Special focus « Hour of reckoning for colonial crimes »
OPINION

Dutch Colonial Violence and the Missing Voices of Indonesians

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.

3 Indonesian veterans (one crying) attend a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the war of independence against the NetherlandsIndonesian 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
7 min 56Approximate reading time

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. 

Yet more commentators, including the Histori Bersama collective,an anti-colonial group that translates publications about the Dutch colonial past, saw a colonial project deliberately phasing out Indonesian voices and victimhood. Theirs was an important observation that connects to a decades-old trend that again reared its head: It is the Dutch tendency to empathise with Dutch experiences, not with those of Indonesians or their revolution. Dutch perpetratorship and violence, then, again needs negotiation.

Escape Routes for Acceptance

Why do so many find squarely accepting the violent characteristics of the Netherlands’ colonial past so hard? We identify two main, well-trodden escape routes for acceptance. The first relates to a consistent focus on the 1945-1950 revolutionary period alone. This narrow scope leaves the entire colonial period out, and the idea that only the revolutionary tail-end of Dutch empire proved particularly violent, intact. The other route leading away from acceptance involves the inability of many to countenance Indonesian experiences altogether, whether during the war or before.

Veterans and survivors of Indonesian violence sometimes seem narrowly interested in their experiences as traumatised victims. Such mindsets facilitate phasing out other people’s suffering, which includes Indonesian, Arab and Chinese communities. With it squared away, recognizing perpetratorship seems less necessary or worse, unimportant.

So where do we go from here? While respectful to trauma, we need to open up to the experiences of Indonesians, their rightful resistance and their independence date of 17 August 1945. Only when our memory scripts include how Indonesians for centuries suffered from disenfranchisement, torture, burnings, food scarcity, executions and so on, and the Dutch recognise their resistance as legitimate, can they understand the impacts of Dutch empire fully, and get a grasp on Dutch perpetratorship. It is high time. If not, we tell ourselves half the story. 

Narrow Time-frames and Longue Durée Resistance

The denouement of the Dutch empire in Indonesia between 1945 and 1950 and its aftermaths too often obscure the larger colonial picture. Empire’s tail-end forged Indo-European communities or veterans’ identities as victims of revolt, decolonization and an uncaring government. Scholars turn to the period to study colonialism at its most violent. Likewise, the same time-frame allowed IDVWI researchers to in-depth analyse Dutch armed forces and their actions.

Still, the program’s focus on predominantly Dutch actions and considerations within five war years isolates this revolutionary period from centuries of Dutch oppression and Indonesian resistance before 1945. To larger audiences in particular, leaving out such pre-histories may dampen understandings of just how endemically racist, oppressive and violent Dutch empire had always been. Without such contextualization, for example, apologists or generalists may be encouraged to maintain that between oppression and predation, Dutch colonialism was a force of good, too.

Longue durée perspectives correct this, revealing that outside naked war, too, Dutch violence proved ubiquitous, transgressive and disproportionate. Moreover, beyond military and administrative classes, planters, bankers or ordinary Europeans also benefitted from repression. More so than IDVWI has done, considering the full span of the Dutch subjugation of the archipelago would specifically tease out the ‘colonial mindset’, which, high on superiority and discrimination, discarded the Indonesian thirst for independence as fancy.

More importantly, pre-1945 perspectives highlight how Indonesian individuals, politicians and popular movements had always resisted Dutch domination in realms of representation, law, education and outright confrontation—both domestically and abroad. The revolution, put differently, was no unorganized fluke led by unmoored youths.

Early illustration showing Indonesian slaves pushing a wagon on rails. 3 armed settlers are sitting on a bench placed on the cart.
By focusing only on the revolutionary period from 1945 to 1950, the debate in the Netherlands tends to leave out the entire colonial period and the centuries of Dutch oppression and Indonesian resistance before 1945. Here a drawing showing Dutch settlers and their Indonesian slaves.

