Cees Fasseur and his critics

Dissenting voices have been underrepresented in the post-war debates on colonialism and its legacy for decades. One of the main reasons for this omission is that the notion of the objective historian was not effectively problematized for a long time. The dynamics between writer and essayist Rudy Kousbroek – an important critic of the Dutch historiography of colonialism – and Leiden-based historian Cees Fasseur emphasize this. Anne-Lot Hoek argues that Fasseur was selective concerning the ‘Excessen’ note and debate, whilst presenting himself as neutral, which had an impact on younger historians and on the notion of Dutch war crimes in Indonesia in the public debate.

A one-sided national narrative

‘Only when the animals get to write history, can we judge the culture of the hunters.’ That is what writer Rudy Kousbroek (1929-2010) said in an interview with OVT for VPRO Radio (in Dutch), conducted by historian Remco Raben (1962) in 2002 (see below). The culture of the hunters referred to historians dealing with the colonial past, in which the voices of Indonesians were left out. The statement further refers to Raben’s remark during the interview that we, as a postcolonial society, are still not able to show what it looks like, or how it was perceived on the other side; in other words, we as Dutch, have not been able to convey the Indonesian experience of colonialism.

Interview with Rudy Kousbrouk by Remco Raben for OVT radio in 2002 in which they problematize the Dutch historiography of the colonial history of the East Indies [English subtitles added from 27.17].[efn_note]OVT Radio, “Geschiedenisgasten: Remco Raben en Rudy Kousbroek,” [History guests: Remco Raben and Rudy Kousbroek] VPRO, July, 14, 2002. Original at website of the VPRO.[/efn_note].

The reason why historians didn’t speak up, Raben and Kousbroek both agreed, had to do with a problematic Dutch historical culture that has paid little attention to the moral side of history and used sources that are almost always European. Colonial violence was downplayed, and the perspectives of Indonesians – however researched by (international) anthropologists and Indonesian specialists – were often overlooked by the traditional Dutch historians of the previous generation. It resulted in a one-sided national narrative in the Netherlands. There’s a real danger in telling one-sided stories, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated at the TEDGlobal talks of 2009.[efn_note]Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The danger of a single story,” filmed July 2009 at TEDGlobal 2009, Oxford.[/efn_note] It can (de)form our understanding by making it incomplete and can normalize exclusion. In 2000 Henk Schulte Nordholt (KITLV/University Leiden) stated in his inaugural speech that the Dutch Indies were a ‘state of violence,’ which was further researched by Marieke Bloembergen (KITLV) in her extensive publication on the history of the police in the Dutch-Indies (2009) and by Piet Hagen in Colonial wars in Indonesia (2018).[efn_note]See also: Freek Colombijn & J. Thomas Lindblad (eds), Roots of Violence in Indonesia (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2006).[/efn_note] The Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach (NIMH) published his much discussed dissertation (University Bern) on the nature of extreme violence during the Indonesian independence war in 2016.[efn_note]Rémy Limpach, De brandende kampongs van Generaal Spoor [The burning kampongs of General Spoor] (Amsterdam: Boom, 2016).[/efn_note]

This article is a short exploration of the question why professional historians neglected or ignored dissenting voices on colonial violence and Indonesian perspectives, and the effects of a one-sided history on the public debate. My focus is on Leiden based professor Cees Fasseur and his critics. One of them was writer Rudy Kousbroek. Kousbroek was born in the Dutch Indies. He was a member of the writers’ collective ‘de Vijftigers’ and the author of Het Oostindisch Kampsyndroom [The East Indies camp syndrome] (1992). He was one of the most outspoken critics of the historical culture on the subject of decolonization in Indonesia and criticized the one-sidedness and so-called neutrality of colonial historians.[efn_note]Historian J.C. van Leur, writer Tjalie Robinson and the non-Western sociologist Wim Wertheim had been equally strong anti-colonial voices.[/efn_note] Raben, a professor of colonial history (University of Amsterdam/ Utrecht University), was historian at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the time of the interview. He conducted the interview with this inspiring writer as part of a series of interviews of young historians meeting their idol or inspirer. Kousbroek in turn had been inspired by Sutan Sjahrir – an inspiration, one could argue, that links several generations of critical voices inside and outside of academia.

In the interview Kousbroek took the unknown fate of the thousands of killed Romusha, the Indonesian prisoners of war during the Japanese occupation, as an example of Dutch historical neglect. The death rates among this group was extremely high, but according to Kousbroek: “no one cared about this, no one ever claimed damages for them. It was all me, me me. And again: that is what historians should have done!” Kousbroek had challenged the Dutch historical culture by introducing a ‘doofpot’ thesis in which he put the neutrality of historians up for discussion. He accused Dutch historians of a ‘cover-up’ operation to downplay colonial abuses.[efn_note]Rudy Kousbroek, “De diachronie van de doofpot,” [The diachrony of the cover-up] NRC-Handelsblad, April 29, 1994.[/efn_note] Many historians, especially Cees Fasseur, strongly denied such a cover-up existed.[efn_note]Cees Fasseur, interview in: Remco Meijer, Oostindisch Doof: het Nederlandse debat over de dekolonisatie van Indonesië [Being deaf the Eastern-Indies way: the Dutch debate about the decolonization of Indonesia] (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1995); Interview with Cees Fasseur, 105.[/efn_note]

