You could never do it right, was often said around this research, and that is also apparent from the first reactions. Veterans and Indo-Dutch people feel shortchanged, and those who believe that the state owes Indonesia a debt of honor say that your terminology is not hard enough. Did you experience it that way from the start?
“No, not that we could never get it right. It is true that we will never be able to convince some. We are not addressing individual veterans, I hope that message gets across when they read our research. We are indebted to them, to their diaries and stories. The pain is that the political and military leadership has never taken responsibility. To the people on the other end of the spectrum, I say: extreme violence includes war crimes. Let there be no doubt about that. It is by no means a new euphemism in the category of excesses or incidents. It will be important to them what the politicians do with our findings.’
Despite the pressure from these interest groups, did you feel completely free in drawing your conclusions?
‘Yes, nothing was certain for us. Except that we wanted to view this war within the continuity with the pre-war period. We have gradually established that we have actually completed the work that was done in 1949 by the officials Van Rij and Stam, who already then made an initial inventory of abuses. The consulted professor Belinfante warned the cabinet: if we continue with this, the responsibility of the military and political leadership for the crimes described will also be discussed. Because the extreme violence had no legal basis whatsoever. That was one reason to put the report in a drawer. In 1969 it came out again, for the hasty Excess note, but even then they did as little as possible with it. Fortunately we were able to follow our own line.’
Historian Martin Bossenbroek wrote in last week EW that ‘a battle of directions’ has taken place within the research team. Is that right?
‘There has been heated debate. It is a large group of researchers, with differences in views, age and background. That was a very interesting process. The outcome would be that the conclusion would be a joint product of the three institutes, with a final work by the editors of all sub-projects and supported by all researchers – and not by one, my colleague Gert Oostindie, as was originally intended. Those discussions have led, for example, to the radical decision that we have stayed away from legal concepts, because these ultimately offer little guidance for historical research and even narrow the view.’
Could it be that the perception of violence was different then than it is now? Violence had chased the Germans away, you could achieve something with violence.
‘You can see some of that in the sub-study on the use of heavy weapons. Of how soldiers thought, who were trained by the Allies. But in memoirs that deal with extreme violence, you often explicitly read the realization: what we are doing here is actually what the Germans and the Japanese did. We are no better. And rightly so, because to put it bluntly: if you read some documents, Putten has nothing to do with it (razzia in 1944 by the Germans who killed 552 men, red.† And it is not just one Putten, there are many. It was one reprisal after another. Pure revenge.’
Does the fact that a new generation of historians have a different professional view also play a role? Researcher Anne-Lot Hoek posthumously accused Cees Fasseur of ‘an evasive attitude’, while he himself would have said that he looked at history neutrally.
‘The most extreme thing I’ve heard about us is that we would write a kind of woke history. Nonsense. We deal with things that have been the subject of discussion for seventy years. What does play a role, more at the meta level, is that historians are part of society, which now looks at colonialism and colonial relationships differently. Ditto for the history of slavery. I would rather call Fasseur’s gaze ambivalent. It was less obvious to look critically at history.’
But aren’t we seeing a shift from neutrality to morality? Someone like historian Henk Wesseling didn’t justify anything, but he did make it understandable that the cabinet in 1969 was not in the mood for ‘non-concealing language’.
‘Wesseling and Fasseur also had morals. They were neutral from a Dutch perspective: you had to see colonialism in its time. But who do you ask? To the Javanese who were left behind in 1830 after 200,000 were killed on the Indonesian side during the Java War? They did not think that colonialism was so self-evident. I think we look at things with a more objective view. More versatile. Polyphony, and that takes us further.’
Lou de Jong, your legendary predecessor, changed ‘war crimes’ into ‘excesses’ in 1988 under pressure. This research now coines the term ‘extreme violence’. Has the circle come full circle and the last word said?
“I do think we are at the end of a cycle. If you put everything that appears now together, you get a cohesive picture that is different from what has existed for decades. The perspective seems tilted. Any political consequences of that are not up to us.’
The summary final part of the research team is called Across the border. Dutch extreme violence in the Indonesian war of independence 1945-1949 and was published on Thursday by Amsterdam University Press. A total of twelve partial publications will be published this year, which will also be available digitally (open access) in addition to books.