Decolonizing Dutch History

The Bushuis: Formerly the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam. Today this building belongs to the Humanities Department of University of Amsterdam.
The Bushuis: Formerly the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam.
Today this building belongs to the Humanities Department of University of Amsterdam.

Paul Doolan
Zurich International School and the University of Konstanz

Last month the academic year commenced at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) with speakers celebrating diversity and internationalism. Ironically, the audience in the auditorium was almost entirely white. In Amsterdam the majority of school age children come from migrant backgrounds, yet the university has an overwhelmingly white faculty that lectures to an overwhelmingly white student body. Most remarkable is the widely held attitude that this is not a problem.

As a historian interested in the roots of Eurocentrism and the legacies of imperialism, I would suggest that such an attitude is linked to the failure in teaching imperial history in the Netherlands. Through eight decades since the eviction of the Dutch from Indonesia, Dutch historians have consistently abdicated their responsibility by refusing to properly teach the public about the nature of Dutch rule in the former Dutch East Indies and, in particular, the nature of Dutch warmaking during the final years of the Asian colony, 1945-1949.

The Dutch Guild as Colonial Gate Keeper

In a recent article historian Lofti El Hamidi quotes Mitchell Esajas, co-founder and chair of a diversity advocacy group at the UvA, as arguing that “a one-sided and uncritical approach to history” dominates Dutch education and lies at the root of the archaic but dominant approach to diversity. In the same article, Gloria Wekker, anthropologist and leader of the UvA’s Diversity Commission, claims the Eurocentric curricula of the university are legacies of the Dutch colonial past that stifle progress on diversity issues.

I have earlier written for the Imperial and Global Forum about how the Dutch colonial past has lain silent for years, only to rear its head with some regularity and bring about much gnashing of the teeth and moral self-flagellation. In recent years law courts have twice found the Dutch state guilty of war crimes during the final colonial war (or “Police Actions” as it is still commonly called). That law courts and not history faculties have become the primary place where historical debate takes place is a sad reflection of the state of colonial studies in the Netherlands.

In his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, anthropologist and historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot called the historical profession a guild. A characteristic of the guild is that it prides itself in the purity of its academic work, never engaging in political or social opinions. The guild conditions the circumstances under which research can take place, assembling sources into archives and enforcing constraints as to what is debatable. The guild will tend towards producing what Trouillot calls “a closed corpus”. (p. 19) Budding young historians are initiated into what constitutes significant issues and what should be passed over in silence. Those who pass through the well-guarded gates of the masters, and doctorate degrees internalize the values of the guild. Eventually it becomes the ambition of every new member “to conform to guild practice.”(p. 56)

This partly explains what has gone wrong in the Netherlands. Frances Gouda, expatriate former Professor of Colonial History and Gender Studies at the UvA – who, American-trained herself, is something of a well-informed outsider – argues that Dutch historians “form a guild” made up of “grammar school lads who studied in Leiden, in Groningen or in Utrecht and who were members of a fraternity”.[1] According to Gouda, this closed group perpetuated the uncritical myth of the superior form of Dutch colonialism and quite simply ignored all important studies of the Indonesian revolution that were published abroad. Australian historian (and specialist in Dutch colonial history) Joost Cote agrees that Dutch historians cannot tolerate interference from English language historians when it comes to their colonial history. He describes the “institutional environment in which … historiography has been constructed” as being a “self-referential academic environment” of which the heartland is formed by two institutions in Leiden, Leiden University and The Royal Institute of South East Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV).

The Guild Mentality

Let us take a brief look at a case that might illuminate how guild mentality operates. In 1969 the Dutch were confronted by appalling reports of widespread atrocities carried out by their soldiers during the colonial war of 1945-1949. The government created an official inquiry under a young historian, Cees Fasseur. Fasseur had been born and raised in the colony. He attended grammar school in Leiden before entering Leiden University where, as a student of law and history, he of course joined the Leiden Student Fraternity. In 1969 he faithfully published his government report, a report where he carefully (and now infamously) avoided all use of the term “war crimes” and concluded that “excesses” had taken place, but that these had been incidental. To give him his due, Fasseur did feel more research was needed, but cautiously published this opinion under a pseudonym, ensuring that the possession of a critical attitude would not spoil his career.

