Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Return - Reclaiming History

All Dutch children learn in school that their country was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940-1945. Novels, plays, television and cinema all reinforce what is learned in the classroom. The death toll among the Dutch, around 250,000, was the highest in Western Europe. And yet, an oversight that has been institutionalized is the memory that a large part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was occupied not by the Germans, but by the Japanese, namely, the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia). The Japanese occupation lasted from March 1942 until August 1945.

During this time many Dutch citizens were imprisoned in camps. Many men were forced to work in notorious conditions, such as the Burma Railroad. Some women were forced into prostitution to service Japanese soldiers, the so-called “Comfort Women”. The end of World War Two in the Dutch East Indies did not bring about peace but was followed by the Indonesian war of independence, from 1945 until 1949. This was followed by the “repatriation” of about 300,000 Dutch citizens to the European homeland. Many of these had been born in the East Indies and had never before set foot in Europe. Most were dark skinned, children of ‘mixed-marriages”, and found themselves in a homogenous white society that had little understanding for the difficulties of the new arrivals. And so, their experiences during the period 1942 to 1949 were simply erased from the narrative of national history.

In August 2010, to mark the 65th ending of World War Two, 200,000 copies of the comic strip, or graphic novel, De Terugkeer, (The Return), were distributed to all students in the third year of secondary school in The Netherlands. The book has been produced by the newly founded Indisch Herinneringscentrum (Dutch East Indies Remembrance Centre). It tells the simple story of an old Dutchman, called Bas who has lived his adult life in The Netherlands, surrounded by memories of his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, but in a society that is not interested in his past. Born and bred in the Dutch East Indies he was imprisoned by the Japanese as a young boy. Upon liberation he finds that Indonesian nationalists have turned violent and the newly freed Dutch are now reliant upon their former Japanese captors for protection – an ironic situation that is factually correct. Bas is repatriated to Holland but is conscripted into the army and sent to fight in the Dutch East Indies. This is a sensitive part of Dutch history and has spent decades safely swept under the carpet. But De Terugkeer tries to convey a balanced view, showing the difficult conditions under which Dutch soldiers fought but also admitting that they carried out atrocities, such as the shooting of Indonesian prisoners, though the very controversial term "War Crimes" is avoided. As an old man Bas returns to Indonesia in search of an old flame of his, a native girl called Soerati. This love story element is a bit unrealistic, but I suppose it has been included in order to keep the distracted teenagers of the 21st century engaged with the story.

"Bang, bang, bang" - Three Indonesian nationalist prisoners are shot by Dutch soldiers.

The Indisch Herinneringscentrum was created in 2007 by the Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sport and is operational since 2009. Its mission is to inform the public in an accurate and imaginative manner about the period 1942 to 1949 in Dutch East Indies and about the history of the Netherlands-Indies community from 1900 until today. The foundation was also involved in the creation of a DVD “Oorlog in Paradijs” (“War in Paradise”), released on August 16th 2010, and in a permanent exhibition “Het Verhaal van Indie” ("The Story of Dutch East Indies”) which opened on August 16th 2010.  Clearly, something is afoot in The Netherlands.  After decades of being ignored, there seems to be an official attempt to reclaim this sensitive period of history and to bring it into the public's historical consciousness. This is the result of work by pressure groups representing the "Indisch" community in The Netherlands who for years have engaged in the struggle to acquire a place in the collective national memory.
De Terugkeer may have been given to schoolchildren free of charge, but I bought my copy in a bookstore in The Hague for 17.95 Euros. Ouch!

See also my article on the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and my article on the Dutch memory of the Indonesian Revolution


  1. Good post! The whole question of rewriting history books for school pupils is an interesting exercise, for various reasons. I applaud the book's attempt to accurately inform the school aged public about the period 1942-9 in Dutch East Indies and about the history of the Netherlands-Indies community.

    But I bet half the population didn't want these issues raised again, especially not for school pupils. And even amongst people who DID want the history books to be accurate, I bet there was a debate about what to include and what to exclude.

    It happpens whenever there is a morally questionable era in a nation's life, questionable by today's standards I mean. Just for example, I read two different versions of The Tuscarora War of North Carolina. It was hard to believe they were discussing the same events.

  2. As Dutch historian Pieter Geijl wrote many years ago: "History is indeed an argument without an end". :-)

  3. What a fascinating post. I knew a little about the infamous Burma Railroad but not about the forced prostitution (or mass rape which seems more accurate a description).

    The book sounds quite fascinating and I'd love to learn more about this part of history.

    It is interesting what Hels said about rewriting history. My Serbian friend told me that Serbian school children are being taught that Serbians were victims in the conflicts and that they still aren'y being taught about the siege of Sarajevo and other Serb aggressions. That worried me greatly because it meant to me that it could all happen all over again. At least in South Africa, we were told of the crimes of the past.