The culture of the hunters

It was the debate around the Rhemrev report that started a polemic amongst historians on the existence of a ‘doofpot,’ a ‘cover-up’ that Kousbroek described in De diachronie van de doofpot [The diachrony of the cover-up].[efn_note]Kousbroek, “De diachronie”.[/efn_note] Kousbroek’s introduction of the ‘cover-up’ theory was one of the highlights in the postcolonial debate amongst historians. In Kousbroek’s view, the Rhemrev report was covered up. The report was brought to light only in 1987 by Jan Breman[efn_note]Jan Breman, Koelies, planters en koloniale politiek [Coolies, planters and colonial politics] (Dordrecht: Foris, 1987).[/efn_note], and it gave a shocking account of the abuse of forced laborers on the plantations in Medan, Sumatra. In Oostindisch Kampsyndroom [The East Indies camp syndrome], Kousbroek wrote: ‘I feel that the Rhemrev report is the most horrible revelation of this century for the Netherlands; it brings to light not only a history of suffering of such colossal size that no words can be found to describe it, but also the widespread participation of the rulers in the whole of the Dutch Indies.’[efn_note]Rudy Kousbroek, Het Oostindisch Kampsyndroom [The East Indies camp syndrome] (Amsterdam: Olympus, 1992), 163.[/efn_note] Kousbroek – as had Jan Breman – expressed his annoyance with historian Cees Fasseur, who was aware of the Rhemrev report but had done nothing with it.

Was this really an attempt at a ‘cover-up’? Or were historians simply being selective in what information they published, as a result of taboos, as Kousbroek also argued? And why would that have been the case? The ‘Excessennota,’ – note of derailments – or ‘Excesses Memorandum’ that Fasseur co-wrote formed a good case to examine the cover-up thesis for historian Stef Scagliola in her PhD thesis in 2002.[efn_note]Stef Scagliola, Last van de oorlog. De Nederlandse oorlogsmisdaden in Indonesië en hun verwerking [Burden of the war. The Dutch war crimes in Indonesia and their processing] (Amsterdam: Balans, 2002).[/efn_note]

In 1969, the silence on Dutch war crimes was broken by war veteran Joop Hueting (1927 – 2018), who succeeded for the very first time in attacking the dominant narrative that extreme violence had been incidental and non-structural. In a Dutch television interview (see video below) he explained how Dutch extreme violence during 1945-1950 was structural in Indonesia. Although there had been interviews with critical veterans before, it was this television interview that made Hueting the most important whistleblower of post-war Holland. The interview caused a great deal of commotion, and Hueting and his family were forced after many threats to go into hiding: the veterans’ lobby was furious.[efn_note]See for example: “Zinloos en misselijk,” [Meaningless and nauseous],’ De Telegraaf, January 21, 1969.[/efn_note]

Interview with war veteran Joop Hueting for the Dtuch television show Achter het nieuws (VARA) on 17 January 1969. His confession about the excessive war crimes, committed by Dutch soldiers in Indonesia during the police operations 1945-1949, caused a great deal of commotion. The so-called “peaceful mission” turned out to be a “horrible display of violence, revenge, torture”. Hueting even spoke about “structural violence”.

The government reacted to the public arousal with an inquiry into the ‘excesses’ or violent incidents that happened during the Indonesian war for independence. A quick assessment of the violent crimes resulted in the ‘Excessennota’[efn_note]De Excessennota, nota betreffende het archiefonderzoek naar de gegevens omtrent excessen in Indonesië begaan door Nederlandse militairen in de periode 1945-1950 Ingeleid door Jan Bank [The Excessennota, memorandum concerning the archival research into the data on excesses committed in Indonesia by Dutch soldiers in the period 1945-1950 Introduced by Jan Bank] (first edition 1969, second edition 1995).[/efn_note], a short memorandum of reported ‘derailments’ co-written by the young historian and ambitious civil servant Cees Fasseur, who was responsible for the centerpiece of the note, the so-called Appendix 5. The inquiry took only three months, Prime Minister De Jong formulated the conclusions of the report in favor of the soldiers, and a parliamentary survey was not initiated. Therefore, the memorandum was meant to uphold the national narrative at that time, of a Dutch nation that did not perform too badly in Indonesia. The government, in other words was covering up violence, and gave room for impunity, which had an impact on the narration forming on a national level.

In her dissertation Last van de oorlog [Burden of the war] (2002) Scagliola examined history writing in the context of the Excessennota of 1969 and concluded that there is no evidence of a ‘cover-up,’ but there were ‘traces of taboos’ within the academic sphere at hand.  The discussion about the existence of a cover-up is not so much about the history of the Dutch Indies as about the attitude of historians towards sensitive topics, says Scagliola. Most historians were not in favor of a ‘taboo’ or ‘cover-up’ theory and Fasseur, the main author of the ‘Excessen’ note was defended by some of his colleagues. Historian Elsbeth Locher-Scholte reacted by stating that because of the concentration on civil reports in the note, there is no indication of a taboo or cover-up, “at most of an incomplete research.”[efn_note]E. Locher-Scholten, “S.I. Scagliola, Last van de oorlog. De Nederlandse oorlogsmisdaden in Indonesië en hun verwerking,” BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 119.1 (2004): 146.[/efn_note] However, since Scagliola’s dissertation came out, more indications have come to the surface that show Fasseur and his team were indeed selective in dealing with sensitive material, that undermines the argument of an incomplete research. First of all, the ‘Excessen’ note did not include much of the material from the report by lawyers Van Rij and Stam, that formed an important basis of Limpach’s dissertation De brandende kampongs van Generaal Spoor [The burning kampongs of General Spoor] (2016). It was written in 1949, and discussed by the government in 1954 in the context of the debate on possible prosecution over the notorious South-Celebes case of 1946/1947. Stam had kept it at his “chicken coop” until 1969.

The report ended up in Fasseur’s attic where it stayed for fifteen years. What was this kind of important historical evidence doing in Fasseur’s attic? And why was so little of the information used? Limpach concluded in his dissertation that it was because of time and a late arrival of the archive, but Fasseur himself argues in his memoirs (2016) that “the research was made easier, but was also complicated” when Stam himself handed it over to the archive.[efn_note]Cees Fasseur, Dubbelspoor: herinneringen [Double track: memories] (Amsterdam: Balans, 2016), 143.[/efn_note] Remarkably enough Fasseur transferred it later on to his attic. In his memoirs Fasseur stated that because the report contained the names of Dutch soldiers who had been the subject of juridical research, it seemed “irresponsible” to trust it to “possible loose-lipped archive-staff.”[efn_note]Ibid, 144.[/efn_note] He only handed it over to the National Archive in 1986, where it surprisingly enough was put away in the collection Fasseur, and nobody took notice of it for years.

