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How the Netherlands systematically used extreme violence in Indonesia and concealed this afterwards

Dutch troops, judges and politicians collectively condoned and concealed the systematic use of extreme violence during the Indonesian War of Independence. Historians have now shown how this could happen. ‘It was scandal management rather than prevention,’ says Leiden historian and research leader Gert Oostindie.

In their publication Over de grens (Over the Border) the 17 authors have presented their main conclusions: Dutch troops used extreme violence such as executions, torture and arson of villages more often than was thought. The violence was systematic and went unchecked. The reason: the war against the Republic of Indonesia had to be won and the Netherlands wanted to be in charge of the decolonisation process, say the researchers.

Gert Oostindie, Professor of Colonial and Postcolonial History, is the first author of the book. As former director of KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, he initiated the programme together with the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) and the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH). Various Leiden historians worked on the programme (see below) and a total of 14 books will be published. In an interview, Oostindie explains how they approached the research. 

Intimidation and violence against Indonesian citizens. NIMH collection.

In recent years several studies have been published on this topic. What was missing?

‘This decolonisation war was the Netherlands’ biggest 20th-century war. There are libraries full of books about what the Germans did to us, but until recently we could barely fill a bookshelf on this war. This is why we called for a major study in 2012. There were hardly any studies at the time, but more have appeared recently. At the end of the 1960s, there were revelations about extreme violence. In 1969, the government took the stance that there had been excesses, but that the armed forces had behaved correctly as a whole. Thanks in part to the dissertation by Rémy Limpach, who was on this research team, and also because of other studies such as my book Soldaat in Indonesië [Soldier in Indonesia, ed.] there were more and more signs that the Dutch armed forces were guilty of systematically using extreme violence, but by no means everything had been properly investigated. We have now reconstructed attitudes to violence in the whole chain: from the armed forces and especially the commanding officers to lawyers and politicians.’  

‘Some wrote that the violence was unacceptable whereas others wrote that nothing happened or that such violence was unavoidable.’ 

How could the cover-up culture be so persistent?

‘There was clear evidence of scandal management, as the study of the dynamics during the war shows. Reports of extreme violence by Dutch soldiers were minimised and covered up. We based our information on archive material such as from the intelligence services and security services and the minutes of the Council of Ministers. And a book is now being published about the post-war trend: people didn’t want to hear it. What played an increasingly important role after the war was that at all levels people wanted to take account of the feelings of the veterans and the Indonesian community in Dutch society.’ 

What else came to light?

‘A number of matters had never been properly investigated, such as how and why artillery and bombardments were used. This showed that the armed forces deliberately took risks and took little or no account of civilian casualties. The number of Indonesian dead is often estimated at over 100,000, compared to a few thousand Dutch war dead. This also points to extreme violence. Our research has also given a better impression of the work of the security services and how the military justice system worked. We’ve gained a broader, more in-depth picture and this also adds more nuance to the story. For instance, that there was a lot of fighting in certain parts of the archipelago, but not in others.’ 

Was a lot of new source material studied?

‘Yes, this involved on the one hand more thorough research of known Dutch government archives and on the other a lot of new archive material, such as documents from the Dutch secret service, who confiscated texts and photos, for instance, when they arrested Indonesians. These documents say more about the Indonesian side of the story. They ended up in the National Archive and some are also in the KITLV collections at the University Library in Leiden. We also show this in the online exhibition Images of the Indonesian War of Independence at the University Library. 

The Dutch intelligence service at work.

‘The publicity surrounding this research has meant that new sources from private individuals have also surfaced, such as grandad’s letters or diaries from the attic. These kinds of personal stories are an important addition to the official sources, which are incomplete because little was allowed to be reported. They show how diverse people’s views were: some reflect frankly on the violence and write how they thought it was unacceptable. Others write that nothing happened or that such violence is unavoidable in a war.’ 

When did the political tide start to turn?

‘An important political turning point was in 2005, sixty years after Soekarno declared Indonesian independence, when Minister of Foreign Affairs Ben Bot said in Jakarta: we were on the wrong side of history. We shouldn’t have waged that war. But at the time nothing was said about how that war was waged. We wanted to research this further and the government earmarked over four million euros for this in 2017, as co-funding but not commissioning party.’

A few years ago the Indonesian government wasn’t keen on this research taking place.

‘The government did indeed indicate that didn’t think it necessary because they wanted to look ahead. For Indonesia, it was clear: you had no right to occupy us and we kicked you out during the war. But this research is first and foremost about finding the truth about Dutch history. To face up to the fact that we as a nation have a rosy self-image that is often at odds with how the Netherlands behaved. Incidentally, there is a difference between the position of the Indonesian government and the interest in society there and among historians. They are also looking for nuance in the official story, which was rather monolithic, when there was just as much division in society there in 1945-1949.’ 

How was the collaboration with Indonesian historians?

‘They provided new insights, in the use of terminology alone. The research programme is now called Onafhankelijkheid, Dekolonisatie, Geweld en Oorlog (Independence, Decolonisation, Violence and War). The term independence wasn’t included initially. That’s not surprising because in an international academic work the term “decolonisation war” is customary and we used it very deliberately in response to the framing as police action. But Indonesian historians asked: why does the title begin with decolonisation? We were already decolonised on 17 August 1945 because that was when we became independent.’

‘For Indonesia, it was clear: you had no right to occupy us and we kicked you out during the war.’

King Willem Alexander apologised in 2020 for the Dutch actions in Indonesia. What will Prime Minister Rutte do now?

‘It’s crystal clear that the government position from 1969 is incompatible with what we know now. So I think it’s obvious that he’ll say something, but what that is I don’t know. That really is a political matter.’  

You recently retired. How has the discussion about the colonial past changed in recent decades?

‘There’s a much more critical view of the colonial past, also in countries like France and England. I started out researching Latin America and the Caribbean. There, but here too, there was no doubt that the colonial period was incredibly violent and racist – take the decimation of the indigenous population and the introduction of African slavery, for example. But people in the Netherlands looked at Indonesia in a different, more nostalgic way and it was harder to come to terms with this violent past. It’s good that we’ve reached that point and people will hopefully see the power of this research. But we’re not there yet. Much more Dutch than Indonesian material has been studied and ideally Dutch and Indonesian historians will continue this together. Most insights come about when researchers look at the same sources from different perspectives.’

Several historians from Leiden worked on this national research programme, from the KITLV and the University, such as NIMH director Ben Schoenmaker, a professor by special appointment in Leiden. Bart Luttikhuis and Thijs Brocades-Zaalberg compared other decolonisation wars in the period 1945-1962 with the Dutch one, Esther Swinkels is doing PhD research in Leiden and many Leiden students contributed over the years, for instance analysing soldiers’ letters and diaries.

Text: Linda van Putten
Photo above article: Netherlands Institute for Military History collection


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