Imperial Past Returns to Haunt the Netherlands

Paul Doolan
University of Zurich and Zurich International School

Photos in De Volkskrant July, 10 2012
Photos in De Volkskrant, 10 July 2012.

In July 2012 a Dutch national newspaper, de Volkskrant, published two photos on its front page showing Dutch soldiers brutally shooting and killing unarmed victims in a mass grave. The images were shocking to a nation that prides itself as being upright and humanitarian. Never mind that the photos were nearly 70 years old. Found in a rubbish tip, they were, in fact, the first ever photos to be published of Dutch soldiers killing Indonesians during a war of decolonization that is still euphemistically referred to as a “Police Action.”

Why did it take so long for such images to reach the public?

Just a month earlier Dutch TV news, as well as national newspapers, had reported that three leading Dutch historical research institutes were calling upon the Dutch government to allocate funds in order to initiate a major research project to uncover what had happened in the Dutch East Indies during the period of decolonization, 1945-1949. The government decided, perhaps not all that surprisingly, to do no such thing. In an interview in December 2013, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frans Timmermans, had to defend his change of heart, because as a member of Parliament he had supported the call for a full-scale investigation into Dutch atrocities. However, once appointed minister, he quickly changed his mind. He now claimed that such research would “bring harm to our relationship with Indonesia. And that is not in the Dutch interest.”[1] In other words, business comes before coming to terms with Dutch decolonization.

One of two photos published by de Volkskrant in July 2012. The image appears to show three Indonesians standing in a mass grave before being executed by Dutch soldiers.
One of two photos published by de Volkskrant in July 2012. The image appears to show three Indonesians standing in a mass grave being executed by Dutch soldiers.

Where historians have failed, human rights advocates have succeeded. The human rights lawyer Professor Liesbeth Zegveld has twice brought the Dutch state to court for the massacre of civilians in Indonesia, and on both occasions has won. In September 2011 a Dutch court acknowledged that Dutch soldiers had carried out a massacre of hundreds of civilians in the Indonesian village of Rawagede and the court ordered the Dutch state to pay 20,000 Euros compensation to Zegveld’s clients, the widows of nine men who had been killed. Zegveld then represented 10 widows of men killed in Dutch massacres on the island of South Sulawesi and in 2013 won the case. This led the Dutch government to issue an official apology to Indonesia and announced it would pay compensation to all victims. That said, at the time of writing this (March 2014) only one of the 10 widows of South Sulawesi has received compensation.

It is a sad state of affairs when any aspect of a nation’s past, no matter how sordid, remains shrouded in mystery. And it is all the more saddening when a government proves reluctant to sponsor a concerted investigation, thereby forcing a substantial part of the historical profession into a deplorable inertia, and making it instead the task of lawyers to interpret the past.

Of course this active amnesia is nothing new. Despite having a colonial history in South East Asia that extends over 350 years, the crucial years of decolonization in the Dutch East Indies are particularly notable for their absence in the nation’s cultural narrative.

In 1980, over thirty years after the Dutch government was forced to recognize the independence of the Republic of Indonesia, the eminent Dutch historian H. L. Wesseling could still write of “some kind of imperial hangover” within Dutch society, whereby “the transfer of power abruptly gave way to a thunderous silence.”[2] Almost two decades later the Dutch historian, Vincent J. H. Houben could repeat Wesseling’s complaint: “What stands out is that Holland’s colonial past, the period 1945-1949 in particular, is as much taboo today as it was earlier.”[3] Houben was quite outspoken in pointing his finger at those responsible for implementing and maintain this regime of silence: “politicians, but also historians and journalists have failed.”[4] Andrew Goss commented that while 1950s’ scholarship passed over the Dutch colonial experience in the East Indies in silence, recent years have brought a flood of publications on the colonial experience, including memoirs, photo-books, diaries and histories of colonialism. Goss concludes that “this nostalgic resurrection of empire is detrimental to the Dutch nation’s ability to accept responsibility for the serious war crimes committed during the “police actions’ of 1947 and 1948.” [5]

Indeed this nostalgia for empire that is so characteristic of much of what is published about the Dutch colonial experience provides, in part at least, a screen that shuts out the more uncomfortable memories. Bookstores, if they have anything about the Dutch East Indies, will mainly stock photo albums and memoirs of life in Japanese camps during World War Two, but (with some notable recent exceptions), nothing on the years of conflict with Indonesian nationalists.

Henk van den Doel, Professor of History at the University of Leiden, did break the silence in 2000 with the publication of his Afscheid van Indie [Leaving the Indies], a critical survey of the war, and yes, he even dared to refer to it consistently as a war. And the past decade has seen an increasing number of publications that contest the accepted view of the country’s past. Two recent publications are Louis Zweers’ analysis of the state’s use of media during the conflict, De Gecensurerde Oorlog [The Censored War] and Hans Goedkoop’s memoir De Laatste Man [The Last Man], both published in 2013, both attacking national myths. And this year Dutch national television even broadcast a new oral history series, After Liberation, about the period immediately after World War Two. An entire episode described the experience of Dutch soldiers, as well as draft resisters, during the decolonization conflict in Indonesia.

By contesting decades of silence, newspapers, television, law courts, and a new generation of historians and writers are only just beginning to confront the public with a difficult history. The events of recent years have demonstrated the persistence of the European imperial legacy; uncomfortable truths relating to it should not simply slip away in silence. Otherwise, if buried too deep, the imperial past can return to haunt a nation.


[1] Jacob Alberts and Thijs Broer, “Minister van Buitenlandse Zaken Frans Timmers: ‘Ik heb een on-ge-lo-fe-lij-ke hekel aan getuigenispolitiek.’” Vrij Nederland (21 December 2013), 29.

[2] H. L. Wesseling, “Post-Imperial Holland.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 15, No. 1 (January 1980), 128.

[3] Vincent J.H. Houben, “A Torn Soul: The Dutch Public Discussion on the Colonial Past in 1995.” Indonesia, Vol. 63 (April 1997), 64.

[4]   Ibid, 58.

[5]  Andrew Goss, “From Tong-Tong to Tempoe Doeloe: Eurasian Memory Work and the Bracketing of Dutch Colonial History, 1957-1961.” In: Indonesia, Vol. 70 (October 2000), 11.

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