Secondly, there are examples of cases, such as of Rawagede and Rengat (see section Research journalism for video and audio) that support the argument that Fasseur was indeed selective in the ‘Excessen’ note. Both cases concern the counting of deaths on Indonesian side. Harm Scholtens was one of the first to look underneath the material of the ‘Excessen’ note to offer a case study, a reconstruction of what had happened in the Javanese village of Rawagede in 1947 for his history thesis. Scholtens started out with a basic question that many historians before him could have asked: what had happened in Rawagede? In 1995 journalists of Dutch broadcaster RTL 4 had interviewed Indonesian witnesses of the mass killing, so awareness of the case was there. According to the ‘Excessen’ note, one hundred and fifty people died in Rawagede, ‘twenty’ of them by execution.[efn_note]Excessennota, 83.[/efn_note] It turned out the number of executed people was between 150 and 433 (Indonesian estimation).[efn_note]Limpach, De brandende kampongs, 334.[/efn_note] “I thought it was strange” Scholtens told research journalist Jouri Boom from De Groene Amsterdammer in 2008, “making 150 deaths, liquidating 20 men and not finding one weapon. This case stank.”[efn_note]Jouri Boom, Nieuw bewijs van massa-executie in Indonesië. Archiefmap 1304.  [New proof of mass execution in Indonesia. Archive folder 1304], De Groene Amsterdammer, no 41. [/efn_note] According to Limpach, Fasseur who was responsible for ‘Appendix 5’ in which the case appeared should have been aware of material that indicated an execution of between 103 and 118 Indonesian deaths.[efn_note]Ibid.[/efn_note] Fasseur responded in 2008 that he must have made a mistake by leaving out a ‘1’, and wrote 20 instead of 120.[efn_note]Jouri Boom, “Nieuw bewijs van massa-executie in Indonesië. Archiefmap 1304,” [New proof of mass execution in Indonesia. Archive folder 1304] De Groene Amsterdammer, no. 41, October 10, 2008.[/efn_note] He also reacted in an article in Trouw, stating that the Excessennote was “incomplete.”[efn_note]Cees Fasseur, “Rawagede is Nederlandse ereschuld, en er zijn er meer,” [Rawagede is Dutch honorary debt, and there are more] Trouw, November 26, 2008.[/efn_note]

Another case was the mass killings at Rengat on Sumatra. I was surprised when I studied the civil reports underlying the material of the Excessennota after I visited the yearly memorial service in Rengat on 5 January 2016. It turned out that during the Second Police Action on 5 January 1949 an assault had taken place that took the lives of at least hundreds, while the ‘Excessen’ note had mentioned only 80 casualties. Not only did Indonesian witnesses in Rengat[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “Ook op Sumatra richtten de Nederlanders een bloedbad aan, [The Dutch also committed a massacre on Sumatra] NRC Handelsblad, February 13, 2016.[/efn_note] mention a much greater number, but the note did not include the police report with Indonesian witnesses, an article in a Chinese newspaper that showed a different perspective than that of the Dutch and a list of the execution of 120 persons.[efn_note]See documents in the Nationaal Archief, Procureur-Generaal, nr. 1327.[/efn_note] If the argument would be, that the report was incomplete because they lacked time to research it in full as Fasseur stated on numerous occasions, then why did he or one of his colleagues in the summary cherry-pick pieces of information that covered up the facts in the reports instead of giving the reader an indication that there was other information at hand? Why didn’t Fasseur come back to it later on, before these cases were revealed by media or independent researchers?  Fasseur had disputed in 1995 that the note would have been “a weak piece.”[efn_note]Meijer, Oostindisch doof, 106.[/efn_note] It was Scholtens’s research that made him come back to the subject in 2008 and acknowledge that the case was not described in a correct way.

The note was incomplete, and time was short, but other choices of presenting the information could have been made or the reader could have been given the opportunity to look at the material more closely or critically to come to a different conclusion or interpretation. The note contained falsifications, and the dominant narrative that was produced by the Excessen note had a long-lasting effect on society. Although most historians acknowledged the limitations of the Excessennote, the idea that Dutch society more or less knew what had happened in Indonesia in terms of war crimes was firmly rooted.[efn_note]In 2012 journalist Harm Ede Botje and myself spoke to several Dutch historians about the need for more research, amongst others with Ad van Liempt, Louis Zweers, Joop de Jong and Cees Fasseur.[/efn_note] Historian Pieter Drooglever even stated in Volkskrant that the Excessennote had proved “reliable” and was an “honest display” of the archival material.[efn_note]Hella Rottenberg, Onderzoeker acht debat in parlement over dekolonisatie-periode ongewenst ‘Verleden behoort historici, niet politici,” [Investigator considers debate in parliament on decolonization period undesirable ‘Past belongs to historians, not politicians’] De Volkskrant, January 13, 1995.[/efn_note]Fasseur and his team had been selective, but in the public and academic debate the historian presented himself as neutral and objective, and it had consequences for the perception of Dutch war crimes in Indonesia in the debate. To understand Fasseur, requires a closer look at his position in the public and historical debate, and to the debate itself.

