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Maastricht University

Patriotic Duty or Gestapo Methods? Dutch Resisters and the Re-occupation of Indonesia

Peter Romijn, University of Amsterdam & NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies

Why did the newly liberated Netherlands decide to go to war between 1945 and 1950, seeking to restore its colonial rule in Indonesia? For long, the tendency in Dutch historiography has been to represent this episode as a complicated process of decolonization. Indonesian historiography, on the other hand, refers to ‘The war in defense of independence’. These fundamentally diverging perspectives inspire my presentation. The Dutch purpose of restoring colonial rule by means of military occupation overruled and suppressed the Indonesians’ political ambitions of freedom and independence. In the process, the Dutch rulers aimed to use their armed forces as an instrument to enforce a form of ‘guided decolonization’ that would fit Dutch political and business interests

In May 1945, Albert Camus had written in his ex-resistance newspaper Combat about the general challenges of decolonization facing Western powers. Reflecting on the Atlantic Charter and the right of peoples to self-determination, he said that Europeans could only rid themselves of their demons if they also returned their freedom to the peoples who depended on them. The colonial powers had to meet this challenge rationally, boldly and generously, he said. Even during the German occupation, the same issue was hotly debated in the Dutch resistance press as well. Nevertheless, many participants in the resistance to Nazi oppression became involved in the repression of the Indonesian freedom struggle. During four years, some 120.000 volunteers and conscripted Dutch were sent overseas to fight a bloody war with the Indonesian freedom fighters. It would lead to a massive and systematic application of extreme violence, including appalling war crimes.

Even though many in the colony and on the Dutch home front were in denial, there are examples enough of soldiers, administrators, politicians and moral authorities who at the time asked themselves if ‘we’ were now applying Nazi or Japanese methods. For those who had participated in the anti-Nazi resistance, such questions invited profound soul-searching. Had they become oppressors of those legitimately fighting for freedom and independence? How did these people justify involvement in the reoccupation of the colony? Did they actually experience a role reversal?

For this purpose, it is important to mention some underlying aspects. In the first place, the Dutch occupation of Indonesia was a reoccupation, an attempt to restore colonial rule through military control. The colony of the Dutch East Indies (‘Nederlands-Indië’) had been occupied by Imperial Japan in 1942. Immediately after Japan’s surrender, the Indonesian national independence movement led by Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed the independent Republic of Indonesia. The Dutch government refused to accept this and sent troops and administrators to, as it was said at the time, restore order and peace through ‘police action’.

Secondly, this concept of restoration of authority was embedded in a long Dutch history of waging colonial wars of conquest and counter-insurgency operations. In this violent history, racist superiority thinking and repressive actions played an important role. Conquest was seen as an instrument of ‘civilizing labour’ and a way of imposing Western patterns of life. The idea that Asians could be capable of determining their own political destiny, let alone building their own state, was fundamentally rejected. Even moderately progressive Dutch accepted the idea that the road to independence had to be a gradual one, under Dutch tutelage. Part of the prevailing war culture was to deny the opponent political legitimacy: the nationalists were said to be just ‘gangs’, ‘extremists’, ‘religious fanatics’ and ‘terrorists’. Incidentally, official texts also referred to ‘resistance fighters’ – a term that had already appeared in pre-war military manuals on how to fight anti-colonial rebellion. At the same time this did attract the attention of some of those who derived their identity from the Dutch resistance.

Thirdly, the concept of role reversals played a very different role for Indonesians. The indigenous governing elite cultivated by the Dutch had largely remained in office under Japanese rule. The Indonesian struggle for independence was at the same time driven by a social revolution. Therefore, it was directed not only against the returning Dutch but also against their indigenous supporters. The goal of the independence struggle was to shape a role reversal that terminated the old colonial power structures, including the role of the local supporters of the Dutch. The nationalists were driven by the urge to counter a military reoccupation and an associated foreign administration. In contrast, they created their own state formation process, which – despite flaws – was broadly successful in mobilizing for popular resistance.

The essay by Camilo Erlichman and Félix Streicher that introduces the subject of this workshop on role reversals mentions the many metamorphoses resulting from foreign occupation. Such transformations occurred in very specific ways during the Dutch-Indonesian war. This inspired me to consider how things changed in the perception of Dutch protagonists with a resistance background. I will present some examples: a colonial administrator, a military man, a military chaplain, a metropolitan politician and an opponent of the war. How did these people provide meaning to their experiences? That process involved self-reflection, political positioning, relationships with Indonesians, and in addition, of course, individual and collective survival instincts. I will explore the significance of their emotions and rationalizations to ask the question to what extent role reversals occurred not only objectively but also subjectively.


Photo credits:

Cover picture: Dutch military during the first police action.
Source: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Peter Romijn is Emeritus Professor of History, University of Amsterdam & Guest Researcher at NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies, Netherlands.