Nov 28, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Review: Witnesses to Holland's war in Indonesia 1945-49

Published: Sep 18, 2016

Joost Coté

Responses to Gert Oostindie’s recently published Soldaat in Indonesië (the title translates as ‘Soldier in Indonesia, 1945-1950: Witnesses to a war on the wrong side of history’) provides clear evidence that opinions on Holland’s war in Indonesia of 1945-49 – aka Politionele Acties (Police Actions) or the Indonesian War of Independence – are still fiercely contested in the Netherlands today. While this book treads carefully into territory long redacted by Dutch political, military, veteran and even academic commentators, it is an indication that the demand for ‘the truth’ about the vuile (dirty) war is increasingly making itself heard. If nothing else, it has succeeded in securely embedding the terms ‘war’ and ‘ war crimes’ into all future Dutch public debate concerning events that took place in Indonesia between 1945 and 1950, as the Netherlands attempted to maintain control over their former colony. 

The aim of this book is not to rehearse the events of this war, nor to deliver judgement. Specifically, in the context of the increasingly voluminous and vocal debate in the Netherlands, Oostindie’s team of researchers has set out to address one initial, but surely foundational, question: what is the evidence that war crimes were committed by Dutch forces in Indonesia in the period 1945 – 1950? The answer is clear: even this analysis of a relatively limited selection of evidence – the 100,000 pages of text from 659 published accounts authored by 1362 (veteran) witnesses (less than 1 percent of Dutch military involved) – reveals that at least 800 acts that could constitute war crimes as defined under the Geneva Convention were committed by Dutch forces. That figure includes 97 cases of the shooting of prisoners and 33 cases of execution during interrogation.

At one level it is this very mathematical calculation that drives the point home. Generalised, it allows the author to authoritatively conclude that “the total number of crimes (misdrijven) is more likely to amount to tens of thousands than thousands”. As such, the book argues that war crimes constituted a “structural” element in the conduct of the counter-guerrilla war … but not a “systemic” one.  The distinction is crucial, and is made repeatedly throughout the book. And this points to why, in the end, this account of the war represents unfinished business. While incidents of rape, execution of civilians and prisoners, burning of villages etc were widespread, as accounts presented in published testimony by this fraction of the combatants attest, the book is concerned to emphasize such behaviour was not officially sanctioned. One might ask whether this provides an escape clause for the Dutch national conscience? Critical voices within the Netherlands say not. Were the book to be translated and read by an international public, the answer, also, would surely be a resounding ‘no’. Indeed there are enough hints in the copious and often lengthy extracts from veterans’ memoirs that characterise this book to conclude that even within this relatively small sample, many veterans were conscious of the fact that political and military leaders – and even higher ranks in the field – condoned such acts in the pursuit of the desired outcome.

The war involved round 30,000 volunteers, 95,000 conscripts, and 1000 professional soldiers recruited in the Netherlands who augmented an estimated 70 – 80,000 strong Royal Dutch-Indies Army (KNIL) force (of whom the majority were Indonesian) to face an unknown, largely guerrilla, Indonesian opposition. The Dutch side suffered an estimated 6000 deaths as a direct result of war. Indonesian casualties are almost impossible to calculate: according to Adrian Vickers (2005) 45,000 – 100,000 Indonesian military and 25,000 – 100,000 Indonesian civilians were killed, and seven million Indonesians displaced.