So at least we know in hindsight”

Was Fasseur representative of the Dutch historical culture at large? If we go back in time, we can see that the subject of colonial violence in general was highly contested in the Netherlands. In his autobiography the most famous Dutch resistance fighter, Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, who would later become known as the Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange) writes how he was struck by the thought of a ‘young Indonesian soldier, killed by a Dutch bullet’ in the summer of 1947, when the Eerste Politionele Actie (First Police Action) was launched by The Netherlands against Indonesian independence. What did he die for – ‘his country? For “Merdeka” (freedom)? […] In what way is he different from me, except for the part that I am alive and he is dead?’ But Roelfzema did not really want to think about that further. After the Second World War he suppressed the thought of the dead Indonesian boy he identified with. Like many other Dutch people, he demanded “the right to move on, away from death and decay.”[efn_note]Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Op jacht naar het leven: de autobiografie van de Soldaat van Oranje [In pursuit of life: the autobiography of the Soldier of Orange] (Utrecht: Spectrum, 2000), 266.[/efn_note] The comparison that Roelfzema had made between his battle for freedom and that of his Indonesian counterpart was complicated and confusing, and it would stay that way in the Netherlands for the next few decades.

Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema stood up for the Dutch liberation from the Germans and supported the movement for an independent Moluccan state after the Independence of Indonesia. However, he was not in favor of Indonesian independence. He therefore did not unambiguously interpret the concept freedom in the same way as Siebe Lijftogt did, also a former resistance fighter. The photo shows Roelfzema returning to Schiphol in 1951, being greeted by Moluccan women. Photographer: Noske, J.D. / Anefo Source: Wikipedia / Nationaal archief.

It took a long time in the Netherlands before the connection that Roelfzema hesitantly recognized between his own freedom struggle and that of the young indignant Indonesian also came to the fore in a broader debate, in both public and academic domains. Literary scholar Paul Bijl (UU/KITLV) wrote in his dissertation “Emerging memory” that information on colonial violence had always been there, but that people did not want to hear about it. Sociologist Abraham de Swaan concluded in De Groene Amsterdammer that it was a national secret that was uncovered and hidden over and over again. “At the heart of this nation, two powers fight each other constantly: oblivion and remembrance.”[efn_note]Abram De Swaan, “Postkoloniale absences,” [Postcolonial absences] De Groene Amsterdammer, no. 19, May 10, 2017.[/efn_note] It is understandable that it takes time before a society dares to look critically at a painful episode in its history. The downfall and the trauma of Fascism and Nazism on the European continent caused the post-war Netherlands to focus on the future of a new Europe. The legacy of a long period of state-based colonial violence in Indonesia, however, did not match the dominant narrative that framed the Netherlands as the victim that had stood on the right side of history and collectively said ‘never again.’

One can name many other causes for this long period of silence, and more analysis on that topic is needed. The government for starters didn’t take responsibility for extreme violence in the period of 1945 – 1949, and covered it up several times. In 1954, they refused to prosecute those responsible for the mass murder in South Celebes (violence in 1946-47 preceding the so-called police actions). In 1971 a law was passed that abolished the prescription of war crimes, with the exception of war crimes committed by Dutch military soldiers in Indonesia between 1945 and 1949.

For politicians, veterans and post-colonial groups, the topic of the Dutch Indies was sensitive and contested. For the broader Dutch audience, it was very far away, and they had little interest. Was it a black page in history? A blind spot?[efn_note]Remco Raben discusses [in Dutch] in the video Koloniaal verleden: zwarte bladzijde of blinde vlek [Colonial past: black page or blind spot], Studium Generale Utrecht University, the lack of social awareness and the way in which it’s easier to deny any dark pages by justifying the colonial past in terms of its so-called benefits.[/efn_note] The Dutch academic elite was equally not interested in discussions on the period of 1945 – 1949, which was broadly seen as a political topic. Historian Stef Scagliola often stated that Dutch historians lacked a radical tradition.[efn_note]See for example: Harm Ede Botje and Anne-Lot Hoek, “Onze vuile oorlog,” [Our dirty war] Vrij Nederland, July 10, 2012.[/efn_note] Australian historian Joost Cote further stated that Dutch historians have a problem with the interference of English-speaking historians, because the Dutch believe that outsiders will never understand their special form of colonialism and their extraordinary relationship with the Dutch Indies.[efn_note]Joost Cote, “Strangers in the house: Dutch historiography and Anglophone trespassers,” Review of Indonesian and Malaysian affairs, vol. 43, no. 1 (2009): 75-94.[/efn_note]

Little effort was made by Dutch researchers to reach out to listen to Indonesian experiences and integrate their stories into history writing. What remains painful in the Dutch-Indonesian relationship is that the Netherlands still doesn’t formally recognize the Indonesian independence of 17th of August 1945, (two days after the Japanese surrender, when Sukarno proclaimed independence), but instead dates independence from the transfer of sovereignty that took place in December 1949. The Dutch for a long time referred to Indonesian freedom fighters as ‘terrorists’ – to indicate the illegitimacy of the fight for independence –, and hung on to the term ‘police actions’, whereas the Indonesians call this the ‘Agresi Militer Belanda,’ which gives a clear idea of the nature of the actions. But also in publications on the political and diplomatic aspects of the struggle in 1945 – 1949 or on Dutch colonial history in general, Indonesian perspectives were more often than not absent. Harry Poeze (Kitlv) is one of the few who wrote extensively on Indonesian revolutionary Tan Malakka.[efn_note]Harry A. Poeze, Verguisd en vergeten; Tan Malaka, de linkse beweging en de Indonesische Revolutie, 1945-1949 [Reviled and forgotten; Tan Malaka, the leftist movement and the Indonesian Revolution, 1945-1949] (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007). Four volumes published in revised version in Indonesian. Tan Malaka, Gerakan Kiri, dan Revolusi Indonesia: Jilid 1-4.[/efn_note]


