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Leiden based research confirms systematic and excessive violence in Indonesia

New research has confirmed that the Dutch military used systematic, extreme violence against Indonesians. In his book Soldaat in Indonesië (Soldier in Indonesia), to be released at the end of October, historian Gert Oostindie draws the same conclusions using different sources. He presents new findings and explains what motivated the soldiers.

100,000 Indonesians died

The book is based on publications of diaries and memoires located in the KITLV-collection, which is stored in the Leiden University Library.
The book is based on publications of diaries and memoires located in the KITLV-collection, which is stored in the Leiden University Library.

The question of whether the Dutch were guilty of systematic, excessive violence in the period 1945-1950 has never had a satisfactory answer. The conclusion reached by historian Remy Limpach, set to complete his PhD at the University of Bern this autumn, was front page news in the run up to the commemoration of 70 years of Indonesian independence. In his book Soldaat in Indonesië (Soldier in Indonesia), Gert Oostindie, professor at Leiden University and director of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Caribbean and Southeast Asian Studies (KITLV), describes the war based on testimonials from Dutch soldiers. In the struggle for independence, a rough estimate places the number of Indonesian deaths at 100,000 and almost 5,000 Dutch soldiers, as well as a higher, but unknown number of European citizens.

What is your response to Remy Limpach's conclusion?

‘In general, I share his conclusion that 'excessive violence' was not as unusual as has long been claimed, including by the Dutch government. It is a good thing that Limpach has thoroughly researched the context of the violence. His main source, as I understand, was government archives. The research I have done with KITLV colleagues based on personal documents of Dutch soldiers and veterans also shows that war crimes were frequently committed.’

What is the basis of your conclusions?

Dutch forces in Indonesia. Photo: NIOD Collection.
Dutch forces in Indonesia. Photo: NIOD Collection.

‘We examined 700 published testimonials of in total around 1,400 soldiers, such as diaries, correspondence, memoirs and biographical sketches. This type of source material is more limited than what Limpach used, but our corpus is more or less complete and has now been exhaustively studied – it amounts to more than 100,000 pages of text! Limpach was of course unable to go into that much depth with the much larger amount of material in the government archives. In these ego documents we encountered around 700 individual cases of war crimes. That is shocking, especially if you extrapolate this number to the overall number of soldiers involved. Then I am afraid that you may have to  think in terms, not of thousands, but tens of thousands of cases; remember that over the entire period more than 220,000 Dutch soldiers served in Indonesia.'

To what extent does your method differ from that employed by Limpach?

‘There are many similarities. We both want to know how systematic, excessive violence was employed, in what situations and how the army commanders and eventually the government dealt with it. Did they forbid it? Condone it? Cover it up afterwards? Limpach primarily used military archives for his research. KITLV researchers normally do this as well, but not in the particular case of the Soldier in Indonesia project. Here it is the soldier's perspective that's foremost. Using their own reports I show how soldiers viewed their assignment, the Indonesians and their fight for independence, how they viewed the war at the time and how they looked back on it later and what their thoughts were on extreme violence, both at the time and afterwards. Some of them gave 'better safe than sorry' as an explanation for the violence, that is to say, it was better to deal with their opponent once and for all than to become a victim themselves. Others write that some war crimes were committed purely out of revenge.’

Oostindie conducted his research together with colleagues working at the KITLV, especially Ireen Hoogenboom and Jonathan Verwey. Leiden students and interns also contributed.

‘But most of them do not write about violence, and there are many who explicitly say that they opposed brute force, or that they regretted the actions of the army. The documents paint a very mixed picture. Many veterans write about the disillusionment of their chilly reception back in the Netherlands, that they were challenged on war crimes they themselves had not committed. I try to describe all this with scientific detachment: it is not my place to make moral judgements.’

You have urged for more research to be done on the violence in Indonesia. What questions still need to be answered?

‘In 2012 the KITLV, the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) and the Netherlands Institute for Military History (NIMH) urged for extensive research to be done into this war. The arguments have not changed: this is the biggest war that the Dutch armed forces have ever fought, but there is no balanced view of it at the moment. We want to understand the war and come to a balanced judgement of the army's actions. That includes questions about war crimes and the way that the military leadership and eventually political leaders dealt with them. It is not about preaching morals, but the Netherlands has an obligation to its own moral position and especially its ambitions to have unbiased research done: after all, we are often the first to inform other countries how important it is to respect human rights.’

Soldaat in Indonesië (Soldier in Indonesia), 1945-1950 Testimonies from a war on the wrong side of history
Gert Oostindie, with the assistance of Ireen Hoogenboom and Jonathan Verwey
(Prometheus-Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 2015)

The book will be presented on 31 October during 'the Night of History' in the Rijksmuseum.

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