Sunday, April 15, 2012

Historiography of the Indonesian War of Independence: Early Beginnings

It is often commonly believed that history is written by the winners. Would that be so, there would be no German histories of World War Two, no British histories of American or Indian independence and no Dutch histories of their final conflict in Indonesia.  Of course nothing could be further from the truth.  Not only did the Dutch get to write histories of their lost colonial war, they even began writing histories during The Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949) itself.  One of the first such histories was penned by no one less than former Lieutenant Governor-General Hubertus J. van Mook.  His Indonesie, Nederland en de Wereld, was published in February 1949, ten months before the Dutch accepted Indonesian independence.  For years van Mook had been at the helm of the Dutch government in the colony, he had lead the Dutch government-in-exile in Australia during the Japanese occupation and returned to Batavia in 1945 to pick up the pieces after World War Two. An enlightened moderate among the colonials, van Mook  had devoted his life to the betterment of the colony in which he had been born. As a member of a group of intellectuals associated with an Indies periodical De Stuw, he had advocated throughout the 1930s for the development of the colony until the point when an Indonesian Commonwealth could be accepted into the league of independent nations.[1]  During the 1945-1949 conflict he had, despite some personal misgivings, opened negotiations with the Indonesian nationalists, but he had also ordered the first of two military “police actions”. The diplomatic failures led to his being removed from power in late 1948. What he had dedicated his adult life to achieving – a democratic Indonesia equal to and united with the mother country under the Dutch crown[2] – was about to be destroyed before his eyes. As such, he must qualify as a loser.  Indonesie, Nederland en de Wereld was his attempt to tell the true story.

Not surprisingly, he didn’t blame himself for all of the bloodshed.  Nor did he blame the government in The Hague, though he did point out some of its miscalculations, as well as the shortcomings of his more conservative fellow colonials.  More than anything, van Mook blamed the interference of inexpert foreigners – the British and the naïve Americans, the unreliable Australians, the newly independent Indians, the calculating Russians and their communist satellites, and the do-gooders at the United Nations.  Already at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 he had rejected the notion that the Dutch East Indies should become a trusteeship of the UN: “When the prerequisites are on their course to completion: political and economic stability, a common citizenship and a common language, and an assured succession of ever better educated generations, the realization of self-government needs no trusteeship, no commissions and no time-table as long as the intentions of both parties remain unsullied by greed, or bad faith or tyranny.”[3] Some months after his book’s publication he still echoed this belief in an article in Foreign Affairs: “Its [The Indonesian problem] solution was and is primarily the concern of the Netherlands and Indonesia themselves. Unfortunately (…) it came to be treated internationally as a problem to all for debate and interference.”[4] He argued that the government of the Netherlands had defended the best interests of Indonesians: “The Netherlands Government was quite prepared to grant self-government and independence to Indonesia (…) But it wanted to go about the grave business of setting up a nation in an orderly and efficient way. It could not hand over its responsibility to an illegally constituted organization that showed hardly any capacity to provide justice and stability for millions of suffering people.”[5]

Van Mook began his book by reminding the reader of the new, totalitarian form of imperialism, the “police terror” of the Soviet Union.[6] The Soviets, he claimed, preyed on the poor and weak but their ultimate aim was not liberation but driving out the West.[7] They are helped, he added, by fellow travelers such as Australia, "which in various votes over Indonesia in the Security Council stood on the side of the Russians.”[8]

An initial error of perception, according to van Mook, was for the new Labour government in Britain to give in to “liberation mania” and accept all Asian liberation movements at face value.[9]  More grievous still was the Allies’ change in the policy with which they had been tasked – to disarm the Japanese and take them into custody - and the “over hastiness” with which the British began to deal with and semi- officially recognize the Indonesian republican movement.[10] He repeated the point at a lecture at Chatham House in March 1949, that: “in recognizing a Republican Government as a semi-legal authority, both the British and occupying forces, and later on the world at large, went, in my view, much too fast”, though, recognising that British troops saved the lives of countless Dutch citizens, and in incredibly difficult and dangerous conditions, he added: “we are extremely grateful for what the British did.”[11] One thing, according to van Mook, is certain: had the British quickly disarmed the Japanese, rather than permitting the latter to hand over their weapons to Indonesian nationalists, “a lot of misery would have been spared the Indonesians and Dutch.”[12]

The situation in 1945 was further complicated by the strike by Australian dock workers, inspired by the Australian Communist Party,[13] as well as the British refusal to allow Dutch troops to return to Java and Sumatra.[14]