The Limits of “ Extreme Violence”  

The need for broader perspectives harks back to the equally broad conceptual catch-all that IDVWI has employed: ‘extreme violence’. The programme adopted the term to work with the issue of war crimes. Their invocation could slow down researchers with juridical frameworks whereas they set out to explain Dutch violence. War crimes would also exclude perpetration by militias. ‘Extreme violence’, conversely, would leave researchers free to chart all sorts of misdeeds. 

Such a choice could hamper the much-needed societal familiarisation with Dutch perpetratorship. Due to its broad nature, ‘extreme violence’ could seem yet another euphemism. The term could connote that if ‘extreme violence’ was transgressive, many other forms of Dutch violence were unproblematic, or not worth studying. Regardless, ‘extreme violence’ as a tool, and with its twin ‘accepted violence’ in tow, is perhaps less useful to unpack Indonesian experiences.

To villagers whose houses had been razed and whose friends or livestock lay dead, it did not matter much whether indiscriminate fire or an exchange between two regular army units had caused this. What was so specifically ‘extreme’ about Dutch violence during 1945-1950, apart from its scale? As journalist Piet Hagen recently stated: in Indonesia, “five centuries of violence lie between the arrival of the first colonists in 1509 and the departure of the Dutch in 1950”, which also included Portuguese, French, British, and Japanese violence. 

Making Violence Humanitarian

Truncated time-lines of violence also potentially keep open the second escape route for those resisting Dutch perpetratorship and considering Indonesian perspectives. Some news outlets tend to allow agenda-setters to steer discussion away from casting Dutch troops as aggressors. Many journalists invariably ask ‘how bad was Dutch violence’, to which only veterans respond. This trend of blocking out other voices reflects national, colonial thought-patterns that refuse to go away: Indonesian suffering is second to Dutch suffering. Through such thinking, Dutch violence is reduced and placed on par with Indonesian violence, as if the two are invariably the same.

Part of the public debates before and after the release of the program’s findings reflect this. The article entitled ‘It was War. What should We have Done Then?’ (NRC, 19 February 2022) is exemplary. In it, an Indo-European survivor of Indonesian violence against anything colonial recalls his experiences during the infamous Bersiap period of the Indonesian national revolution which lasted roughly from August 1945 to early 1946. He relates how he and his family escaped from being “slaughtered” along with “thousands of Dutch and Indo-Dutch, Chinese and Indonesians suspected of ‘collaboration’ [with the Dutch]”.

Although we fully recognize the importance of the man’s experiences, his memories figure in an article deliberately devoid of Indonesian experiences or historical origins of the revolution. Instead, two Dutch Veterans Institute spokespeople are quoted at length as they diminish Dutch violence: “only a minority” of troops, they claim, committed atrocities; often they avenged comrades whom Indonesians had killed “in horrible ways”. Better still, some “military units really just completed a humanitarian mission”. 

Relativising and Justifying Dutch Atrocities

The selective, biased message is clear: while the downright attractive script of Dutch liberators is elaborated upon, Indonesians as political actors and victims of colonial warfare are unimportant. Only one Indonesian commentator speaks, but notdirectly on Indonesian experiences.

Other interest groups entrench this thinking. The Dutch Indische Federation (FIN), an interest-group for the Indo-Europeans who often forcibly left Indonesia for the Netherlands, takes this to another level. It translates its laudable objective to protect the memories of these displaced ‘Indische communities’, into a hard-nosed refusal to see Indonesians as anything other than rebels against Dutch authority. 

The FIN, too, claims Dutch forces were sent to Indonesia to conduct a humanitarian mission. This misinterpretation of facts is one thing; worse is that they wish to derail any discussion that veers towards Dutch perpetratorship. Politicising the circa 6.000 Bersiap-deaths caused by Indonesians, they attempt to criminalize what they call ‘Bersiap-denial’. Taking their cue from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Holocaust denial working definition, the FIN seems to take to court those who seemingly diminish the meaning of the Bersiap. Needless to say, such steps restrict open debate on the complex topic of Dutch culpability and victimhood. 

