Published: Sep 22, 2007

Herb Feith

Pak Wertheim, the founder of modern Indonesian studies in Holland, was nearly 91 when he died. Like others who die at an advanced age, much of his story had faded from public memory by that time.

W.F. Wertheim was Holland's counterpart to America's George McT Kahin. The first edition of his 'Indonesian society in transition' came out in 1950, two years before Kahin's 'Nationalism and revolution in Indonesia', and each was a foundational work on which many others built.

But Wertheim belonged to an earlier generation of Indonesia specialists. While Kahin's involvements began only at the end of World War II, Wertheim arrived in Batavia in 1931 and soon afterwards began to teach at its Law School. In 1940 he was appointed to the small Visman Commission, a prestigious government body formed to examine the colony's constitutional future.

Whereas Kahin spent most of World War II in the American army, where he learned Dutch, Wertheim spent most of it in Japanese prison camps in Java.

Each was an active partisan of the Indonesian republic during its revolutionary struggle for independence. And each of them continued to be academics in an engaged style. In 1951 Wertheim declined an invitation to teach in Indonesia. His decision was a protest against the Sukiman government's inviting the Nazi-tainted Hjalmar Schacht to Indonesia as an economic adviser. Echoes of Dr Tjipto Mangoenkoesomo who ridiculed a decoration from the colonial government for his contributions to the eradication of contagious disease.

In the Suharto years Wertheim gave active support to Dutch and other European organisations publicising the plight of political prisoners in Indonesia. He also wrote frequently about the coup attempt of 1 October 1965, and specifically on Suharto's mysterious interactions on its eve with Colonel Latief, a key member of the group of plotters.

Pak Wertheim will be remembered for the encouragement he gave to people who went on to become scholars and teachers in their own right. One of those is the late Yale historian Harry Benda, who met Wertheim when they were both in Japanese prison camps in Java. A second is the Bogor rural sociologist Sayogyo, who as Kampto Utomo was Wertheim's assistant and PhD supervisee when the latter taught at Bogor in 1956-67. In recent decades Sayogyo has become famous for his research on innovative methods of measuring poverty.

When the transnational history of post-World War II Indonesian studies is written Wertheim will emerge as a foundational figure. And if there is ever a history of the radical stream within that tradition he will emerge as one of its most inspirational members.

Professor Herb Feith is himself one of the founders of Indonesian studies in Australia. He currently teaches in Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999