Centuries of colonial indoctrination normalized what is not normal
Historian Marjolein van Pagee is an expert in the history of the Dutch colonial occupation of Indonesia. She is responding to an article in De Andere Krant (no. 16, 2023) in which Bauke Geersing – former director of the Dutch national broadcaster NOS– claims that the Dutch government wrongly accuses Dutch veterans of war crimes. “Geersing is merely reproducing the Dutch colonial propaganda of the past.”
De Andere Krant, May 6, 2023 Text: Marjolein van Pagee
Last month Bauke Geersing, former director of the Dutch national broadcaster NOS, military offi
To underline his self-proclaimed academic neutrality, Geersing emphasized that he and his co-authors are not an interest group and that they are not representing any of the parties involved. But is that correct? Firstly, as a former military officer, Geersing was previously on the payroll of the Dutch Ministry of Defence, the institution that was responsible for the reoccupation of Indonesia in the late 1940s. His affinity with his former employer is not something of the past, given the presence of high-ranking military officers at the book launch. With his plea for rehabilitation of veterans, including the infamous Raymond Westerling, he rather comes across as an activist. In his working life he was also director of the Dutch national broadcaster NOS. Curr
Apart from his direct link to “the system”, his views are biased as well. His justification of serious human rights violations makes his neutrality-claim not very convincing. Neutrality in the field of history is an outdated concept anyway. It is commonly known that history writing is not just about listing facts. Since every historian comes up with a personal interpretation or analysis. I argue that Geersing, like the historians that participated in the government-sponsored research project, is ideologically driven by a pro-colonial worldview. Centuries of colonial indoctrination normalized what is not normal. Such as the premise that a colony is lawful because it was acceptable in the context of that time. We never say this about the German occupation of the Netherlands. This normalization forms the ideological basis on which Geersing calls the murder of 431 men and children in Rawagede “fake news”. Instead of a gross war crime, he calls it a “successful military operation”.
A 1948 UN report described the massacre as “deliberate” and “ruthless”. In 2011, the Dutch court took over this qualification. Yet, according to Geersing there was nothing wrong about the Dutch reoccupation of Indonesia because the Dutch simply had to restore peace and order as the Indonesians should not have revolted against the Dutch. It is this way of thinking that makes him believe that Captain Raymond Westerling was a victim of slander. Instead of 40,000 he “only” executed 500 people, which was necessary and just, as Geersing maintains. He also believes that the Indonesian declaration of independence of August 17, 1945 is not legally valid, as it was not in accordance with the decision of the Allied forces to restore Dutch authority. But who gave Europeans the right to rule over Indonesian territory as if it belonged to them?
In my opinion a colony is an illegal occupation of another man’s land, Indonesia never lawfully belonged to the Netherlands, just like the Germans between 1940 and 1945 had no right to take Dutch land either.
Geersing and associates also give the impression that they are the first and only ones criticizing the Dutch government-sponsored study. This is not true, since the kick-off event of the project in September 2017, I repeatedly asked attention for the political game that was played. I am convinced that the government did not fund this project out of a sense of guilt, on the contrary, the research was financed to secure the political interests of the Dutch state.
For quite some time, the Dutch government has been under attack. From 2006, an Indonesian man named Jeffry Pondaag, with his Foundation Komite Utang Kehormatan Belanda (KUKB, or the Committee of Dutch Honorary Debts), launched court cases against the Dutch state on behalf of Indonesian relatives of victims of Dutch war crimes. With the historical ruling of 2011 in the Rawagede case, Pondaag basically brought the Dutch government to its knees.
These legal proceedings put the topic of Dutch war crimes back on the public agenda in the Netherlands again. After that in 2012, three institutes – the Royal Institute for Language, Land and Ethnology (KITLV), the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) and the Netherlands Institute for Military History (NIMH) – started to lobby for a new large-scale investigation. Eventually, four years later, they were granted a research budget of 4.1 million Euros. However, it is not true – as Geersing suggests – that the Dutch government did this because they are “woke” or “anticolonial”. In fact, they never sincerely listened to Indonesians. The systematic rejection of Indonesian legal claims proves that they were not at all interested in making apologies and paying damages.
I think that the Dutch government took action because they were afraid of losing control. They feared that the court cases could lead to more claims. The research project, therefore, was funded as a form of damage control to reshape the narrative and feign responsibility. According to the official story, it was the book of government-employee Rémy Limpach that convinced the Dutch government to fund the project. Interestingly, Limpach was previously hired by the research institute of the Dutch Ministry of Defense to assist the State Attorney in the historical verification of the KUKB claims. So, on one hand the government used his expertise to reject Indonesian war victims, while on the other hand, they pretended that his book in particular opened their eyes to the severity of the violence that was inflicted on them.
Another remarkable development is that, over the years, the court in The Hague started to reject more and more claims, even though initially they had ruled in favor of Indonesians. Also, the amount of money that the court ordered the government to pay, was considerably reduced as well. For example, one Indonesian relative was paid a mere €123.48 as damages for war crimes.
The research team intentionally kept a clear distance from Pondaag and his foundation. In contrast to other Dutch interest groups such as the Veterans Institute, KUKB was not asked to take part in the Klankbordgroep (Social Focus Group). The researchers also deliberately avoided the term “war crimes” to prevent legal consequences. Although they do not refer to the massacre in Rawagede as a “successful operation” like Geersing does, they do not call it a war crime either.
While the current government crafts a new narrative, Geersing merely reproduces the Dutch propaganda of the past. In any case, the 4.1 million euros was never meant to uncover the truth or to take responsibility. This is shown by how badly the participating researchers reacted to real anticolonial criticism from Indonesians. In 2017, Pondaag, together with another Indonesian, Francisca Pattipilohy, sent an open letter to the Dutch government. I worked closely with Pondaag and Pattipilohy in the process of writing and the publication of the letter. Consequently, Histori Bersama, an online translation initiative of which I am the founder, became the platform of the critics. Throughout the four years the government research project took place, we critically questioned the views and positions of the researchers. To date, those critiques have not been acknowledged, instead we are being sidelined and censored. For example, all of my op-ed pieces have been rejected in the Netherlands while The Jakarta Post usually publishes them right away.
Geersing called the project “anticolonial”, but if he and his colleagues truly value academic integrity, they should first start to understand what anticolonialism is about. Defending government interests and preventing Indonesians from going to court, is the antithesis of anticolonialism.
Marjolein van Pagee obtained her master degree in Colonial and World History at Leiden University and is the author of Banda. The genocide of Jan Pieterszoon Coen (2021) she is also the founder of Histori Bersama