Remarkably, this ex post facto relativising and justifying Dutch atrocities is seemingly similar to 1945-1950 narratives, the very narratives scholars Remco Raben and Peter Romijn have analysed for IDVWI. Responsible authorities, they state, worked hard to defend Dutch violence, going so far as to obscure from inquiries. In this sense, not much has changed.

Through the Lens of Today: The Road Forward

If anything, the discussions around the IDVWI results show that the Dutch, even beyond the understandably hyper-interested FIN and veterans, are still ill-equipped to deal with the Netherlands as a perpetrator nation in the Indonesian archipelago. The same commentators – veterans and other revisionist apologists among them – again stepped into that void to declare Indonesian experiences unimportant, unless they substantiate and validate Dutch suffering. 

They tried to keep this old trend alive by undermining IDVWI’s findings. They openly questioned the programs’ integrity, saying they deliberately applied modern standards to history. Put simply, ‘anti-colonial’ researchers had passed judgement on politicians, administrators and soldiers’ actions and decisions well before setting foot in the archives. No wonder ‘extreme violence’ was the ultimate verdict, they said. A quick Tweet to the same effect by Pieter van Vollenhoven, a member of the Dutch Royal House, lent a further sheen of respectability to these revisionist, colonial ways of thinking.

Not only are these attempts at whitewashing informed by fallacious reasoning – likewise, did we not all agree that slavery was a crime against humanity and needs to be studied from that vantage-point? – nor will the program’s findings go away. They will force the renegotiation of Dutch stories of victimhood in Indonesia into a simultaneous acceptance of perpetratorship. The results, after all, incontrovertibly showed that ‘extreme violence’ was used across the board, even if the concept itself may be a tad fuzzy.

Still, many accounts need settling. Foremost, Indonesia’s 17 August 1945 independence date needs to be formally recognized if the Netherlands wants to signal recognition of Dutch violence and Indonesian suffering in the name of independence. For now, the one-sided Dutch date is still 27 December 1949, when the kingdom ‘transferred’ sovereignty to Indonesia. Rutte’s apology said nothing about reparations to the victims of Dutch violence, nor about the billions Indonesia was forced to pay the Netherlands at the end of the conflict. Indonesian scholars and former politicians wondered about these issues, too. If the Netherlands truly wants to account for past transgressions, its narratives of victimhood must be considered alongside its perpetratorship. This means including visible Indonesian experiences to the Dutch National Remembrance Day on 4 May, when the Netherlands commemorates all war casualties of the long Second World War.

Anne van MourikANNE VAN MOURIK

Anne van Mourik est doctorante à l'Institut Niod d'études sur la guerre, l'holocauste et le génocide et à l'Université d'Amsterdam. Jusqu'en 2020, elle a travaillé comme chercheuse dans le programme "Indépendance, décolonisation, violence et guerre en Indonésie 1945-50". Avec Peter Romijn, Remco Raben et Maarten van der Bent, elle a travaillé sur la façon dont les politiciens et les administrateurs coloniaux ont traité la violence à grande échelle. Ses recherches actuelles explorent les discours de victimisation et de responsabilité au sujet de la famine en Allemagne pendant et après les deux guerres mondiales.


Roel FrakkingROEL FRAKKING

Roel Frakking est maître de conférences en histoire politique à l'université d'Utrecht. Il est titulaire d'un doctorat du département d'histoire et de civilisation (Institut universitaire européen, Florence). Il est co-coordinateur, co-éditeur et co-auteur du volume à paraître « Revolutionary Worlds : Local Perspectives and Dynamics of the Indonesian Independence War, 1945-1949 », dans le cadre du programme "Indépendance, décolonisation, violence et guerre en Indonésie 1945-50".