In the coming years Fasseur published a number of works on the Dutch East Indies, keeping well clear of the subject of war crimes. He became Professor of South East Asian History in Leiden, where dozens of students undertook research under his supervision, not one of which touched on Dutch war crimes. Eventually he became the favourite biographer of the Royal Family, being rewarded by Queen Beatrix with exclusive access to the archive of the Royal Household, the only historian ever to have been given such an honour.

When Fasseur died earlier this year, the prestigious Leiden sister institute, the KITLV, referred to him as a colonial historian who “carried out ground-breaking research on the Cultivation System in nineteenth century Java.” Yet when Stef Scagolia, as a young historian, criticized Fasseur for his role in ignoring Dutch war crimes, Fasseur reacted so badly that she deleted the reference to him in her PhD dissertation because, as she says herself, “I was afraid that it would damage my position in the network of historians.” She recently described his attitude as “the discretion of the ruling class: look away from things that make you uneasy.”[2]

Dialectics of Mentions and Silences

In 1969, thanks to Fasseur’s work, the Dutch public could look away from the issue of war-crimes.  However, in the late 1980s the much loved historian of World War Two, Loe de Jong, caused an enormous fuss when it became known that he was about to use the term “war crimes” in a forthcoming volume. Pressure was applied by the guild (and others) and de Jong backed down, agreeing to change his formulation to “excesses”. Trouillat’s phrase “dialectics of mentions and silences” (p. 53) describes this phenomenon in which historical memory retrieves an inconvenient event, only to have it suppressed, and then for it to it pop up again.

In the 21st century the issue of Dutch war crimes has come to the fore in historical discourse, partially due to the law courts. The winds of change are blowing even through the heartland of the guild. Young historians like Paul Bijl, Bart Luttikhuis, Remco Raben and Stef Scagolia are unearthing the silences that covered colonial history. Gert Oostindie, Director of the KITLV in Leiden, has embraced the call for a full-scale historical investigation into the period of decolonization. In his recent study of Dutch colonial soldiers’ egodocuments he admits that for decades “the war has been stuffed away in a forgotten corner of our collective memory” and he recognizes that “it is clear that war crimes were committed by the Dutch side”. (pp 7-8)

During the past few months the Dutch historical world, and public media in general, have been rocked by ‘revelations’ regarding war crimes, though by now it is difficult to call them revelations, and difficult to take seriously the moral controversy that each new revelation engenders.

de-tolk-van-javaThis Spring, for example, saw the publication of a biographical novel, De Tolk van Java, by Indo-Dutch novelist Alfred Birney. It tells the story of his father, a translator in the Dutch colonial army who was given free reign to torture and kill his Indonesian prisoners. Birney claims that his aim is to show that the Netherlands ended its colonial history “in a horrific manner”. He adds that Dutch colonial history gets written from a white Dutch perspective, that white European experience is validated but the experience of dark skinned Dutch, like Birney himself, is neglected and that “a sort of apartheid rules over the Dutch literary canon”. A bit like the apartheid that is enforced at the entrance to the university, I’m tempted to add.

Challenging the Guild

omslag_kampongsBut the guild’s power now appears to be waning. For example, Remy Limpach’s 900-page De brandende kampongs van Generaal Spoor argues persuasively that Dutch war crimes in Indonesia were widespread and structural and fully supported by the military, legal and political leadership. The book’s publication has been extensively reported on radio and television news broadcasts, has received laudatory reviews in every national newspaper, has resulted in scores of articles in newspaper supplements and periodicals and Limpach has been widely interviewed. One could justifiably ask, did the guild produce a traitor from within?

Another positive development is that some outsiders now dare to tread on the carefully guarded guild space of Dutch colonial history, exemplifying Trouillot’s warning that a great inconvenience for guild members is that outsiders practice history. These outsiders might be amateurs, like Birney the novelist. They might also be historians operating from within another guild, maybe even a foreign one, like Remy Limpach, a Swiss-Dutch historian, whose book is a translation from the German language PhD dissertation that he wrote at the University of Berne, Switzerland. We should welcome the outsiders. Dutch colonial history is of far too great a social and historical significance to leave it to Dutch historians alone.

Paul Doolan teaches history at Zurich International School and is completing his PhD dissertation at the University of Konstanz on Dutch memory of decolonization in Indonesia.