Dutch Colonial Violence and the Missing Voices of Indonesians

Indonesian veterans commemorate victims of massacres by the Dutch army in the 1940s in 2013. The Indonesian experience of colonial violence is often overlooked in the Netherlands. © Adek Berry / AFP
Roel Frakking and Anne Van Mourik

The Dutch continue to widely underestimate their colonial violence of the past. The publication of the hard-hitting conclusions of the Independence, Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia 1945-1950-program revealed the Dutch state actively condoning systematic and structural violence during Indonesia’s War for Independence. Discourse management, short-term perspectives and diminished Indonesian perspectives explain how Dutch perpetratorship is still under negotiation in the Netherlands.

On February 17, researchers of the Independence, Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia 1945-1950 program (IDVWI) presented their results. They concluded that Dutch armed forces structurally and systematically utilised “extreme violence” to stamp out the Republic of Indonesia that had declared itself independent on 17 August 1945. They added that politicians, civilian and military authorities, including their legal systems, looked away, condoned and silenced colonial violence both in Indonesia and The Hague, the Netherlands’ capital city. 

Reactions came fast and furious. Prime minister Mark Rutte apologised to “the people of Indonesia”, but also to Dutch veterans and all the communities violently touched by the war, from 1945 onwards. The displaced Indo-European community feared rehabilitation of those who had forced them from Indonesia. Veterans, in turn, accused researchers of writing about matters they do not understand. 

Continue reading “Dutch Colonial Violence and the Missing Voices of Indonesians”

Pride, Shame, and White Fragility in Dutch Colonial History

Dutch Slavery Monument in Amsterdam.

Paul Doolan
University of Konstanz

The 17th-century Dutch Republic made significant contributions to our understanding of world geography, the biological and physical sciences, mathematics, economics, international law, and the visual arts. Yet this Golden Age had a dark underbelly – the Dutch participation in colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. In the estimate of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, of the 12,521,337 Africans transported, 554,336 were brought to the Americas on Dutch ships.

Activist historians, many working from outside academia, persist in pushing the hidden history of Dutch slavery to the fore. Ewald Vanvugt’s Roofstaat (2016) is an 800-page indictment of the Dutch “Robber State.” In White Innocence (2016), Gloria Wekker accuses Dutch academia of turning away from the sordid episodes of Dutch history. Anousha Nzume argues that the majority white population long for an unproblematic history that is “gezellig” or cosy, but as soon as they are confronted with the fact of race they fall back on a defensive position of white fragility. Rosmarijn Hoefte, newly appointed Professor of the History of Suriname from 1873, admits that the Dutch lag far behind their international colleagues in the study of colonialism and slavery. Some historical figures formerly considered national heroes have now been exposed as leaders in the slave trade. Recent controversies have focused on the renaming of streets and the removal of statues of these fallen heroes. Continue reading “Pride, Shame, and White Fragility in Dutch Colonial History”

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”