Sunday, September 18, 2011

History Comes Back to Haunt Holland

It is commonly asserted that one ignores the past at one’s peril; that a history suppressed will return to haunt you. Such is the case in the Netherlands, where a court verdict last week revived disturbing memories that had long been buried. On Tuesday a court in The Hague found the Dutch state responsible for carrying out a massacre in 1947 in Rawagede, Indonesia, and furthermore called on the Dutch state to award compensation to the plaintiffs – seven elderly widows of those massacred. The court decided to ignore the fact that this crime is beyond the statute of limitations, a move that is normally only made to deal with Nazi war crimes.

Memorial to the victims at Rawagede

The Dutch had ruled most of Indonesia for 350 years, but found themselves prisoners of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. With the defeat of Japan, Indonesian nationalists declared independence. The Dutch tried, with great difficulty, to reassert their control of the archipelago. After over four years of bitter conflict The Netherlands was forced to concede independence to Indonesia in December 1949.

By the end of the war numerous cases of military excesses had come to the attention of the Dutch public. Massacres by Dutch special forces on the island of Celebes had been the subject of parliamentary debate. The massacre in Rawagede had been the subject of debate at the United Nations Security Council in 1948. Such incidents gradually led much of the Dutch press to turn against the war. In February 1949 De Groene Amsterdammer published a letter from an unidentified officer. He wrote:

"KNIL [Royal Dutch Indies Army] officers (…) defend with passion and conviction the assertion that, for instance, if you are shot at from a kampong [village] than this kampong should be set on fire from four sides before the inhabitants have the chance to run away. And whoever then tries to escape (…) you shoot with a machine-gun, preferably not bothering with if these include women of children.”

The officer then drew a comparison with Putten, a village that had become infamous as being the site of one of the worst Nazi atrocities perpetrated on Dutch soil. The officer also wrote of summary executions of prisoners who are “simply shot behind the head and then buried.” He described the Indonesians as living under “military terror.”

The graveyard at Rawagede

After Indonesian independence a great exodus of Dutch citizens, perhaps 300,000 in all, left the new republic, where they were unwanted, and most found themselves receiving a cold welcome in their fatherland. They discovered that there was no audience for their complaints. Few people in the Netherlands were interested in their stories of hardship in Japanese prison camps, and they could count on very little sympathy for their losses during what was now considered a futile colonial war that had ended in defeat. With the experience of World War Two and the Nazi occupation still very fresh, the equalitarian Dutch nation settled into a collective memory which stressed the sameness of the citizen’s experience. The little, plucky Dutch had been occupied by their nasty German neighbor and all had suffered equally. Finally they had been liberated, thanks to their government in exile, led by Queen Wilhelmina, their heroic resistance and the invaluable help from the Allies – the USA, Great Britain and the Canadians. This was the national past and calls for alternative narratives were treated like calls for exceptionalism.

While the ex-colonials found their stories buried in silence, the 120,000 soldiers who had been drafted into the Dutch army to fight a futile war in the tropics, arrived home to a country that, shamed by defeat, had lost interest in them. Not only that, but, as we have seen, there were some who believed that the actions of certain soldiers had been disgraceful, even comparable to the behavior of German soldiers on Dutch soil. But with the former colony lost, the need for further official inquiries was quietly allowed to lapse, including the official investigation surrounding the massacre at Rawagede. Better to simply put a lid on it.

And so the atrocities of the 1945-1949 war years were allowed to slip out of the national memory. During the past few decades this memory lapse has been undergoing a gradual correction, and the verdict last week is yet another episode in the historical dialogue that the Dutch nation has been engaging in regarding its recent past. We are certain to hear more in the future.

You can read my article from History Today Magazine "Time for Dutch Courage in Indonesia" here.


  1. Hello:
    What a fascinating account you give here of Dutch history, about which we have only scant knowledge. As you so correctly write, past misdemeanours will never be buried completely, the past is not a closed book. Indeed, in this ever smaller world in which we live so much is known by so many that sooner or later all is revealed at whatever individual or governmental cost.

  2. Jane and Lance,
    As a Dutch historian, Pieter Geyl, once wrote: "History is an argument without an end".