Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

A soldier's historian

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Kate McGregor

The New Order regime relied for much of its legitimacy on official representations of history. Its version of the coup attempt of 1965, for example, described the event as a communist plot. This was of crucial importance for justifying the military take-over between 1965-67, as well as for the mass killing of communists in this period. Histories stressing military leadership in the 1945-49 independence struggle were also important for justifying the military's combined social, political and defence roles (dwifungsi). To produce these histories, the regime turned repeatedly to one man, Nugroho Notosusanto.

As a trained historian, Nugroho offered these projects academic credibility. Every country has official historians, and historians often work for the military or research military history. But Nugroho was different. He devoted himself to producing history for a regime dominated by the military. This earned him the enduring scorn of other Indonesian historians.

Why was Nugroho so devoted to the military? To understand, we need to reflect on his life story.


Nugroho Notosusanto was born on 15 June 1931, in Rembang, central Java. At age fourteen he joined the 1945 independence struggle against the colonial Dutch. He served as a member of the Student Army, Tentara Pelajar, made up entirely of secondary and university students. Many of its members came from youth militias trained under the Japanese. Nugroho was probably too young to have joined these Japanese youth groups, but he shared with them an acceptance of martial mentalities. The Japanese occupation helped radicalise Indonesian youth and planted an authoritarian outlook in many young minds.

Members of the Student Army felt they belonged to a unique generation set apart from their elders by their vigorous 'spirit' (semangat), which of course included an unwillingness to make concessions to the Dutch. Like other members of the Student Army and the Indonesian National Army, Nugroho held little regard for civilian leaders, particularly those involved in diplomatic negotiations.

What is interesting is that Nugroho's criticism of the older generation was very personal. His own father clearly belonged to it too - he was a member of the negotiating team for the Republic of Indonesia at the Round Table Conference of 1949. This encapsulates the divide between Nugroho's generation of radical nationalists and that of their parents.

He once declared that his idol was General Sudirman, the first commander of the revolutionary Indonesian military. Sudirman had long believed that the military had a special role to play. What little faith Sudirman had in the civilian leadership disappeared after December 1948 when, after the Dutch launched an aggressive military campaign, the civilian leadership, based on a calculated assessment of international opinion, allowed themselves to be captured rather than join the guerilla struggle.

After the transfer of sovereignty in December 1949, the government of the Republic of Indonesia offered all members of the former Student Army a military education at Breda in the Netherlands. Nugroho now had to choose. Should he continue a career in the military, or follow his father's example and pursue a higher education? His father was a professor in Islamic law at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

Much later, Nugroho revealed that he would have chosen the military and gone to Breda. But his father prevented him. Nugroho's father, S H Notosusanto, was born into an elite Javanese (priyayi) family. He was one of the few Indonesians to attend a Dutch university in the Netherlands Indies. During his studies in the late 1920s and early 1930s he was exposed to important nationalist leaders such as Supomo, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta. Perhaps he shared Hatta and Sukarno's hesitation about the need for a national army. Yet here was his son - excited about joining precisely such an organisation.

Nugroho obeyed his father and enrolled in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Indonesia. But this did not stop him from identifying with the military throughout his life. A romantic view of the independence struggle endured in the short stories he wrote in the 1950s. Humanistic in style, most of these stories demonstrate a compassion for ordinary people affected by the revolution. They indicate a side to Nugroho he was later to suppress.

The short stories made Nugroho well known. He also became an active student leader. His obvious creativity and intellect attracted the attention of his peers and mentors. Among them were the historian Onghokham, and Priyono the left-leaning Minister of Education in the Guided Democracy period just before 1965. They all held great hopes for him.

By 1964 Nugroho was teaching history at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. One day General A H Nasution, chief of staff of the armed forces and minister for defence, approached him to join a team of researchers. Their task was to write an army version of the history of the independence struggle. The aim: to challenge a similar history said to be planned by the leftist National Front. The army feared that the latter would leave out an account of the so-called Madiun Affair of 1948, a bloody event the army preferred to represent as a communist revolt against the government.

Nugroho seized the opportunity. History and politics now met decisively for the first time in his life. When completed, this history project led to the establishment of the Armed Forces History Centre, with Nugroho at its head. His most important project, as noted above, was to produce the first official version of the coup attempt of 1 October 1965. After this he set about consolidating the military's historical image by emphasising the military's role in the independence struggle. Nugroho wrote many history books, curated several museums, and assisted with some important film projects.

In 1984 he was appointed Minister of Education. He rewrote school history curriculums to place greater emphasis on the military's historical role. Nugroho had become the official historian of the New Order regime.


Throughout his career, Nugroho's projects attracted widespread criticism from other historians. The more civil ideas of his father's generation had not died with their passing. Like his father, many of these historians did not share Nugroho's faith in the military leadership of the nation, and instead saw many dangers there.

Nugroho continued teaching history at the University of Indonesia even after taking up his position at the Armed Forces History Centre. The tensions of his dual careers were considerable. In 1978 he told a friend that he inhabited two worlds: those of the army and the university. In the army, he said, people have a sense of honour and are not always competing with each other. At university everyone was out for themselves. This reaction probably grew from a sense of rejection arising from his more controversial projects.

Yet whilst Nugroho felt the military world was more honorable, he was not completely accepted there either. A military man at the Army History Centre in Bandung once posed this question about Nugroho and himself to historian Sartono Kartodirdjo: 'Tell me Sartono, what is worse, a military man who pretends to be a historian, or a historian who pretends to be a military man?'

He was proud of his military promotions. Perhaps they made him feel nostalgic for the military career he might have had. Nugroho was awarded titular rankings because of his position as head of a military institution. In 1968 he was appointed titular ('in name only') colonel, and then in 1971 titular brigadier general. Nugroho considered these ranks a sign of respect from the leaders of Abri. One acquaintance of Nugroho's recalls him saying he liked to travel overseas, as it enabled him to wear his uniform and insignia.

Nugroho died in 1985, having served Suharto's military-dominated regime for two decades. Such a length of loyal service demonstrates his ambition to share in a world of power and privilege far greater than that which any academic career could have offered him.

Now that Suharto is gone, how will Nugroho's work be remembered? The histories he wrote have been at the centre of much criticism against the militarised official New Order historiography. In response to this backlash, his foreword was even erased from recent reprints of a history book. Memories of the independence struggle are fast fading. Nugroho's personal motivation for believing in military rule will become increasingly difficult for younger people to comprehend. If he is remembered at all, it will be as a defender of dwifungsi. In the light of day that exposed the widespread human rights abuses committed by the military during the New Order, this is an extremely negative label.

Kate McGregor (mcgregorke@hotmail.com) is writing a PhD dissertation in Indonesian history at the University of Melbourne. 


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