Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Book reviews: Telling the Dutch colonial wars in Aceh and South Sulawesi

Published: Oct 08, 2019

Joost Coté

In late 2018, Maarten Hidskes launched the Indonesian translation of his Dutch language book, Thuis geloofd niemand mij  (At home no one will believe me), at Makassar’s Hasanu’ddin University. It was an emotional experience for both author and audience. In this Indonesian context, Hidskes’ very personal account of the ‘South Sulawesi Affair’, as it has come to be known, came to look more like a painful personal confession of national guilt.

In the past decade there has been a flow of publications reviewing Dutch imperial rule in Indonesia emanating from a major Dutch government funded research project into the 1945 – 1949 Indonesian War of Independence. The major research project and publications emerging from it, involves both Dutch and Indonesian researchers, and was itself triggered by a series of Indonesian initiated court cases.

Public interest in these colonial era killings in both countries has been revived by the successful court cases brought by victims of the West Java Rawagede village and South Sulawesi atrocities committed by Dutch forces, and subsequent Dutch government apologies in relation to them.

In the Netherlands, the renewed focus on the colonial era is educating a new generation about the nation’s dark imperial past.

Hidskes’ book and a comparable publication by Anton Stolwijk, both published in 2016, are remarkably effective examples of this. These books are not ‘histories’ in the conventional sense; arguably such an approach would fail to ‘grab’ the very readership for whom the books are intended. While both are based on extensive archival research, it is in their way of telling that they succeed in bringing to life and to the readers’ conscience, this colonial past. It is the way Hidskes and Stolwiijk have conducted their archival post-mortems that has earned them wide critical and popular acclaim.

In both books the narrative is told in the first person and in that sense the authors shoulder the moral responsibility for revealing their nation’s dark past. In Hidskes’ case, we accompany the author as he sifts through the archive that relates to his own father. We share with him the pain of gradually discovering that his father participated in the atrocities committed in South Sulawesi, also known in the Netherlands as the ‘Westerling Affair’.

Stolwijk, by contrast, travels in person to locate the violence described in the colonial archive in the modern landscape and living memory of contemporary Aceh. While Hidskes pours over the archive and constantly asks himself: ‘How could my father have done this?’, Stolwijk carries the archive with him, as it were, to the very location in Aceh where the events took place. There were many separate events in this long drawn-out war, including many Acehnese victories and counter-attacks, and Stolwijk is only able to accommodate some of these in each of the 26 chapters of his book. Arriving at each selected location, he braces himself, as his nation’s representative, to hear the recriminations. In Banda Aceh, after speaking with a student history group, he is confronted with:

“Will you as the representative of the Netherlands, offer your apologies to the Acehnese people”, asks a pimply faced youth to loud applause. “We want an apology for the fact that our country was invaded for no reason at all by the Netherlands!”

Following many more questions from the students, he is forced to admit,

I tell them that in the Netherlands it seems that the Acehnese war has largely been forgotten; the audience jeers.

“Forgotten?” a young woman with a bright red headscarf and matching lipstick calls out. “That’s what I call imperial arrogance. First invade a country for no reason and then, supposedly, forget this happened!”

Indeed, the imperial war in Aceh that preoccupied colonial era Dutch media headlines for more than half a century is now largely forgotten in the Netherlands. By contrast, the campaign undertaken by the mixed Dutch and Indonesian military detachment led by Captain Westerling in South Sulawesi is familiar to most Dutch people.

Over about twelve weeks, between December 1946 and February 1947, a small Dutch-led commando force attempted to salvage the embryonic, Dutch orchestrated, East Indonesia federal state, Negara Indonesia Timur, from Republican takeover. It marked the beginning of the broader, post-Linggadjati Indonesian War of Independence. But the violence committed against innocent villagers and suspected ‘rebels’ during that campaign exceeded any single atrocity committed in Java during the later ‘politionele acties’ (‘police action’) recently detailed by Remy Limpach.

Post-war, the notoriety of Westerling’s campaign has acted to camouflage from Dutch public scrutiny the other ‘excesses’ (as a 1969 Dutch report termed these war crimes) committed by Dutch forces during the 1945 – 1949 war. It has been the focus of several commissions of enquiry, and intermittently of public media exposure, including Hidskes’ own documentary. More dramatically, the successful compensation case brought by several Sulawesi women widowed by these crimes has brought the ‘South Sulawesi affair’ – and indeed the broader colonial war - to national (and international) attention again.

