The Dutch-Indonesian conflict 1945-49 – attention for the other side

Jul 19th, 2012, in History, by

The Dutch Royal Institute for Linguistics and Anthropology (KITLV) in Leiden has proposed a new inquiry into what actually happened in the conflict between the Netherlands and the Republic in the years 1945-1949. But it will differ from earlier inquiries, that focused on Dutch excesses, in that this time around there will also be attention for the actions of the TNI and the para military groups.

The Director of the KITLV, a man with the remarkable family name Van Oostindie (“Of the East Indies”), explained this interest by saying that one couldn’t really explain the behaviour of one side without looking at what was happening on the other side of the field. His Institute, which has been a repository for information on the Indies for more than 150 years, proposes this research to be done by a team of six scholars over a period of three years. It is looking for a government grant of 2 million Euros to finance this.

The prominent Indonesian historian, Professor Bambang Purwanto of Gadjah Mada University has welcomed this initiative. In an interview published in the Dutch quality paper “Volkskrant” last week he said inter alia:

There are a lot of things we don?t know of each other. All this information now has to be joined together. I think that there are matters that Indonesians can remember and that are totally unknown to the Dutch and vice versa. Beside the official historiography we also need personal experiences and histories to know what really happened… One couldn’t polish away anything that has happened. But we have to share our information to get a clearer view of our own history… It is meaningless to speak in absolute terms of good guys and bad guys. One can be both, even at the same moment. It all depends on from whose perspective one looks at the situation. But we have to try to be realistic. It was our fate to be a colony of the Netherlands. I don’t defend colonialism with this, I don’t say either that there were good or only bad aspects of colonialism. What I do say is this: part of Indonesian history is Dutch, part of Dutch history is Indonesian… When the Dutch left and sovereignty had been transferred we judged everything to do with colonialism to be bad. But we are now living in the 21st Century. We have taken distance, we are thinking much more realistically and objectively about what has happened. Not objectively, that doesn’t exist because you always reason from your own point of view. But honestly. Otherwise you can’t be a good historian. You must not use history to hate or accuse each other.

It so happens that Purwanto’s team is working on a new comprehensive history of Indonesia as well and from that point of view too he welcomes cooperation. As far as immediate post war history is concerned this work is overdue. The last comprehensive Indonesian language history of Indonesia is, to the best of my knowledge, the six volumes of Sejarah Nasional Indonesia edited by the late Professor Sartono Kartodirdjo et al (Jakarta 1974). I don’t know whether it is still in print. I was lucky enough to obtain a copy not long after it was published.

In this work the four years of military conflict are dealt with very summarily in Volume VI, in all of forty pages.

I do hope that Purwanto and his team can cooperate fruitfully with the KITLV team if this ever comes off the ground (the money still has to be obtained and that in a time that governmental budgets are getting increasingly tight). However, I was a bit puzzled by Van Oostindie’s stated claim for the KITLV research to produce an account “that is acceptable to both sides”. A historian should be after the truth – acceptability looks more like a political aim.

I have mentioned Professor Purwanto earlier in my posts when I referred to a complaint he made at an international conference on the theme “Identity and Chaos in Indonesia: 1945-1946”, organized by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation in 2003. I translated from the conference proceedings: “He talked about the resistance he gets in his own country at the slightest attempt to deal somewhat objectively with the history of the Revolution. He had already been reproached for not being a real Indonesian”.

Has that situation changed?

12 Comments on “The Dutch-Indonesian conflict 1945-49 – attention for the other side”

  1. akhy says:

    but they should remain in accordance with the principles of historical science
    because history is the entertainment
    -akhy, student of history in Social Science Faculty, State University of Malang-

  2. madrotter says:

    Oh wow, thanks for the tip David, I really want to see this! Saw Oeroeg last week, a Dutch/Indonesian movie from the 80’s based on the book by the same title from Hella S. Haase and that one was fantastic…. With a very young Ayu Azhari, it also deals about the fight for independence, focusing on the friendship between life-long friends, a Dutch man and an Indonesian man on opposing sided in the conflict….

  3. madrotter says:

    Here’s the Oeroeg trailer….

  4. Arie den Hollander says:

    I welcome Mr. Van Oostindie’s initiative, but I feel he has left it far too late.
    Most of the actual witnesses and those who were involved on both sides are now dead, and consequently we will end up with, at best, a watered down version of what really happened, or, at worst, a grossly exaggerated one.

  5. Arie Brand says:

    I imagine that it will be mainly a document search.

    Over the last few weeks quite a few “witnesses” made themselves heard however. This was a propos of a few photographs that had been discovered in the album of a veteran who had recently died. He left no offspring so the album was almost thrown into the rubbish but for someone discovering these remarkable photographs. The whole album was then taken to the town archivist (of Enschede). Subsequently they appeared under fat headlines in the national daily the “Volkskrant”.

    What do they show? One of them shows a gully full of (obviously Indonesian) corpses with a Dutch soldier in squatting position who looks at the scene. Another soldier is lingering nearby. The second photograph shows three Indonesians from the back at the very moment that they are being shot. They are standing at the edge of a gully – it is not absolutely certain that it is the same gully. One of them is already slightly falling forward. One sees the dust raised by the bullets on the other side of the gully.

