In February 2022, Prime Minister Mark Rutte made a historic apology for atrocities by Dutch military during the Indonesian Independence War of 1945-1949. However, the first big, public revelation already happened in 1969 through an interview with a veteran who confessed to committing war crimes. At the time, Cabinet De Jong tolerated the military behavior, did not apologize, hid evidence from investigations and seemed to deliberately cover-up further revelations. More recognition of the war was established in recent years. However, the legacy of the cover-up can still be felt, for example in society’s current commemoration.
On August 15, 1945, Japan capitulated, ending the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies and eventually World War II.a The Dutch government did not accept Indonesia’s proclaimed independence on August 17, 1945. This quickly led to a violent war, with Indonesia defending its declared independence against the Netherlands, which in its turn wanted to restore its colony and ‘calm and order’. The war took the lives of 5,300 people on the Dutch side, with half of the deaths caused by accidents or diseases, and approximately 100,000 people on the Indonesian side, mainly caused by (extreme) Dutch violence. Examples of the latter are torture, rape, executions without trial, and arson of villages. These are all acts that are considered as war crimes. The war ended after the Dutch acknowledged a transfer of sovereignty to independent Indonesia on December 27, 1949. The government did its best to preserve a narrative in which the heroic Dutch military acted correctly. Throughout the decades after the war, the government oppressed any memories of this traumatic experience, including through a lack of commemoration.
Since the start of the Independence War, often named the ‘decolonization war’ by the Dutch, there were already reports of wrongdoings. In 1949, a committee of three jurists called ‘Van Rij en Stam’ investigated the committed ‘excesses’ and spent six weeks in Indonesia. Despite its serious findings, the Dutch Council of Ministers decided not to bring any charges or publish the findings. The House of Representatives was not informed. The first time that any wrongdoings were widely discussed publicly, would be the Hueting-interview.
War crimes were erased from the memory of the legal system.
On January 17, 1969, a Dutch current affairs programme called Achter het Nieuws aired a television interview with veteran Joop Hueting. He spoke about war crimes by the Dutch that he claimed to have witnessed and participated in. The interview caused uproar and outrage in Dutch society. Besides positive reactions, saying that Hueting provided others the opportunity to express their feelings, negative reactions dominated. Mainly veterans called Hueting a traitor and denied ever knowing about or witnessing any war crimes.
The Dutch government responded by presenting the Excessennota on June 2, 1969, a document containing an incomplete list of cases of excessive violence committed by the Dutch military in Indonesia. Although the researchers at the time noted that the list lacked any context or explanation, Cabinet De Jong watered down these comments and proceeded to a public statement. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Piet de Jong released that statement, claiming that ‘while regrettable “excesses” did occur, the armed forces as a whole acted correctly in Indonesia.’ The Excessennota itself was barely noticed by the public and not accessible in public libraries until 1995. This made it possible for the government to keep the public in the dark and neutralize further debate.
Around the time of the Hueting-interview and the Excessennota, the Ministry of Justice was silently working on another way to suppress any ‘inconvenient’ narratives by writing a draft of the statute of limitations.b The Dutch government was not interested in joining the new United Nations Convention, which decided that war crimes and crimes against humanity would not have a statute of limitations.c Instead, changes were made to already existing national laws to implement a similar mechanism. That meant that the statute of limitations on war crimes, previously set at 24 years, would now be removed for war crimes that occurred during or after World War II.
The German Occupation during World War II dominated the Dutch need for commemoration.
However, when the law was presented to the House and Senate, it was not mentioned that it would exempt war crimes that occurred during the war in Indonesia, making them expire in 1973. In parliament, most politicians used double standards and mainly focused on the severity of German war crimes. Without much resistance, the law was implemented in 1971. This way, Cabinet De Jong protected the country’s reputation and Dutch veterans, who were often prioritized, from the possible legal consequences of their actions during the Independence War. Conveniently, by ignoring the actions in Indonesia with this law, the war crimes were erased from the memory of the legal system.
The prioritization of the veteran community over civilian victims was made visibly clear through the fact that for many years, mainly the sacrifices and suffering of veterans were commemorated. The Indië-Monument in Enschede (1960) would be the first memorial for both civilians and veterans in Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies, from 1941-1949. While there were around 1,500 monuments dedicated to World War II by 1980, the number of monuments for the Dutch East Indies and Indonesia did not even reach one percent of that amount.
When the war in Indonesia ended, the topic of decolonization was barely publicly spoken about in the thirty years that followed. The German Occupation during World War II dominated the Dutch need for commemoration. Dutch society seemed to have settled into a collective memory that stressed the sameness of the citizen’s experience: an experience in which the Dutch had suffered under German occupation and under which everyone had suffered equally.
