Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Book review: Beyond the pale

Published: Apr 27, 2022
A major research project on Dutch extreme violence in the Indonesian war of Independence, 1945–1949

Joost Coté

In December 2016, the Dutch government announced it would fund an extended independent investigation into the ‘post-war decolonisation period’ and the context in which acts of violence took place. This was prefaced with a declaration that the Netherlands ‘attaches great importance to the protection and promotion of human rights, international law and the rule of law’, and as such, gaining ‘better and more insight into one’s own past’ formed an important part of this principle. It also recognised that such research ‘can cause pain’, particularly to veterans and the large Indies-Dutch community in the Netherlands: ‘it is important that this research also pays attention to the difficult circumstances under which veterans had to operate’. This included understanding ‘the violence from the Indonesian side’ and ‘the responsibility of the political, administrative and military leadership’.

The announcement of the investigation followed a series of successful Indonesian-initiated court cases seeking compensation related to Dutch military action, and two high level formal Dutch apologies. As predicted, the announcement was met by criticism from various community and activist organisations in the Netherlands, one side predicting it would be a ‘whitewash’, the other maintaining it would be a ‘smear on Dutch history’ and an insult to veterans and Indies-Dutch citizens.

The research was to be carried out across three key government-funded research institutes, the KITLV, the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies; the NIMH, the Institute for Military History; and NIOD, the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The original title for the project was ‘Decolonisation, Violence and War in Indonesia, 1945 – 1949’, but after presenting the project proposal to historians at Gadjah Mada University in 2017, this was amended to include reference to ‘Independence’; changing the title to ‘Independence, Decolonisation, Violence and War in Indonesia, 1945 – 1950’. The project was divided across 11 sub-sections, each with a dedicated group of assigned researchers, which initially included only one, later expanded to three, Indonesian academics. 

In February 2022, after a slight delay due to COVID-19, the first five in a projected series of 12 (Dutch language) publications appeared in open access format from Amsterdam University Press. One of these, providing a broad overview of the project, was simultaneously published in English translation, and is the subject of this summary overview. No Indonesian language version has so far been published.

On naming

The title of the lead volume in this proposed multi-volume series announces that the Dutch military action in the period 1945–1949 in Indonesia was ‘beyond the pale’. The subtitle explains that this 'involved "extreme violence"' and adds further, that this was ‘in the Indonesian war of Independence, 1945 – 1949’. Each of these elements of the title deserves some consideration.

For some, the expression ‘beyond the pale’ (a perfectly good translation of the Dutch title ('Over de grens’) may seem less than appropriate in this context; more appropriate, let’s say, in the case of a headmaster informing parents about their delinquent child’s behaviour. The reference to the Indonesian War of Independence appears more appropriate were it not that this somewhat obscures the fact that the ‘extreme violence’ was occasioned in an attempt to reimpose Dutch colonial rule, not about Indonesian Independence.

More important, however, is the term ‘extreme violence’. This effectively encompasses the project’s conclusion. It also reflects on the conclusion of an earlier Dutch government review investigating Dutch military violence, the ‘Excessen Nota’ of 1969, which concluded, in response to the first series of public revelations about wartime atrocities, that while the violence was ‘excessive’, it did not have the character of being ‘systemic’. One can go further back to find such conclusions. In 1947, the newly re-installed colonial administration in Makassar appointed to establish a Government of Eastern Indonesian, Negara Indonesia Timur, also considered the actions of Captain Westerling and his troops in South Sulawesi, as somewhat ‘excessive’. Nevertheless, the minutes of the 1947 meeting, now freely available on the internet, show that while ‘excessive’ it was decided that the actions were ‘legitimate because of the extraordinary circumstances’ (i.e. the re-establishment of colonial rule). It is believed that Westerling’s campaign resulted in the killing and summary execution of, perhaps, up to 40,000 Indonesians and the burning of multiple villages. In 2013, six relatives of those massacred villagers commenced legal action for compensation, which was eventually recognised by a Dutch court in 2019. 

