Blog: Moving out of the vacuum: History under public scrutiny

By Roel Frakking

I was ill-prepared for what happened when I finally emerged from the famous ‘rolling hills’ of Tuscany as a freshly-minted PhD in History from the European University Institute in May. Simply put, I was asked to participate in the ‘Decolonization, War and Violence. Indonesia 1945-1950’ project as a post-doc researcher. What became immediately apparent, however, was that during my stint in Florence, I had ensconced myself in an ivory tower. In exiting the edifice, I had exchanged the piercing stare of public scrutiny for the piercing glare of the Italian sun.

In other words, I had written my thesis on the nexus between colonial authorities, local communities and widespread violence during the decolonization of Indonesia and Malaysia inside a vacuum. Not the kind that sheltered me from critiques of supervisors and colleagues alike or current academic debates. What I mean is that I was a little unaccustomed to having societal currents and emotions impact my work.

This disconnect was, obviously, artificial and I was (luckily) forced to face it with an intensity and pace I could not set myself. For better or worse, individuals and organisations clearly voiced their opinions the moment the ‘Indonesia 1945-1950’ project had officially commenced. And rightly so. After all, if historians claim to give meaning to events in the past—to illustrate their anomalous nature, their (present) impact or to assimilate them into larger currents of history—they cannot do so without acknowledging the societal, moral force-field into which they inject their interpretations.

Unilateral Dialogue
What struck me was not the chorus of voices itself. Without interested, vocal parties, historians may end up asking the wrong questions. Rather, various knee-jerk reactions that seem to partially monopolize the discussion stand out. These reactions come from those who appear to know the outcome of the project beforehand. Without wanting to trivialize legitimate concerns (butchers can make mistakes appraising their own meat), I feel that some of the flak may be off-target. Is this project really stillborn as it will reify—and further and fatally enshrine—the notion that the Dutch government had a right to restoration of its power in post-1945 Indonesia, i.e. that the Dutch presence was legitimate? Will researchers actually try to mitigate Dutch responsibility for egregious violence by fingering Indonesians who fought centuries of repression? Will Indonesian researchers be forced into a subordinate role and their views ignored?

The Learning Curve Ahead
I am inclined to say we can answer these and other questions with a convincing ‘no’. If not now, then at a later stage. Those elements of the project that draw particular ire—the apparent lack of prominence of Indonesian colleague-researchers; the perceived ‘overlooked’ perniciousness of centuries of colonialism—are continually being weighed and adjusted. Research questions are being altered based on different points of view from both Indonesian and Dutch researchers. I do not think that we can fully know or do justice to the complexities and sheer weight of this historical episode. What I do know is that this project, with all its flaws, is not blind to the need of continual dialogue between all parties concerned. This historical episode is shared history, after all, and to not attempt understanding would be a true waste of momentum.

Personally, I like to think that even if asking the proper questions or perfectly understanding sources, Indonesian colleagues, informants and materials is complicated due to a cultural archive that I cannot escape, it is never too late or completely impossible to readjust perspectives, even if this may sound a tad naive. As long as I can show humility towards others’ opinions, histories and approaches, I can improve myself and my work. Only last week an Indonesian professor taught me that in the Indonesian historiography of the 1945-1950 period, ‘decolonization’ as a concept does not exist; only the war of a sovereign Indonesia staving off the foreign Dutch invader. He opened my eyes a little wider still.

(Roel Frakking is a postdoctoral researcher at the KITLV who specializes in colonial violence, in general, and the late-colonial Netherlands’ East Indies and British Malaya, in particular).

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