This video shows Sukarno reading the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence (Indonesian: Proklamasi Kemerdekaan Indonesia, or simply Proklamasi) at 17 August 1945. The declaration marked the start of the diplomatic and armed resistance of the Indonesian National Revolution, fighting against the Dutch forces, until the Dutch were forced out of the country by international pressure.[efn_note]Translation of the proklamasi in English: WE THE PEOPLE OF INDONESIA HEREBY DECLARE THE INDEPENDENCE OF INDONESIA. MATTERS WHICH CONCERN THE TRANSFER OF POWER AND OTHER THINGS WILL BE EXECUTED BY CAREFUL MEANS AND IN THE SHORTEST POSSIBLE TIME.  DJAKARTA, 17 AUGUST 1945 IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE OF INDONESIA. SOEKARNO/HATTA, Source: Wikipedia.[/efn_note]

Counter-narratives were there in the Dutch debate, but were either contested or received little attention. For instance, when journalist Willem Oltmans interviewed Sukarno in 1956 and spoke out for the ending of Dutch colonialism in New-Guinea, the Dutch government not only opposed him, but put him out of work. Surprisingly enough, the Excessen note was challenged one year later, in 1970, by the book Ontsporing van Geweldwritten by two sociologists Van Doorn and Hendrix, who came to the opposite conclusion from the note: there had been a pattern of (extreme) structural violence. They were veterans who had made notes during their time as soldiers in Indonesia. As academics, but relative outsiders to the history establishment, they were able to say what one year before their publication caused so much upheaval. On the inner cover of the book one could read: ‘those who take the responsibility to commit structural violence should know the reality of this violence, not the picture that is painted for the outside world. This book wants to contribute to showing something of the reality of the years between 1945 and 1949. So that at least we know in hindsight.’[efn_note]J.A.A. van Doorn and W.J. Hendrix, Ontsporing van geweld: over het Nederland/Indisch/Indonesisch conflict [Derailments of violence: about the Netherlands/Indo/Indonesian conflict] (Rotterdam: Universitaire pers, 1970), inner cover, and H. Schijf, “Van Doorns Indische lessen,” [Van Doorns Indian lessons] Mens en Maatschappij, 83.3 (2008): 210-213.[/efn_note]

This very important scientific publication received limited press attention. Historians talked about it with each other, but it did not lead to a broad debate in the public arena, or to more research. This resulted in a peculiar situation: that we knew, but did not want to know. So when Lou de Jong was critical of the war in Indonesia in the 1980s in part 11A of his magnum opus Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog,[efn_note]Lou de Jong, Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog 1939-1945 deel 11A [Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War 1939-1945 part 11A] (Amsterdam: Rijksinstituut voor oorlogsdocumentatie, 1984).[/efn_note] and later on used the word ‘war crimes’ in his conclusions, it again caused a huge public outcry, especially amongst war veterans. In 1987 De Jong was forced to withdraw ‘war crimes’ from his conclusions under public pressure. His feelings as a young man, shocked by the events in Indonesia in 1945-1949, as he wrote in his reaction, had influenced him in an emotional way while writing. “A historian is just a human,” he wrote.[efn_note]Stef Scagliola, Last van de Oorlog, 92.[/efn_note]

During the 1990s critical voices were there again when the public debate flamed up now and then, especially during a controversial state visit to Indonesia by Queen Beatrix in 1995 and the upheaval over Ponke Princen’s visit to the Netherlands. Critical pieces were written on the Queen’s visit. Philosopher Lolle Nauta stated that “by keeping silent on crimes and human rights violations, by not even recognizing that a moral problem has occurred, the Dutch guests didn’t distance themselves from the past.”[efn_note]Lolle Nauta, Onbehagen in de filosofie [Uneasiness in philosophy] (Amsterdam: Van Gennip, 2001), 157.[/efn_note]Ad van Liempt wrote the book A nice word for war about the so-called Police Actions (1994)[efn_note]Ad van Liempt, Een mooi woord voor oorlog. Ruzie, roddel en achterdocht op weg naar de Indonesië-oorlog [A nice word for war. Quarrel, gossip and suspicion on the way to the Indonesia War] (Den Haag: SDU, 1994).[/efn_note], in 1995 Dutch broadcaster RTL published a critical documentary on the case of Rawagede[efn_note]RTL4, Excessen van Rawagede, August 17, 1995.[/efn_note], and Thom Verheul produced the documentary film Tabe Toean in 1996[efn_note]Thom Verheul, “Tabe Toean,” NCRV, 1996.[/efn_note].

Several important academic publications came from Willem IJzereef (1984)[efn_note]Willem IJzereef, De Zuid-Celebes affaire. Kapitein Westerling en de standrechtelijke executies [The South Celebes affair. Captain Westerling and the constitutional executions] (Dieren: De Bataafsche Leeuw, 1984). [/efn_note], and from Petra Groen (1991)[efn_note] Petra Groen, Marsroutes En Dwaalsporen. Het Nederlands Militair-Strategisch Beleid in Indonesië 1945-1950 [March routes and Wander tracks. The Dutch Military-Strategic Policy in Indonesia 1945-1950] (Den Haag, 1991)[/efn_note], and more progressive historians such as Maarten Kuitenbrouwer[efn_note]Maarten Kuitenbrouwer, Nederland en de opkomst van het moderne imperialisme. Koloniën en buitenlandse politiek 1870–1902 [The Netherlands and the rise of modern imperialism. Colonies and foreign policy 1870–1902] (Dieren: De Bataafsche Leeuw, 1985).[/efn_note] and Elsbeth Locher Scholte[efn_note]Elsbeth Locher-Scholten, Ethiek in fragmenten: vijf studies over koloniaal denken en doen van Nederlanders in de Indonesische archipel 1877-1942 [Ethics in fragments: five studies on colonial thinking and doing by Dutch people in the Indonesian archipelago 1877-1942] (Utrecht: HES Publishers, 1981).[/efn_note], were involved in critical debates around the existence and nature of Dutch imperialism. Henk Schulte Nordholt stated in his oration in 2000 that the Dutch-Indies were a police state[efn_note]H.G.C. Schulte Nordholt, Een staat van geweld [A state of violence] (Rotterdam: Erasmus Universiteit, 2000).[/efn_note] which was empirically substantiated and problematized by Marieke Bloembergen (2009).[efn_note]M. Bloembergen, De geschiedenis van de politie in Nederlands-Indië; Uit zorg en angst [Out of Concern and Fear: The history of the police in the Dutch East-Indies] (Leiden: KITLV Uitgeverij, 2009).[/efn_note] Scagliola wrote Last van de Oorlog [Burden of the War] (2002). The Dutch government, however, remained reluctant to acknowledge crimes in Indonesia, and historians did not call for new, broad research. The Dutch ambassador Ben Bot stated in 2005 in Indonesia that the Dutch were on the wrong side of history, but no further attempts were made to come to a better understanding of this history, and no general apology for crimes committed was issued by the Dutch prime minister.[efn_note]Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, Volledige toespraak van minister Ben Bot[Full speech from Minister Ben Bot], August 15, 2015. From the website of NOVA.[/efn_note]

