Do the Indonesians count? Calculating the number of Indonesian victims during the Dutch-Indonesian decolonization war, 1945-1949

Unknown artist, Indonesian propaganda poster, Sumatra May 1947. From the archive of the NEFIS (Dutch intelligence service), courtesy of Nationaal Archief

Christiaan Harinck, Nico van Horn, and Bart Luttikhuis

Seventy years after the fact, the decolonization war in Indonesia still does not occupy an appropriate position in Dutch public memory. The absence of Indonesian victims in Dutch memory culture makes this painfully obvious: until now, no one has ever even attempted to calculate the Indonesian death toll of this war. Christiaan Harinck, Nico van Horn, and Bart Luttikhuis provide a first attempt, counting 97,421 Indonesian casualties in Dutch military sources – most likely the lower limit rather than a final estimate of the actual death toll.

The Indonesian decolonization war of 1945-1949 has re-entered Dutch public consciousness in recent years. For many decades, the war had only a very cursory presence in Dutch public memory – even though it is one of the largest military operations the country was ever involved in. But in the wake of a number of successful court cases in which Indonesian victims (aided by Dutch activists) forced the Dutch state to pay compensation, Dutch media and politicians over the last decade have gradually started talking about this war again. This has culminated (for now) in the announcement of an extensive government-funded research project. The war in Indonesia is also starting to make more frequent appearances in Dutch popular culture, with the novel Tolk van Java by Alfred Birney recently winning the prestigious Libris prize, and an action movie by popular director Jim Taihuttu announced, which is to be set in the context of the brutal Dutch counterinsurgency campaign in South Sulawesi.

Among all this new interest for the war in Indonesia, the principal focus has been the extent to which Dutch forces committed atrocities against Indonesian civilians and combatants. That atrocities such as summary executions, torture, widespread arson, etc., were a structural part of Dutch military practice has been well documented. But surprisingly, despite all this attention upon Dutch atrocities, the Indonesian victims remain hidden. Dutch historiography and Dutch public memory continue to enjoy a highly Eurocentric view on the war in Indonesia. More than ever before, the black chapters of Dutch history can now be discussed. But still, the public debate is highly inward-looking. The main interest is in ‘our’ atrocities in the colonies, in ‘our’ guilt and what ‘we’ should now do about it. Meanwhile the other, the Indonesian, is still no more than an extra on the stage of Dutch history, lacking a face or and autonomous historical agency. Nowhere is this absence of Indonesian faces more obvious than in the absence of Indonesian victims from Dutch memory culture. We haven’t even had a reliable estimate of Indonesian casualties during the decolonization war – until now. Continue reading “Do the Indonesians count? Calculating the number of Indonesian victims during the Dutch-Indonesian decolonization war, 1945-1949”

Remembering Dutch Decolonization through Historical Fiction

Paul Doolan
Zurich International School and the University of Konstanz

On May 8th the jury of the Libris Literature Prize announced in Amsterdam and live on television that they had unanimously chosen Alfred Birney as winner of the best Dutch language novel of 2016, for his novel De Tolk van Java [The Interpreter from Java]. According to the jury, Birney has “cast a new light upon a poisonous period of our history“. The book is a relentlessly violent postmemory novel and a searing indictment of not only Dutch colonial brutality, but also the willingness of a society to forget or unremember the uncomfortable parts of the nation’s past. Birney’s work forms a corrective to many historical myths regarding the decolonization of the Dutch East Indies.

In recent years we have seen Dutch courts finding the Dutch state guilty of massacring hundreds of civilians in Indonesia during the Indonesian War of Liberation (1945-1949). In 2016 Remy Limpach’s historical thesis, that the Dutch political and military leadership at the time had been responsible for the use of structural violence that amounted to war crimes, was well received in both the popular press as well as among academics. Last month’s decision of the jury of the Libris Literature Prize marks another milestone in the Dutch coming to terms with their past by working through the trauma of decolonization. Continue reading “Remembering Dutch Decolonization through Historical Fiction”

A Moluccan Victory in a Dutch Court

Lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld in court with Chris Uktolseja, brother of one of the Moluccans killed by Dutch soldiers.

Paul Doolan
Zurich International School and the University of Konstanz

Last month the Dutch state found itself at court, accused of extra-judicial killing. I have already written how human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld “has twice brought the Dutch state to court for the massacre of civilians in Indonesia, and on both occasions has won.” But that was for killings during the Indonesian War of Decolonization, back in the late 1940s. This time Liesbeth Zegveld is  accusing the Dutch state of carrying out murder in the Netherlands during the 1970s.

To the consternation of the peace-loving Dutch public, the country was confronted in the 1970s with a home-grown terrorist movement that was directly rooted in the decolonization of Indonesia. Additionally, although the perpetrators of the violence had political goals, they were also at war with the Dutch collective refusal to remember decolonization. As such they were battling against widespread unremembering. Continue reading “A Moluccan Victory in a Dutch Court”

Rewriting Dutch colonial histories – Final response

"Java, War of Ghosts" by Jompet Kuswidananto, 2009. Collection of Leo Sih, installation at Tropenmuseum "Grand Parade" (2014-15).
“Java, War of Ghosts” by Jompet Kuswidananto, 2009. Collection of Leo Sih, installation at Tropenmuseum “Grand Parade” (2014-15).

Sadiah Boonstra and Caroline Drieënhuizen

Before the holidays we read Paul Doolan’s response to our post with great interest. We appreciate the time and effort Mr Doolan took to reply to our post as we think a fruitful debate will progress knowledge. With this writing we give a final reaction to Mr Doolan and if it is not for knowledge progression, it will at least get Dr Sadiah Boonstra’s name spelled correctly.

In his response Doolan claims that our critique was based on a misreading and that he was referring to a specific period of time, namely 1945-1949, but that we “prefer to talk about something else”. However, in our view this period cannot be separated from the larger framework of colonialism as political, social, cultural and economic structures of domination. And this is exactly what Dutch historians and others have been trying to deconstruct over the past decades as set out in our previous response. We therefore uphold our argument against Doolan’s representation of a Dutch historical “guild” based in Leiden. Instead of calling on “outsiders”, as Doolan suggests, we favor collaborative methods to uncover the depth, multilayeredness and reach of colonialism.  Continue reading “Rewriting Dutch colonial histories – Final response”

Response: Rewriting Dutch Colonial Histories

Paul Doolan
Zurich International School and the University of Konstanz

I sincerely appreciate that Saadia Boonstra and Caroline Drieёnhuizen took the time and effort to offer a reply to my article. However, their critique was based on a misreading. Perhaps it was the obscurity of my prose, or maybe it was the title (not of my choosing) “Decolonizing Dutch History” that led to a misunderstanding.

Their opening sentence already indicates a misreading. They claim that I “criticized Dutch historians for their failure to decolonize Dutch and colonial history”. But that was not the point I wished to make. I wrote that my concern was “in particular, the nature of Dutch warmaking during the final years of the Asian colony, 1945-1949.” In other words, my subject was the history of decolonization, not the decolonization of history. There is a difference.

The point that I made in a nutshell is this – for many decades Dutch historians have inadequately investigated the decolonization of Indonesia (1945-1949). In my article of 80 lines, 60 lines focus directly on the decolonization of Indonesia. In their response of 38 lines just four focus on this topic. My claim is that if you mention the subject of decolonization, many Dutch historians of colonialism prefer to start talking about something else. I think Boonstra and Drieёnhuizen inadvertently have proven my point. Continue reading “Response: Rewriting Dutch Colonial Histories”