Although van Mook was repelled at the idea of negotiating with Sukarno, a man who, during the Japanese occupation, “had placed himself so completely behind Japan” that he must be considered to be a “collaborator”,[15] he did begin personal negotiations with the nationalists, including Sukarno, in October, 1945.[16] But this first meeting caused widespread negative reactions among the public in The Netherlands and began a rift between van Mook and the authorities in The Hague.[17] Indeed an urgent meeting of the Dutch cabinet was called and the minutes reveal that the ministers considered van Mook’s behavior to be “incorrect and not acceptable to the government” and they immediately began discussing the process of replacing him.[18] A week later the Minister for the Colonies, Logemann, wrote to van Mook, accusing him of doing a 180 degree about face, and furthermore letting him know that among important sections of the Dutch public and parliament, his meeting with Sukarno was considered to be an act of “national treason”.[19]

Shortly thereafter van Mook visited The Netherlands and was alarmed by some of the strong sentiments that he encountered there, as well as by the stridency of some voices who refused to recognize the difficulties of the new and ever changing situation in Indonesia.[20]  Likewise, when in April 1946 the Dutch authorities did sit down with the Indonesian nationalist leaders at a conference in the Hoge Veluwe in The Netherlands, van Mook was disappointed, firstly by the exaggerated security measures at the conference, secondly by the refusal of the Dutch government to allow van Mook to make any public statements, and thirdly by the negative attitude of the Dutch press towards negotiation.[21] He informs us that from this time onward he became the target of a continuous orgy of criticism and lies in the Dutch press and, what is more, the government failed to defend him adequately.[22]

Nevertheless, negotiations between the two sides continued in Indonesia itself, culminating in van Mook and a Dutch delegation visiting the rebel controlled zone and, in November 1946, signing the Linggadjati Accord.  According to van Mook, at this point many believed that the conflict was over.[23] Feelings of optimism seemed even more justified when the news reached Indonesia in December that a majority in the Dutch parliament in The Hague had voted to ratify the accord.[24] Alas, it soon became clear that what the Dutch authorities had accepted was a truncated version of Linggadjati; an interpretation of the original agreement of their own devising which, unsurprisingly, was rejected by the Indonesian republicans.[25]
The Infamous campaign on South Celebes
Van Mook next mentions that around this time he ordered a special military action in South Celebes, in order to put an end to the nationalist regime of systematic terror that had been unleashed on this island.  He admitted that during the pacification of the island, the Dutch had committed some “excesses”.[26] Many decades later what had happened on South Celebes would come back to haunt Holland. Van Mook also tells us that the Dutch soldiers within their own zone had become the daily targets of the nationalists and that the breakdown in law and order had gradually become “near unbearable”.[27] At last, van Mook, the Commission General and the government in The Hague concluded that there was no other option than a military solution.[28] He described the first Police Action as being a military success, with Dutch soldiers being mostly greeted “with a sigh of relief”.[29] It seemed logical that the cleansing of the republican areas should be set forth to the end,[30] but it is at this point that the UN intervened, with India and Australia sponsoring a Security Council resolution on July 31st , calling for a ceasefire. It was passed and accepted immediately by the Dutch government.[31] Van Mook obviously felt betrayed; with the conflict’s end in sight, he had been forced to stop with the job only half done.[32] Speaking of the Security Council’s resolution at his Chatham House lecture some years later, he would admit “I myself think that that was a calamity.” [33]Not only that, but The Netherlands also accepted the presence in Indonesia of a UN appointed Commission of Good Services, thereby allowing what van Mook considered to be “international interference”,[34] or even more strongly worded “inexpert international meddling.”[35] What followed was a year of futile, failed negotiations, terror and counter-terror.

Van Mook tells us that the communist influence among the republicans now grew much stronger and that even non-communist nationalists began to draw nearer to the Soviet Union as they awaited a third world war, which they expected Russia to win.[36]  He informs us that the members of the Commission of Good Services were blind to the true nature of the republican government and that the American in the group had concluded that a communist takeover of the republican area could only be avoided by giving far reaching concessions.[37] His sense of betrayal was deepened when it became clear that by mid-1948 the authorities in The Hague had come to consider him to be an obstacle that had to be removed. On October 5th 1948 Prime Minister Drees informed van Mook that his services were no longer required.[38] On November 3rd he left his office and departed from Indonesia the next day, never to return to the place where he had been born and raised and to which he had devoted his entire working life. The following month the Dutch began their second military “Police Action”, setting forth what van Mook had started in June 1947. Like the first Police Action, this one too was brought to an abrupt end “by an inevitable new action of the Security Council.”[39]
Sukarno reading The Declaration of Independence, August 17th 1945