It took till 2011, when the critical postcolonial voice of Jeffry Pondaag, together with lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld successfully held the Dutch state responsible for the killings of Indonesians in the case of Rawagede, for the debate to be finally opened in a broader sense. (see section Research journalism). It was this event that caused three historical institutions to make an appeal to the Dutch government for financing a broad research project, and academics and journalists were activated to pay more attention to the subject. Several important publications came out later on, including by writer Alfred Birney (2015)[efn_note]Alfred Birney, De Tolk van Java. (Amsterdam: De Geus, 2015).[/efn_note] and Swiss-Dutch historian Remy Limpach (2016).[efn_note]See also: Bart Luttikhuis and Dirk Moses (eds.), Colonial counterinsurgency and mass violence: The Dutch Empire in Indonesia (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014); Hylke Speerstra, Op klompen door de dessa: oud-Indiegangers vertellen [On clogs through the dessa: former Dutch East Indies travellers are telling] (Amsterdam: Olympus, 2015); Gert Oostindie, Soldaat in Indonesië [Soldier in Indonesia] (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2015); Maarten Hidskes, Thuis gelooft niemand mij [Nobody believes me at home] (Amsterdam: Atlas Contact, 2016); Anton Stolwijk, Atjeh: het verhaal van de bloedigste strijd uit de Nederlandse koloniale geschiedenis [Aceh: the story of the bloodiest battle in Dutch colonial history] (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2016); Manon van den Brekel, Massaexecuties op Sulawesi [Mass executions on Sulawesi] (Zutphen: Walburg Pers B.V., 2017); Ronald Nijboer, Tabe Java, Tabe Indië, de koloniale oorlog van mijn opa [Bye Java, bye Dutch East Indies, my grandfather’s colonial war] (Amsterdam: HarperCollins, 2017); Piet Hagen, Koloniale oorlogen in Indonesië: vijf eeuwen verzet tegen vreemde overheersing [Colonial wars in Indonesia: five centuries of resistance against strange domination] (Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 2018); Reggy Baay, Het kind met de Japanse ogen [The child with the Japanese eyes] (Amsterdam: Atlas Contact, 2018).[/efn_note] Before he came to work for the NIMH in the Netherlands in 2014, Limpach was an independent researcher from the University Bern in Switzerland who, in his own words, saw “a huge black hole” in Dutch academic research on Dutch war crimes.[efn_note]Personal conversation Remy Limpach on July 28, 2015, The Hague.[/efn_note]

It was an uncompromising, anticolonial voice from an individual of Dutch-Indies/Indonesian descent that strongly influenced the debate. Pondaag (1953), a retired labourer, had pushed for years in vain to find recognition for Dutch war crimes in Indonesia. He came from Indonesia to the Netherlands in 1969, the year in which Joop Hueting appeared on television and Fasseur wrote the Excessennote. He didn’t understand why his Dutch-Indies family in Holland didn’t recognize the Indonesian independence date, and why they referred to the Indonesians as ‘terrorists.’ “Weren’t we free on 17 August 1945?” He identified himself with the Indonesian part of his family, and says he suffered from name-calling and exclusion in Dutch society.[efn_note]Telephone conversation with Jeffry Pondaag, January 11, 2019, and numerous personal conversations.[/efn_note] “What right did the Netherlands have to colonize Indonesia?” was his persistent question during debates relating to the issue of legitimacy.

What Pondaag basically emphasizes is the lack of moral conviction regarding the colonial past in Indonesia in Dutch society, which emerged for example during a debate on 5 April 2018 in the debate center de Balie (see below) about colonial statues (in particular that of Johannes Benedictus Van Heutsz), where Pondaag, Esther Captain and Adriaan van Dis were on the panel. He criticized author Vilan van de Loo who wanted to look at the good and the bad aspects of Van Heutz in the biography that she is writing. Pondaag questioned the usage of such a perspective on a person like Van Heutsz, because for Hitler this would not be acceptable. As historian Martijn Eickhoff (NIOD) noticed in a reflection on the debate: the cruel military ‘pacification’ politics of Van Heutsz were indeed quickly overstepped, she did not mention any Indonesian by name, and did not show how the applied mass violence was in fact related to the Dutch authority in Sumatra or the ethical politics.[efn_note]Martijn Eikhoff, Verslag van het debat Van standbeeld tot schandpaal 23 April 2018 [Report of the debate From statue to pillory April 23, 2018] Website Independence, decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia, 1945-1950.[/efn_note]