A new age
In 2011, the debate took a turn and victims received more recognition. On September 14, the court in The Hague historically ruled that the Dutch State was liable for the ‘damage suffered by the claimants, because of Dutch military action in Rawagede’. The claimants were nine widows whose husbands were killed by Dutch soldiers during the Rawagede massacre.
The Dutch State, with Cabinet Rutte I in power at the time, refused to pay any damages and an old trick was used; the statute of limitations from 1971. However, the trick did not work in the courtroom, as the judge stated that the period of 1945-1949 is ‘a period in Dutch history that is not settled yet’. A quick settlement was reached three months later: the State would pay a compensation of twenty thousand euros to the widows personally and apologize to the victims. These apologies were made during the annual memorial for the massacre on December 9, 2011 in former Rawagede, by Dutch ambassador in Indonesia Tjeerd de Zwaan.
The recognized facts showed that there are people to apologize to and that there is something to apologize for.
In the years after the court verdicts, the Dutch atrocities gained increased interest from historians, journalists, and politicians. New publications revealed more evidence for the structural extreme violence by Dutch military. This eventually led to enough pressure on the Dutch government to fund a broad study by research institutes NIOD, KITLV and NIMH in 2016, after turning it down twice before. This meant that many (painful) questions would now be deliberately raised, and many suppressed memories needed to be refreshed.
More and more recognition for wrongdoings in Indonesia would follow. On March 10, 2020, during a state visit to Indonesia, Dutch King Willem-Alexander unexpectedly, with barely any consultation within the government, apologized for ‘excessive violence’, in the presence of President Joko Widodo.
In February 2022, after the findings of the broad study by the research institutes confirmed that the Dutch atrocities went far beyond what was claimed by Cabinet De Jong in 1969, Prime Minister Rutte gave a ‘deep apology’ on behalf of the Dutch government to the people of Indonesia for ’the systematic and widespread extreme violence by the Dutch side in those years and the consistent looking away by previous cabinets’. The research findings, together with publications, media attention and past lawsuits gave a face to the victims: the recognized facts showed that there are people to apologize to and that there is something to apologize for. On the political level, the Independence War could no longer be neglected.
Freedom for all?
Not only remembrance of the war grew, but also the number of memorials and commemorations dedicated to the war and the communities from the former Dutch East Indies. It took until 2012 for the National East Indies memorial of August 15 to receive the status of a national memorial. The Nationaal Indië-monument 1945-1962 in Roermond (1988) and the Indisch Monument in The Hague (1988) are now annually attended by a government official. After 77 years, the annual national Dodenherdenking on May 4, Remembrance Day for World War II, officially recognized the victims of the war in Indonesia. In 2022, the master of ceremonies finally mentioned the ‘civilian casualties in Asia during or directly after World War II and the colonial war in Indonesia’ while laying the wreaths.
Nine out of ten Dutch people think of May 5, 1945, as the end of World War II.
Several communities, among which the Indo-Dutch community, have expressed discontent about the dominant perception in Dutch society that May 5, 1945, marks the end of World War II, since the date itself ignores the events up until the Japanese capitulation on August 15. Nine out of ten Dutch people think of May 5, 1945, as the end of World War II. When there was a big PR-campaign to celebrate ‘75 years of freedom’ on May 5 in 2019 and 2020, some wondered; who is this freedom for? For ten percent of Dutch society, the campaign-slogan was simply incorrect. And while the Netherlands celebrated its liberation, it would wage a violent war on another continent only a few months later to restore a colony it had had for over 350 years.
The road ahead
The Netherlands is now showing a (partly forced) process of recognition for the atrocities during the Independence War in Indonesia, but shortcomings in commemoration and education remain. Dutch education tools are lacking the inclusion of public debates around the decolonization and integration of important research findings on the topic, which leads to teaching from an outdated perspective. Misunderstandings are being maintained through shortcomings in education, which means that future generations are still not assured of integration of all perspectives on the Independence War in Indonesia into Dutch society.
On June 14, 2023, during a Plenary meeting of the House about the research findings from 2022, Prime Minister Rutte made the historic statement that the Netherlands acknowledges Indonesia’s proclaimed independence on August 17, 1945, ‘fully and without reservation’. However, it is mainly an acknowledgment. It avoids any legal or financial repercussions as well as the question whether the war was a violation of sovereignty by the Netherlands. The acknowledgment is not as complete as Prime Minister Rutte presents it to be and will not lead to significant changes.
The government and society of today may not be guilty of the past but do have a responsibility to acknowledge it. By knowing your history, you will understand the present and shape a better future.
Editor: Jochem Bodewes
a. Previously a Dutch colony for over 350 years, today Indonesia.
b. A statute of limitation is a law which, after the alleged crime has occurred, restricts the maximum time in which legal proceedings may be initiated.
c. Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, entered into force on 11 November 1970.
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