Although the fact that the Dutch military perpetrated violence is not in question, how it should be described is what lies at the centre of this project. If proving that there was ‘extreme violence’ was the project’s objective, it might be wondered whether there was any need for this expensive and lengthy research project at all. Numerous publications, and notably Rémy Limpach’s 868 page, Dutch language 2016 publication (see brief review in Inside Indonesia), provides indisputable evidence of the ‘mass violence’ perpetrated by Dutch and British forces, some of which amounted to war crimes. Limpach is a contributing researcher on this project.

In 2015, the lead author in this four year project, Gert Oostindie, published a book based on interviews and veteran testimonies in which he also then found that ‘extreme violence’ had taken place. However, what mattered, he further concluded, was that the violence was structural, not systemic. In his introductory overview to the present volume, Oostindie carefully explains how this distinction now lies at the core of the research current project, and indeed runs as a red thread through this introductory volume and presumably the research as a whole. 

Oostindie’s introductory overview of the research explains the significance for the ‘current debate’, ( a reference to the motivation for this research project) of the difference in the technical meanings of ‘structural extreme violence’ and ‘systemic extreme violence’, to describe Dutch military action.

‘The current debate … focuses on the question of whether the violence should be labelled as structural and/or systemic – instead of incidental – and why it happened... the difference between structural and systemic is not a question of quantity or frequency but rather a question of intention. The systematic deployment of extreme violence occurs systematically – that is, by order or with the approval of the senior military and political leadership – while structural use of extreme violence involves (tacit) tolerance or indifference.' (emphasis added)

This is clearly an important distinction as it goes to the heart of the question as to blame and guilt, both of the national army and of the state at the time – not to mention the possible implications for costly legal compensation cases, of which a number have already been successfully prosecuted by Indonesian claimants. The introductory section makes clear that this question is already settled:

‘The conclusions of this research support the views that have been articulated in recent years by an increasing number of historians, namely that the Dutch armed forces resorted to extreme violence not on an incidental basis but rather on a structural basis.’

This is an advance on the conclusion made by the earlier (1969) official government review, which stated:

‘The armed forces as a rule behaved ‘correctly’ and that although there were regrettable ‘excesses’ – incidents in other words – there was no question of systematic cruelty.

The conclusion reached by this research project in its ‘search for the truth’, happens to concur with Oostindie’s own conclusion in 2015. It seemingly absolves the state from inherited responsibility for any ‘systemic’ violence, and reflects well on the government’s decision to fund the project. On this basis it would therefore appear that the estimated 100,000 Indonesian deaths, which were a consequence of ‘extreme violence’, were  - to quote the definition cited above - a result of ‘(tacit) tolerance or indifference’ on the part of Dutch military, commanders and their overseers.

On truth-seeking

The book’s introduction makes clear that having already settled the key question ‘about the responsibility of the military command and more importantly about the political responsibility’, the main aim of the research project was to investigate the ‘how and why’ of the ‘mass violence’. This is addressed in summary form in a section titled ‘Research Outcomes’.

Before this, however, there is a lengthy ‘Background’ section to contextualise the events of the war. Consisting of approximately 70 pages, this is devoted to ‘the political-historical context’ and the ‘military-historical context ‘of the war. The first consists of a standard (Dutch) textbook colonial history of the East Indies, extended to include the immediate post-war diplomatic ‘struggle’. This is far from a critical colonial history, and, as the ‘research guidelines’ make clear, is aimed solely to set out the Dutch story, leaving little room for an appreciation of the Indonesian ‘side’. The conclusion drawn from this outline of the ‘political-historical context’ is that:

‘In short, the Dutch-Indonesian decolonisation process and war took place in a historical context that was new to all parties involved. This insight may make the Dutch mindset and conduct at the time – which was ‘on the wrong side of history’ – more understandable. However, it certainly does not alter the fact that they were altogether unacceptable from an Indonesian perspective, even back then.’

Much could be said about this statement; indeed, the most important comment is made in an ‘Epilogue’ by the book’s only Indonesian contributor and about which I will say more later.

The section on ‘The military – historical context’ provides specific background for answering the ‘why’ question. Significantly, this begins with an analysis of the actions of the ‘Indonesian side’, followed by an account of the British (and Australian) military actions, before finally, considering Dutch military violence. The ‘how’ question is then backgrounded in a chapter assessing the ‘size and resources’ available to the Dutch military.