Presentation of Vilan van Loo on the statue of Van Heutz and the response of Jeffrey Pondaag at the debate ‘Van standbeeld tot schandpaal [From statue to pillory] at debate centre De Balie in Amsterdam 5 April 2018.  Van Heutz was governor general of the Dutch East Indies and as a military officer involved in the Aceh War that ended in 1904. His statue (see photo) was placed in Amsterdam in 1935. It has been been highly contested and underwent several changes. Van Heutz biographer Vilan de Loo argued more or less that in judging Van Heutz as a ‘bad’ colonial, the Netherlands showed convulsiveness in dealing with its colonial past. Van Heutz also had good sides. Pondaag, dressed in Soekarno outfit, responded to the presentation of Van Loo by firmly arguing that an incomplete representation needs to be confronted. [efn_note]Histori Bersama. Discussion Colonial Statues & Van Heutsz, De Balie, Amsterdam, April 5, 2018. With Vilan van de Loo and Jeffry Pondaag. Original version in Dutch from debate centre De Balie.[/efn_note]

Fasseur’s attitude towards the debate on Dutch colonial crimes in Indonesia is rooted in Dutch historical culture at large. The Dutch debate was for the most part pushed by relative outsiders, activists, journalists, writers and independent researchers. When the message that Joop Hueting had already delivered in 1969, finally came through to a wider audience with the publications of Birney and the dissertation of Limpach, Fasseur reacted defensively. He called Limpach’s conclusion, namely that there had been ‘extreme structural violence’ in Indonesia, “an open door.” Everybody knew it, but in 1969 it was impossible to say it, as Fasseur also stated in the NRC Handelsblad in a reaction. He referred to an anonymous letter he had once written in Vrij Nederland in which he had called out for more research, and at the same time he blamed historian Van der Wal for the obstruction of historical research after the Excessen note.[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “Op de ‘vlucht’ neergeschoten,” [Shot on the flight] NRC Handelsblad, August 15, 2015.[/efn_note]

To understand Fasseur’s defensive response, it is important to first look at his role in the public debate. During his lifetime he was the leading historian who took the stage quite often in media appearances on the ‘Excessen’ debate. He had supported historian Lou de Jong when the latter wanted to use the word ‘war crimes,’ in 1988, but did not actively promote a change of discourse or modify the terminology in his own publications for a long time. To him the terminology was “not more than a play on words,” as he formulated it in his memoirs.[efn_note]Fasseur, Dubbelspoor, 146-147.[/efn_note] Usage of euphemistic terms like ‘politionele acties’ (police actions) when talking about war and violence anchored a hint of good intentions into the country’s DNA that was passed on from generation to generation. As historian Martijn Eickhoff (NIOD) wrote in an article on Dutch historians and the Rawagadeh debate, “by continuing to use words such as derailments and military excesses, the colonial character of the mission is not exposed.”[efn_note]Martijn Eickhoff, “Weggestreept verleden? Nederlandse historici en het Rawagededebat, [Stripped past? Dutch historians and the Rawagede debate] Groniek, nr. 194 (2013): 53.[/efn_note] Indonesian voices were hardly considered. For instance, to the testimonies of Indonesian victims who had been interviewed by researcher Max van der Werff for the Dutch TV show Altijd wat broadcast in 2013 (with Piet de Blauw, NCRV)[efn_note]NCRV, “Indonesië. Reportage de waarheid boven tafel,” [Indonesia. Report the truth above the table] Altijd Wat, November 13, 2013. Video on Youtube.[/efn_note], Fasseur replied in a personal telephone conversation: “These people mix up this violence with the violence of their own army! They are confused!” The tapes on which he makes similar statements are held by the KITLV in Leiden. In this interview he states: “the idea that such an enormous massacre would go unnoticed is out of the question.”[efn_note]Interview Cees Fasseur by Gert Oostindie and Tom van den Berge in 2014, KITLV.[/efn_note] Fasseur implies that the Indonesians’ accounts of their experiences are unreliable, while he did not take the effort to make room for these voices in the debate, or research the matter more deeply. It emphasizes the one-sided Dutch narrative that was upheld.

When confronted with criticism or his own critics, Fasseur would often push it aside by stating that enough had already been written about colonial violence, or that history writing is different from moralism.[efn_note]Cees Fasseur, De weg naar het paradijs en andere Indische geschiedenissen [The way to paradise and other Indo histories] (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 1995), 272-273.[/efn_note] Fasseur’s conviction was not unique in the debate, he had supporters of his own generation. The historic debate was particularly formed around the meta-discussion of the notion of moralism: should historians take a moral stand? It was much less focussed on coming to a better understanding of 1945 – 1949 by doing research.[efn_note]See for example the interviews with Bank, Wesseling and Fasseur in: Meijer, Oostindisch Doof, 81 – 101; Jos de Beus, “God dekoloniseert niet: een kritiek op de Nederlandse geschiedschrijving over de neergang van Nederlands-Indië,”[God does not decolonize: a criticism of Dutch historiography about the decline of the Dutch East Indies] in BMGN, 116.3 (2001): 307-324; and H. W. van den Doel, “De stijl van de historicus,” [The style of the historian] BMGN, 116.3 (2001): 338-346.[/efn_note] Historian Jur van Goor explained in 1995 how focussing on violence, such as anti-colonial writer Ewald Vanvught did, or speaking about the crimes of Captain Raymond Westerling – who was responsible for the massacre in Sulawesi –  is focussing on “scandals,” with the risk of “mythologizing” and picking sides in history. “I don’t throw stones at windows. As a historian I don’t choose sides.”[efn_note]Meijer, 128-129.[/efn_note] But by qualifying research into Westerling’s crimes as moralism, he is clearly choosing sides, as Kousbroek had rightfully stated.

