Blog: Looking back at a shared history: New perspectives, yes please!

By Ireen Hoogenboom

On the initiative of Obor publishers and KITLV-Jakarta, an Indonesian edition of Soldaat in Indonesië has just been published. Between the 13th and 26th of September, Ireen Hoogenboom and Gert Oostindie, accompanied by Obor’s Andreas Haryono, toured Java, Kalimantan and Bali to introduce the book to the Indonesian public in 14 presentations, addressing some 1,750 people in total.

It was an exhausting tour, but also inspiring and rewarding. Looking back, what did we experience? Enthusiasm and interest everywhere. In general the students and scholars were attentive and had a lot of questions (see blog Oostindie). But they also had interesting remarks. Three observations.

First, that topics we had expected to be sensitive, were not, or at least not for these audiences. The fact that during the war Indonesians also committed extreme violence and war crimes was not a painful subject. Obviously there could not be only heroes (pahlawan) in this war. We discussed the point that Indonesians also fought each other and that atrocities were committed against the Chinese. Looking back at such stories is apparently not a problem – as long as this is done in the context that the Netherlands should not have returned in 1945 in the first place. As for looking back, looking forward, mutual understanding, maybe a healing process by researching this history together, we found that Indonesians scholars and students are open to it. Quite a contrast to the Netherlands,  where the call for further research is often rejected by politicians and in the media with the argument that Indonesia should research its own war crimes (e.g. the Bersiap) or the general assumption Indonesia is not willing to look back.  We encountered pride, but no grudge.

Second, there was the overall impression that the audience felt that this book would provide them with new perspectives on the war and Dutch colonialism and that they were eager to abandon the static good versus bad narrative that they had learned in school. New perspectives would make this history less of a caricature. Especially history students stressed the importance of scholarly research.

Third, and our audiences mentioned this at every session, that the quotations of the Dutch soldiers in the book turned these European invaders into real human beings (as opposed to their standard image of the rude, big, violent, loud, drunken Dutch soldier that they know from Indonesian films about the revolution). Many thought that this could enhance mutual understanding. A daughter of a TNI soldier, who was raised with a clear antipathy against the Dutch, bought the book to read it together with her mother. It would make their history more complete, she said.

In the aeroplane from Surabaya to Bandung, half-way through the tour, I watched the film Merah-Putih (Red and white, internationally broadcast first part of a trilogy about the Indonesian independence struggle) a Hollywood-like war movie following a group of Indonesian rebels fighting against the Dutch. The film made me reflect. Our book with perspectives of Dutch veterans about the war, and war crimes, is perceived by our Indonesian audiences as a step towards mutual understanding and even a healing process. What about the Dutch view of the Indonesian side? That: ‘the TNI and the Pemuda were mobilised and indoctrinated to hate the Dutch by the Japanese, they were violent against the Dutch and the Indo-European community, they were terrorists using dirty guerrilla tactics.’ Yes, maybe some were, but did many not have their own convictions, ideals, fears, doubts, explanations, regrets? A similar book based on testimonies of Indonesian soldiers would be useful for the Indonesian research about this period, but it would certainly also add more colour and depth to the Dutch point of view.

See for preview Serdadu Belanda di Indonesia

Links to notices mentioning the tour still available:

(Ireen Hoogenboom is project coordinator at the KITLV project Dutch military operations in Indonesia 1945-1950. Together with other project members she is currently working on an inventory of source materials about the topic and is responsible for the coordination of the research activities and the supervision of interns.)

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