    Though the veterans are now in their eighties the intensity of the emotions that this kind of thing still arouses among them,. and even among the public at large, is amazing. The veterans who happened to have a meeting at the same time were fairly unanimous – we ain’t guilty of this. The Indonesians must have done it. People were executed on our side but not in this fashion. Which leaves the question how these photos got into the album of a Dutch veteran and how the presence of these two Dutch soldiers on one of these photos can be explained.

    It seems clear though that the veteran who left the album did not make all these photographs himself or if he did not with the same cheap box camera of the time. The photographs have different formats and different edges.

    What also seemed strange to me is that if there was an execution here of victims positioned at the edge of a gully, as the second photo seems to suggest, it has led to a strange chaos of bodies. They are all lying in different attitudes and different directions. To me it seemed rather a dumping ground of people who had been killed somewhere else.

    I have this week seen at least one TV forum on the matter where the emotions also got pretty well stirred up. Hueting, the veteran who got the ball rolling at a TV broadcast in 1969 with his revelations of war crimes he had personally witnessed and participated in (I wrote about this on the Dutch war crimes thread) was still there. He too is now in his eighties. He made it appear that war crimes were the order of the day then. I seriously doubt this. War crimes, like ordinary crimes, remain exceptions (unless one talks about deliberate genocide as committed by the German police batallions on the Eastern front). I assume that a great many soldiers never witnessed one. One specific veteran, an older brother of mine, swears that he never even heard of one then. There was at this forum another veteran who got rather worked up by Hueting’s statements and came with a story about four mates of his who were slaughtered by either village people or soldiers (that remained unclear) and whom they found next day with their hands cut off and their penises propped into their mouth. Hueting scoffed at this. He said that he had heard this penis story quite often but he had personally never seen a case like that. What he had seen was an Indonesian soldier covering a killed Dutch soldier with a palm leaf.

    Somebody in the audience, the anthropologist Van leeuwen who is of Eurasian extraction , reminded the others that in that time more Indonesians were killed by Indonesians than by the Dutch military (this might be true but I don’t think there is a reliable record of that). She also reminded people of the horrors of the “bersiap” time (called by Indonesians “the time of chaos”) when her own mother almost became one of the victims. Another Eurasian testified how as a nine year old boy he had been compelled to clean the bamboo spears with which the European women and children had been slaughtered in that convoy under the (failed) protection of British soldiers that was en route to Surabaya but never reached it. He was overcome by emotion while telling it – shaking all over and crying his heart out. Apparently he had been at the scene of the slaughter.

    More than sixty years ago this and all these emotions that can apparently be so easily uncovered from under the ashes where they have been smouldering all this while.

  6. Tarko says:

    The biggest question in my mind is :
    Why the hell were those skinless people being in tropics?

  7. Arie Brand says:


    “who as a nine year old boy” should be “how as a nine year old boy”

    And now I am it: since I put these penises into the plural I should also have done so with the mouths in which they were allegedly propped.

  8. Arie Brand says:

    The most irritating variety of political correctness is the retrospective one.

    Hoorn, the birthplace of Jan Pietersz. Coen, the founder of Batavia (Jakarta), has since 125 years been adorned with a statue of its exotic citizen. Recently it was damaged in an accident. It was proposed to now do away with it altogether in the same way as happened with the Van Heutsz monument in Amsterdam (it has been transformed in a general monument for the Indies without any reference to Van Heutsz).

    But the denizens of this picturesque West Friesland town are apparently attached to their bronze fellow citizen. They wanted to keep him and the Town Council has decided accordingly. But the plaque that enlightens the visitor about him now will not only mention that he was a “visionary administrator” but also the architect of “aggressive policies”.

    Professor Bambang Purwanto who now holds the chair of Dutch-Indonesian historical relations at the University of Leiden, so I understand, is not obliged to be politically correct in the Dutch fashion. He commented that doing away with the statue of Coen would have been a mistake:

    “Taking away the statue of Coen would mean to deny the reality of the shared Dutch-Indonesian history,” he said. “History brings not only good things, but also misery, and all of that must be represented.”

  9. JakartaJaap says:

    As luck would have it, I’m reading ‘Pa, vertel’s over je tijd in Indie!’, Barend van Houwelingen’s diary of being a conscript fighting here Oct 46 to Nov 49. Described, correctly, in a number of reviews as being a sober account (nuchter relaas), the diary mentions a number of casual executions by the Dutch forces. That said, I think the reluctance of the Indonesian authorities to really pursue the truth of what happened in ’45-’50 lies in Van Leeuwen’s comment, cited above by Arie, about the great number of Indonesians killed by Indonesians. Given that the armed forces’ museums in Indonesia – I’m thinking specifically Jakarta and Bandung – and the military’s official histories emphasise the TNI’s origins in the pemuda gangs, it would be arkward to then have to admit that they were responsible for the slaughter of their fellow citizens.

  10. derril says:

    soegija,…very sensational movie

  11. Derek says:

    My father was a volunteer veteran of this war. I am reading his diary and hearing his stories of his experiences. One sad aspect of this war, which has not been mentioned was the way the veterans were treated upon their return to the Netherlands. And they fought for their country. He still has post traumatic symptoms of his time in Indonesia. Interestingly the Indonesians were collaborating with the Dutch.

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