Decolonizing Violence in Indonesia, 1945–49: Death Trains, Liberators, and (Dutch) Nazis

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jennifer L. Foray, Purdue University
In late December 1949, after five years of failed negotiations, military conflict, and international intervention, the government of the Netherlands formally transferred sovereignty to the independent United States of Indonesia. During this time, approximately 220,000 soldiers served in the various Dutch military units fighting the self-declared Republic of Indonesia. Despite The Hague’s claims to the contrary, this was a large-scale colonial war demanding no small amount of resources and popular support. Importantly, this colonial conflict occurred shortly after the metropolitan Netherlands’ liberation from five years of German occupation during World War Two.

 This paper argues that the themes, moral assessments, and the purported lessons originating in the German occupation period framed popular and political discourse concerning the decolonization war of 1945-1949. This framework operated as both linguistic device and heuristic model, and it informed rhetoric as well as policy. Foregrounding a few key developments during the years 1947 and 1948, this paper explores how Dutch individuals, political parties, and veterans’ organizations used these conceptual and linguistic parallels to serve various, and typically competing, purposes. So, for instance, Dutch military officers explicitly tasked their men with restoring “order and peace” to the East Indies—a German stock-phrase typically used to justify retaliatory action against Dutch resisters, including the execution of civilian “hostages”—and liberating the Indonesian masses from Sukarno’s oppressive nationalist cabal, just as the Allied forces had liberated the suffering Dutch from their German overlords. Alternately, Dutch Communist Party leaders and propagandists routinely invoked comparison with the Nazis when they publicized and protested the Dutch military’s conduct in the East Indies. This was evident in the “Bondowoso Death Train” affair of late 1947: after nearly 50 Indonesian POWs died during transport in a sealed train car, the Dutch communists exploited such evocative imagery, with some success, in their support for Indonesian independence.

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