Van Mook concluded his book in February 1949 with a call for the Indonesians and the Dutch to together build something great, something that could serve as a beacon for South East Asia. He concluded: ”But then all of us who can contribute, must bring together, and offer the leadership, to people who love both the Netherlands and Indonesia and who can see for both countries such a great, common future”.[40] One cannot help but think that what van Mook has in mind is a collection of people like van Mook. Ten months later The Republic of Indonesia was recognized by The Kingdom of the Netherlands.  There was to be no common future and van Mook’s dream had come to nought. Van Mook has gotten to write his own history, but few were listening.

Van Mook’s work was just hot off the press when, in May 1949, a counter-argument appeared. The author was the social democrat parliamentarian Jacques de Kadt. In his De Indonesische tragedie: Het treurspel van gemiste kansen he accused the Dutch government of following a policy whose goal was to deny Indonesia real freedom. Van Mook’s aim, according to de Kadt, had been to create a federation composed of a “completely powerless and chaotic collection of puppet states” over which the Netherlands could continue to exert its control.[41] According to H. W. van den Doel, most Dutch historians fell into line behind Kadt’s general analysis.[42]

[1] H. W. Van den Doel, Afschied van Indie, (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2001) p. 43-44
[2] He explained his goal: “Firstly the national liberation of the country [Indonesia], by which it can take its place, under its own government, among the nations as an equal.  And also, a permanent relationship with the Netherlands such that cooperation - now voluntary and abased on equal footing – can be perpetuated.” H. J. Van Mook, Indonesie, Nederland en de Wereld. (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1949) p. 12
[3] Quoted in H. J. Van Mook, Indonesie, Nederland en de Wereld. (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1949) p. 45
[4] H. J. Van Mook, „Indonesia and the Problem of Southeast Asia“. Foreign Affairs, vol. 27, no. 4 (July, 1949) p. 561
[5] Ibid., p. 571
[6] Van Mook, Indonesie, p. 7
[7] Ibid., p. 11
[8] Ibidem.
[9] Ibid., p. 90
[10] Ibid., p. 91
[11] H. J. Van Mook, „Indonesia“. International Affairs, vol. 25, No. 3, p. 274
[12] Van Mook, Indonesie, p. 77
[13] Ibid., p. 88
[14] Ibid., p. 95
[15] Ibid., p. 102
[16] Ibid., p. 104
[17] Ibid. P. 104-105
[18] Minutes of the cabinet meeting 1 November 1945: Officiele Bescheiden betreffende de Nederlands-Indonesische Betrekkingen 1945-1950, KS 36: 282. Archive A.Z.
[19] Logemann (Minister of the Colonies) to Van Mook (Lt. Governor General), 9 November 1945: Officiele Bescheiden betreffende de Nederlands-Indonesische Betrekkingen 1945-1950, KS 37: 1. Archive Ministry of Colonies, I.A. 178
[20] Van Mook, Indonesie, p. 111-112
[21] Ibid., p. 132
[22] Ibid., p. 141
[23] Ibid., p. 157-161
[24] Ibid., p. 162-163
[25] Ibid., p. 167- 169
[26] Ibid., p. 171
[27] Ibid., p. 165
[28] Ibid., p. 182
[29] Ibid., p. 185
[30] Ibid., p. 186
[31] Ibid., p. 187
[32] Ibid., p. 188
[33] van Mook., “Indonesia”, p. 278
[34] van Mook , Indonesie, p. 190
[35] Ibid., p. 212
[36] Ibid., p. 210
[37] Ibidem
[38] Prime-Minister Drees to Lt. Governor-General Van Mook, 5 okt. 1948: Officiele Bescheiden betreffende de Nederlands-Indonesische Betrekkingen 1945-1950, KS 66: 160. A.R.A. Archive Van Mook 269, no. 155

[39] Van Mook, Indonesie, p. 220
[40] Ibid. , p. 229
[41] Jacques de Kadt, De Indonesische tragedie: Het treurspel van gemiste kansen. (2nd edition, Amtserdam: 1989) p. 117
[42] van den Doel, p. 14


  1. It's fascinating to see the different perspectives in the writing of history by 'winners' and 'losers' - I'd always taken the quote to mean that the course of history was determined by the winners - though that's no more literally true than looking at it from a purely writing point of view

  2. I tend to see history as a lieteray form that is written by historians, as opposed to the past itself. Thanks for your comment Juliette.

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