This political and military background may provide a useful primer for (English) readers on Dutch colonial history in Indonesia, but is mainly concerned to provide a basis for reiterating the research objectives, which can now be set against an ‘historical background’. It briefly reconfirms the limits of the research objectives as being to make the ‘extreme violence’ ‘understandable’ from the Dutch perspective of the time, and to point to the difficulties experienced by present day researchers to go any further, due to, it is said, ‘the lack of archival material’. This reason is perhaps somewhat surprising given the extent of the archival material that is available and already accessed by the authors of the publications dealing with the same history listed and briefly summarised in the next section called ‘Intermezzo’ a selection of which has been reviewed earlier in Inside Indonesia. However, while some of its authors have also been enrolled in the research project, this prior research is kept at arms-length from the research project itself.

The following section consists of nine chapters which summarise the project’s ‘Research Outcomes’. These have been/will be published in full in separate (Dutch language) volumes. It is perhaps notable that the first three chapters in this section focus on the perpetration of ‘extreme violence’ by Indonesians. This is described in great detail by Captain and Sinke in Chapter One of this section that focuses on ‘Extreme violence in the first phase of the Indonesian Revolution, 17 August 1945 to 31 March 1946’, the period that corresponds to what, in the Dutch version of the history, is referred to as the ‘Bersiap’. Especially for the Indies-Dutch community, this period encapsulates their worst memories, and for a Dutch public more generally, defines the most urgent motivation for, and legitimation of, the ‘extreme violence’. In the third of these chapters, Limpach contributes a detailed picture of the experience – including ‘torture’ and summary execution – of ‘Indonesian traitors’, such as those spying for the Dutch, at the hands of Indonesian militia.

The following four chapters provide separate analyses of specific aspects of the ‘methods’ employed in the Dutch military action. This begins with Harmanny’s analysis of their use of ‘heavy weapons’, which provides a level of detail that includes the mapping of ‘fire missions’. Drawing on accounts of Dutch soldiers, it concludes that later reflections by participants in one Dutch action, that ‘oscillate between remorse, self-justification and indifference … attest to the fact that [they] were aware of civilian casualties resulting from the lack of discrimination in the violence they used’.

In the end, however, this chapter, like the project more generally, concludes that: ‘There is no clear-cut answer to the question of whether legal boundaries were crossed in the shelling of kampongs’. For this author, the issue finally revolves around the question of ‘proportionality’, which is to say, a question of how to assess the ‘excessiveness’ of the violence committed. The author also concludes that any suggestion that there was a ‘Dutch method’ of warfare during this period is ‘in reality nothing more than a myth born of wishful thinking’. One is then obliged to conclude that violence could not have been ‘systemic’.

Coming closer to some formulation of a conclusion regarding a possible ‘systemic’ explanation for the ‘extreme violence’ is chapter seven of this section that considers the legal framework. Here Zwinkels moves the focus back to the question of its ‘systemic’ nature by considering ‘the wider political question of the legitimacy of the use of military force in any form’:

‘After all, the extreme violence on the Dutch side would not have occurred – or at least would have occurred on a much smaller scale – in the absence of a political decision to deploy military means to resolve a political conflict.’

Rather bravely, this author steps out of the general ambiance of the project to state that in the end:

‘The ‘police actions’, regardless of how they were carried out and regardless of their outcome, were from the outset seen in broad diplomatic circles as a reprehensible use of military force…. The boundaries between ‘acceptable’ and ‘extreme’ military violence can be drawn in different ways, but to what extent is the use of violence ever acceptable in humanitarian terms?’ 

The entire series, once published, will consist of 12 titles

This might well stand as a conclusion for a research project into a colonial war that occurred over 70 years ago, but the research overview continues with a further three chapters. These consider, and are perhaps intended to help justify, how the Netherlands’ political decision ‘to deploy military means to resolve a political conflict’ could be accommodated at the time. This is explained at one level by an ‘international colonial comparison’ of French and British colonial behaviour (Zaalberg and Luttikhuis), and on the other hand, by reference to the intentional ‘cover-up’ by Dutch ‘policy makers’ at the time, concerned to ‘win the war’ and ‘safeguard Dutch interests’ (Raben and Romijn). The latter also consider ‘colonial disassociation’ on the part of the contemporary Dutch public that made this war all seem so far away. In the Australian context, this is perhaps recognisable as the ‘we didn’t know, we weren’t told’ argument when it comes to not remembering ‘mass violence’ perpetrated against Australia’s First Nations.