Witnesses to horror

Hidskes’ approach, as narrator, presents his quest ‘to know’ in the form, as it were, of every post-war child’s question: ‘what did you do in the war daddy?’ Not unlike many veterans around the world, ‘daddy’ rarely spoke of his time in the war, other than in innocuous generalities. In a sense, Hidskes then takes us on a paper chase through an extensively detailed archive that in fact has always existed. It describes the thousands – estimates range from 3,000 to 40,000 – of summary executions ranging from specific revolver shots to the head to random machine gun slaughter of assembled villagers. Hidskes (and the reader) can hardly believe it. As he opens one file after another, the son constantly asks: Did my father do this? How could this man – my genial father, kind husband, friendly neighbour in a polite town in Holland – have done this? In pinpointing his father’s presence in each terrible scene that the archive reveals, it also places the (Dutch) reader there as horrified witnesses.

Where the simplicity and raw emotionalism of Hidskes’ narrative turns the pages, Stolwijk’s beautifully crafted book seamlessly integrates extracts from the archival account with the memories of real Acehnese people. This achieves a fine balance between the personal present and the documented historical past. Stolwijk ‘walks the archive’ to the soundtrack of Acehnese oral memory. We travel with Stolwijk across Aceh to view where and what took place. It recounts Stolwijk’s own journey that he undertook over several years, and this shows by the intimacy with which he interacts with people and the countryside. If it doesn’t have the agonising starkness of Hidskes’ narrative, Stolwijk enables us to feel the pride and the sorrow of Acehnese history. This extends beyond the colonial war to include the struggle against Japan, Jakarta, the internal civil war, the tsunami, and the sharp contrasts between a globalised modernity and an orthodox religion.

In one chapter, as we arrive with Stolwijk in the city of Lhokseumawe, on the road between Banda Aceh and Medan, we are shown both the extensive rusty, now defunct, gas installations that symbolise Aceh’s struggle against Jakarta in the 1970s, and the barren landscape nearby where Royal Dutch Shell stole Aceh’s resources three-quarters of a century earlier. In other chapters that take the reader along Aceh’s coastline once invaded by imperial armies, we see the more recent destruction caused by the invading tsunami.

Both accounts, then, are not histories in the conventional sense. But in ‘telling history’ both include and indeed depend upon, pieces of documented history. Not only do these extracts underscore the authenticity of what is described, but are themselves so obviously dramatic and revealing that they require little further commentary. While devoid of footnotes, there are lengthy citations indicated by quotation marks and both books include extensive bibliographies. Their dependence on the archive also points to the fact that these are histories that should have been known, as Piet Hagen notably lamented in his recent book on 450 years of Dutch colonial wars.

How do these two books resolve the wounds they open up? Hidskes ends by asking himself: If I knew then what I know now, would I have confronted my father with it? His reply to his own question is:

Now that I see the contours of the events of South Celebes through his eyes, it is more likely that our conversation would have remained superficial. Because my questions would have been carefully framed. To protect him, because I love him.

Is this also to imply how a nation can, will, or should come to terms with its past?

Stolwijk’s concluding lines are more ‘historical’, and in some senses, ironic, given the way he has framed his account throughout the book. On the last page of the last chapter, he pictures the last Dutch soldier in Aceh to survive the Japanese invasion:

It is March 1943, precisely seventy years after the first Netherlands invasion and Henry van Zanten, the very last lieutenant of the [Dutch colonial] gendarmerie, marches through the streets of Takengon to meet his death.
Now the Aceh war has really come to an end.

It was of course not the end, but the beginning of another episode, to be followed by another, and another, and another, as Aceh struggled on for peace and autonomy.

Both books in their different ways provide fresh insight into the last years of Indonesia’s colonial history that will speak to present generations of Dutch and Indonesian readers.

Maarten Hidskes, Di Belanda tak seorangpun mempercayai saya: Korban metode Westerling di Sulawesi Selatan 1946-1947 Yaysan Obor Indonesia, 2018. (In Holland no one will believe me. Westerling’s way of killing in South Sulawesi 1946 – 1947). Originally published in Dutch as Thuis geloofd niemand mij: Zuid–Celebes 1946- 1947 , Atlas Contact, Amsterdam, 2016.

Anton Stolwijk, Atjeh: Het verhaal van de bloedigste strijd uit de Nederlandse Koloniale geschiedenis. Prometheus, Amsterdam, 2016. (Aceh: The story of the bloodiest battle in Dutch colonial history).

Joost Coté is Senior Research Fellow at Monash University. His research focuses on Indonesia’s twentieth century colonial history.

Inside Indonesia 137: Jul-Sep 2019

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.