A Book  Review of Op klompen door de dessa by Hylke Speerstra

(Amsterdam: Atlas, 2015)

When growing up in The Netherlands, I never realized that part of my family history ran parallel with the rise and demise of the Dutch East Indies. I explored the colonial part of that history in my book Silenced Voices (Ohio University Press, 2008). As for the postcolonial part, while aware that my father had been called up to serve in the Indies after WWII, the period 1945-1949 was still a blank because my father hardly discussed it or mentioned it. As children we don’t tend to ask our parents questions, and even if parents volunteer information about their past, children tend to tune out, too busy with their own lives and growing up.

Now I wish I had asked more…

Hylke Speerstra’s book Op klompen door de dessa: Indiëgangers vertellen was an eye-opener. Not only did it make me realize that I never showed true respect for my father’s service, but it also showed the impossible predicament of the generation that was born in the year 1926: having lived and sometimes having had to quit school to go into hiding during the war, they emerged from the war, not to resume their education or rebuild their interrupted lives, but to be thrown into yet another war that many of them weren’t very happy to fight. In fact, some felt they were like Nazis to the Indonesians, yet they had to serve—not the customary one year but sometimes more than two years, and when they left Indonesia to go back home, there was very little sympathy or recognition from the Dutch government for fighting an unpopular war.

As a matter of fact, if there was one thing that my father did mention, and mentioned repeatedly, it was that he was given an orange upon returning to the Netherlands…

Many of them (about 100,000 were sent over) came back as forever-changed men, broken, damaged and traumatized. For my father, who hadn’t been able to finish high school, and arrived back in a country that was rebuilding after the war, there was no room for pity or time to finish high school: he ended up in his father’s firm when he should have been a scholar or a doctor as his job was a total mismatch of who he was. Clearly, his personal agenda had been completely sacrificed to the agenda of the country and its colony.

Many of the boys Hylke Speerstra interviewed for his book returned to their family farms in Friesland but their lives had been equally impacted and their families and friends had no idea of what they had been through. To have served this Lost Cause was a stigma, or as veteran Klaas Schoorstra says: “I always kept things to myself. It was as if I had put up a wall around me but in the end, the wall will crumble […] Sometimes, if the word Indië was mentioned, I felt a sense of misunderstanding coming at me, as in ‘right, another one of those guys who were in the Indies.’”

Many of these men didn’t open up until they were in their eighties, and Speerstra arrived just in time to record their stories here, with compassion and care. This string of testimonies is a real page-turner of a book and in some ways, opens a sewer that had long been closed and was kept closed by both the veterans themselves and the Dutch government. But this book tells it all, warts and all, and more.

Why, for example, was the Dutch government so misguided in wanting to re-colonize when world opinion, led by the US, was opposed to this guerilla war? Closer to home, there wasn’t full support for this war either: a poll from 1946 showed that 50% of Dutch men was for the war (41% against) while only 36% of Dutch women was for the war and 44% against. Yet the message the soldiers got was that they were going to go there as liberators and not oppressors. However “far and immeasurably big the Indies archipelago was and the lobby for independence strong,” the boys were told that they “had to and would have to make themselves indispensable.” As the soldiers arrived by the boatload, they soon realized that, to the Dutch government, commercial interests were deemed more important than the restoring of peace and order. The goal wasn’t peacekeeping but to get the plantation economy back on track as soon as possible.

But there were not enough boots on the ground and, out of frustration, the army leadership resorted to torture (hitting, beating, kicking, pushing burning cigarette butts in mouths and nostrils and other extreme measures until the blood was flowing down the walls onto the floors) and scorched-earth type retaliations: when Indonesians killed Dutch soldiers, the army leadership would strike back with the burning down of entire kampongs and when there was no time for interrogations, executions were the next best thing. There was a general lack of responsibility among the army leadership and the Dutch government, which was also manifested in the fact that soldiers who contracted all sorts of venereal diseases from sleeping with local women were left to rot and die, never to return home.

Westerling is the dreaded name in this context but Speerstra’s book makes you wonder how many more Westerlings there really were. This has hardly been researched or publicized and it’s about time to investigate this deeper. The Netherlands may have been critical of the Vietnam War at the time and may have condemned excesses like the My Lai Massacre, but it’s high time the Dutch government does some soul searching of its own: how many My Lai Massacres were committed on Indonesian soil?

With this in mind, one also wonders whether the Dutch government’s attempt to prevent soldiers from coming home was not so much a ploy to fight overcrowding, lack of housing and lack of work at home but a way to shut them up and close these dark pages of decolonization once and for all. The soldiers were offered emigration packages to nearby Australia and New Zealand, although the word “package” is a misnomer here. The soldiers had to finance the trip by themselves, an impossible feat on the paltry soldier’s wages they were given. (Hmm. Does this ring a bell? If you read my book review on Griselda Molemans’s Opgevangen in andijvielucht (, you will remember that the Indo community who came to the Netherlands after the war, had to also pay back every cent of their travel, and (refugee) resources like temporary housing and meals in the Netherlands).

However, scarred by what the soldiers had seen and experienced, these men didn’t have to emigrate in order to be silenced. Like the Indo community, they were silent anyway, and if it weren’t for Speerstra, we might never have known at all what happened to that generation of 1926 in that large archipelago at the other end of the world. This is an important book and should open the floodgates to telling all and coming clean.

©2015, Inez Hollander.

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  1. Thank you so much Inez for this wake up call. We’ll need a lot more before the Dutch, in general, will recognize the necessity of an comprhensive search for the truth in the 45-50 years in Insulinde. Let’s keep trying to work for an English–sorry–american translation. The graphic “The Return” from the Indisch Herinnerings Centrum Arnhem is a good start.
    Thanks again, Joost

    • Thanks, Joost. This is one of those tip-of-the-iceberg books, and I am sure we will see more in years to come.

  2. My late father, born 1927, also served with the Dutch Army in Java, as well as in Korea. Your comments were a real eye-opener.

  3. Inez Hollander’s story, retold in her review, astounded me. Her story was nearly identical to that of my own family. I too am bereft knowing what I know now and wish that I could have been more supportive of my father, Albert Pottger, who was in the KNIL, captured, and sent to work in Thailand on the Burma Railway. My mother and her sister avoided the civilian internment camps but their lives were tortured in a different way. I wish I could have been more supportive of them as well. My father, mother, and I left Holland in 1957 for the U.S. It is only in recent years that I have begun in earnest to read and write in Dutch– I will attempt to read Hylke Speerstra’s book. Thank goodness for Bing Translator! It would be helpful, to many, if this book was published in English. Thank you for your review in English!

  4. Dear Arthur, if the book has a lot of success in the Netherlands, it might be translated into English– the reason why we started doing reviews in English is that we want our English-language community to know about important publications like these, even though they are only available in Dutch.

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