On reckoning

Oostindie concludes this important section with a chapter that considers the question of the ‘guilty conscience’ that may be carried by veterans, their descendants and the wider Netherlands public today. He acknowledges that ‘an open and critical debate about Dutch military action in the Indonesian War of Independence was a long time coming, and even then, the discussion only developed in fits and starts.’ He does not excuse Dutch historians for the ‘long concealment’ and the ‘covering up’ of the war, but concludes, in what amounts to a sociological reflection, that now, although ‘The picture is [still] in flux’, ‘the image of the Indonesian War of Independence’ is ‘changing’:

‘The perspective is more critical than it was: more critical even, than the assessment of colonialism in a broader sense. It is plausible that this new picture will become more deeply rooted in the coming years, in education and in the cultural sphere, but also in political statements.’

Given the relatively cautious conclusions that this four-year long research project has arrived at, readers may wonder, however, how much longer this might take, and indeed the likelihood that a more ‘critical’ perception will develop in the near future.

A final comment

The book ends with an ‘Epilogue’ provided by its only Indonesia-resident Indonesian contributor, Hilmar Farid, former chair of the Indonesian Historical Society, lecturer for the post-academic program at the Jakarta Arts Institute and current Directorate General of Culture in the Ministry of Education and Culture.

After acknowledging that Indonesians could learn something from the research project, such as information that can be derived from the careful mapping and the chronology of the Dutch campaign, Farid makes clear that the research has more relevance in the Netherlands than in Indonesia – which might explain why the absence of an Indonesian language version was not an issue for him.

Setting out some principles of his own, Farid insists, citing Gerlach, that ‘mass violence cannot be viewed as a freak event, inexplicable or occurring outside history’, and that therefore ‘it requires broad contextualisation’:

‘The concept of extreme violence should … not preclude the aspects of intentionality and premeditation that are usually to be found in the conventional definition of genocide; for this is what happened for example, in the case of the special forces led by Westerling in South Sulawesi: the return of the Dutch who wanted to restore colonial rule.’

But his key critical point is that ‘it is imperative that we emphasise that the extreme violence did not start in August 1945 … but was inherent in the colonial system’, and was ‘an important part of this colonial legacy’. Farid insists ‘that we cannot view the period 1945–1949 in isolation from the preceding colonial period. The social history of mass violence existed long before the "outbursts of violence" during the revolution.’

So, readers may ask, should we not be talking about ‘systemic violence’ after all? 

Graciously, Farid is prepared to acknowledge that the research project represents one further step in a process to ‘right past wrongs’ by ‘the revelation of the truth’. He considers the research to be one important contribution to a broader ‘attempt to overcome this [colonial legacy]’ that includes ‘the movement to restore European museum collections that were acquired by force, or topple statues and monuments that symbolise colonial power’. Hopefully, he concludes, these ‘are all expressions of the effort to keep historical justice alive … not only to correct what happened in the past, but also as fuel for imagining a better vision of the future’. 

While so far this is the only volume on the research project published in English, it is hoped that this summary of the book will entice readers of Inside Indonesia to download the open access volume and draw their own conclusions. Having done so, they could then compare it to a history of British colonialism, as analysed in the recent book by Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence. This characterises British rule as ‘legalised lawlessness’, which sounds very much like ‘systemic violence’.

Beyond the pale: Dutch extreme violence in the Indonesian war of Independence, 1945 – 1949. 17 authors, Amsterdam University Press, 2022. Details for the entire series can be found here.

Joost Coté is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in History at Monash University. His research focuses on 20th century Dutch colonial policy and discourse. He has been following the progress of this research project since its inception in 2016. All translations from the original Dutch to English are by the author.

More reviews by this author
Review: History wars in The Netherlands
Review: Revisiting the colonial wars
Review: Witnesses to Holland's war in Indonesia, 1945-49
Reviews: Telling the Dutch colonial wars in Aceh and South Sulawesi
Inside Indonesia 148: Apr-Jun 2022

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