Apart from calculating “the nature and frequency of war crimes”, the aim of Oostindie’s book is specifically “to investigate the context in which these took place and how those involved considered these, at the time and afterwards”. The structure of the book accentuates this concern for providing ‘balance’. Accordingly, the evidence of war crimes reported and discussed in the book’s three central chapters are bookended by three introductory and two concluding chapters that focus on the soldiers’ (self-reported) experience. These seek to understand the psychological environment in which such acts were committed.  These chapters ask: Why did they enlist?  How did they view ‘the enemy’? What were their conditions? How were they received on returning home? Seeking answers to these questions express the intention of Oostindie’s team of researchers’ to recognize and respect the memory of the thousands of (mostly) Dutch men who answered the nation’s call. At the time the slogan, ‘Save our Indies”, screamed down from posters (a selection of which are included in this book) to challenge the patriotism of a generation only just freed from Nazi tutelage, during which 350,000 Dutch nationals had been exported to German labour camps, and a further 100,000 interned in Japanese internment camps, and at a time when an estimated 50,000 men women and children were interned by Indonesian Republican forces. 

Although polls at the time indicated lukewarm support from the Dutch public for the ‘politionele acties’ (a little over 50 percent), as international opinion turned against the Netherlands – and history changed sides – it evidently served the ‘greater national interest’ to quarantine the details of this dirty war. A later official enquiry into the events – in 1969 – allowed only reference to military ‘excesses’ and it was not till cases were brought by relatives of Indonesian victims that the Dutch government was prepared to make public admissions, with ground breaking apologies to the Indonesian nation in 2011 and 2013, for specific ‘incidents’. Nevertheless, it was not prepared to officially contribute to the research project conducted by KITLV and associated public research institutions that has culminated in the present volume. 

Given that, in the past, Dutch historians have been, in the words of one member of the new generation of scholars, overly ‘careful’, this book is an important step forward in clearing the ground for a full public disclosure of this murky history. It joins others, such as van Liempt’s, Nederland valt aan: Op weg naar oorlog met Indonesië 1947 (2012) (The Netherlands attacks: On the way to war in Indonesia), which examines the official military and political record preliminary to the outbreak of the war, in what will inevitably become a virtual torrent as the historical dam walls are broken through.

Yet the limitations of Soldaat in Indonesië in this regard are important to point out. It remains limited by its exclusive reference to an internal Dutch debate – and language for an English language outline of that debate; by the lack of reference to a burgeoning international literature on (colonial) war crimes, (compare for instance Luttikhuis and Moses, 2014, and the anticipated forthcoming publication of Remy Limpach’s recent PhD on this subject); and to Indonesian sources on the same events (the book contains just one brief reference to an Indonesian source). In view of the sensitivities still surrounding these events, the latter omission is perhaps understandable and as Oostindie rightly points out, Indonesian historians (and public) have also still to address their side of this violent history. For Indonesia, too, maintaining the existing national narrative remains a key obstacle to ‘full disclosure’. Be that as it may, however, one might question whether Indonesian accounts would yet find acceptance in this scrutiny of a Dutch national conscience.

A broader question might be to question the limits of ‘witness histories’ – in this case limited to those that have been published – in the writing of contested histories. While clearly (Dutch) veterans’ accounts will enable the historian to fill in what official documents elide, and will be increasingly convincing in proportion to their representativeness, ultimately more robust analysis of official records, and reference to international research of similar episodes – and the experience of Indonesian victims – will be essential.  

This contribution to a burgeoning national debate, then, is to be welcomed in setting a benchmark from which others can take the debate further. As the foreword admits, it represents only part of a wider investigation that the KITLV team is undertaking, and even now it is evident that the debate – and the revelations – have already rushed ahead in the wider national discourse. It is, still, a very careful introduction to a history of the Indonesian War of Independence. And before that can be adequately written, the results of the Dutch research need to be opened up to international scrutiny (which effectively means translation into English) and the involvement of Indonesian historians. 

Gert Oostindie: Soldaat in Indonesië 1945 – 1950: Getuigenissen van een oorlog aan de verkeerde kant van de geschiedenis (Amsterdam, Prometheus, 2015).

Joost Coté (, is Senior Research Fellow, Monash University. This review was first published in the journal The Low Countries Historical Review Vol 131-2 (2016). It has been re-published here with their permission. The Review publishes articles and reviews in Dutch and English, including on colonial history.


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