‘Big men’ of history

The problem is that leading historians such as Fasseur strongly contested the idea of subjectivity and saw themselves as neutral, as an “objective judge” as Fasseur stated.[efn_note]Ibid, 103.[/efn_note] Others, who criticized him, were often disqualified. Vanvught was branded by the historian as a “failed writer.” [efn_note]Meijer, Oostindisch Doof, 105.[/efn_note] It is noticeable that Vanvught published the anti-colonial book Nieuw zwartboek van Nederland overzee [New black book from the Netherlands overseas] in 2002, and got little attention, while the updated reprint from 2015 became a bestseller under the title Roofstaat. [Thieving state].[efn_note]Ewald Vanvugt,  Wat iedere Nederlander moet weten [Thieving state. What every Dutch person should know] (Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 2016). For book review [in Dutch] see: Bente de Leede, “Recensie: Ewald Vanvugt – Roofstaat. Wat iedere Nederlander moet weten,” Recensies, Jonge Historici, last modified April 18, 2016.[/efn_note] It is indicative of the fundamental change in the debate on the subject. Vanvught published the book at hip-hop label Topnotch of Kees de Koning, had hip hop artists reflect on his work in De Wereld Draait Door [A Dutch talk show] and held the launching of his book in a sold-out Paradiso, where postcolonial groups made themselves heard with critical raps, speeches and debate.[efn_note]Kloet, “Typhoon kruipt in de huid van een slaaf: ‘Laten we nu het gesprek aangaan’,” [Typhoon takes on the role of a slave: ‘Now let’s start the conversation’], artikelen, overzicht, 2016, maart, VPRO 3voor12.[/efn_note] The presentation says nothing about the scientific or literary value of Vanvught’s work, but it says everything about dissatisfaction of postcolonial groups with the way the academic elite excluded what these groups perceive as an important part of their history.

Fasseur later in his life did not come back to push for a better understanding of Dutch war crimes, for taking political responsibility or the inclusion of Indonesian perspectives. He could have done so in his position as a professor in Leiden where he enjoyed more freedom, but stated he had ‘no interest’ in looking further into the matter. What explains Fasseur’s attitude towards this sensitive history? Was it simply a lack of interest, or were other motivations at hand? An important factor in understanding Fasseur’s position is that colonial history at Leiden University was in Fasseur’s time still squarely placed in a liberal tradition, which tended to exclude the more critical Marxist-oriented scholarship that held sway in the 1980s and early 1990s.[efn_note]Carolien Stolte and Alicia Schrikker (eds), World History – a Genealogy: Private conversations with World Historians, 1996-2016 (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2017), 19.[/efn_note] Historian Frances Gouda implied that the Leiden-based colonial historians acted as a private ‘club,’ not open to outsiders or people with other ideas.[efn_note]Frances Gouda en Lizzy van Leeuwen, “Gordelroos van Smaragd,[Shingles from Emerald] De Groene Amsterdammer, October 19, 2016.[/efn_note]

It can be argued as well that Fasseur’s background in the Dutch-Indies and his sympathy for the Indo- and veteran community could have played a role. In the radio conversation with Remco Raben, Kousbroek criticized Fasseur for bringing into the traumatized Dutch Indies community the idea “to deviate from the historical facts, to be unreasonable.” Fasseur apparently believed that the hardships this group had suffered was of such gravity that historical facts were of less importance. According to Kousbroek, such a “crazy point of view” from a historian was not taken seriously by anyone, “but he did introduce it in the Dutch Indies community.”[efn_note]OVT Radio interview Rudy Kousbroek by Remco Raben, “Geschiedenisgasten,” [History guests]OVT, July 14, 2002.[/efn_note]

In the interview with KITLV-researchers held in 2014, Fasseur shows that the sensitivity of the issue amongst veterans – most of them had just come out of five years of German occupation – was a valid argument against truth-finding, for the Dutch government as well as for himself. “Your own fathers and brothers, so to speak, perhaps not you, but your mates have been guilty of war crimes.”[efn_note]Interview Fasseur, Kitlv.[/efn_note] That was not something that could be written about. It shows how deeply Fasseur was concerned with the feelings of veterans.

At the same time, Fasseur combined conflicting roles within the establishment. In her Master’s thesis in 1996, Stef Scagliola had asked the question how Cees Fasseur combined his two roles as participant in the ‘Excessen’ debate and as advisor to Queen Beatrix on her state visit to Indonesia in 1995. Scagliola had touched a raw nerve. How could one be critical, and hold such an establishment position at the same time? According to Scagliola, Fasseur had later on pressured her indirectly to remove from her dissertation in 2002 this same section in which she criticized his double role.[efn_note]Stef Scagliola, conversation in person, September 5, 2016.[/efn_note] As she told the NRC Handelsblad,she took the comment out of her work as Fasseur suggested, as she was afraid that her opinion and approach would damage her position in the network of historians.[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “Iedereen wist het, maar niemand kon het zeggen,”[Everyone knew, but nobody could tell] NRC Handelsblad, September 16, 2016.[/efn_note] The incident shows the awareness Fasseur had of his position as a dominant authority and how his multiple roles related to each other, but he was not willing to put it up for discussion.

A cover-up is not merely a malign, deliberate plan to hide information; it can just as much be a subtler process in history writing in which historians are selective, while claiming to be neutral. Fasseur and others like Wesseling had represented a period that professor Susan Legène calls “the era of history by big men,”[efn_note]Niels Mathijssen, “Laat historici ontvankelijker worden voor afwijkende perspectieven,”[Let historians become more receptive to deviating perspectives] Over de muur, October 4, 2018.[/efn_note] history written by historians who had to be big men themselves. Their history writing determined the dominant perspective on the past, and they had a great impact on the history narration. Younger historians, like Scagliola, were therefore confronted with predecessors who had preached ‘neutrality’ in relation to sensitive topics.  Leiden historian Wim van den Doel acknowledged that younger historians were in that sense not challenged to question their superiors in a critical way about sensitive topics.[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “Iedereen wist het, maar niemand kon het zeggen“.[/efn_note]

Read further in the section The way forward.