FeaturedNewsBersiap is the name given by the Dutch to a violent and chaotic phase of the Indonesian National Revolution

We’ve all been there. Just go back in time and think of your elementary school antics. In the
schoolyard someone lashes out and says But you’re a moron. The answer that may come back
when there is no good answer: No, you’re a moron. And then there is always that line of last
resort and call for pity: But you started it.

This is exactly what has happened in the last few weeks in the Netherlands. The country of Spinoza and Rembrandt has turned into a playground of name calling and Twitter insults back and forth.

To refresh your memory: One of the Netherlands’ most foremost museums, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, made a brave but risky attempt to tell the story of Indonesian independence in an upcoming exhibit. This independence was not without bloodshed and resulted in the torture, maiming and massacring of many Dutch, Indo, Ambonese, Menadonese and Chinese groups who were suspected of being loyal to the colonial regime. Both Dutch and international historians have referred to this period as the Bersiap, which was the rallying cry of freedom fighters to hunt down the colonizers.

Some of these colonizers were emaciated women and children who came out of the Japanese internment camps and were on their way home to the Netherlands. Others were Chinese shopkeepers who may have had a Dutch clientele. Still others might have been the Indo or Indonesian wives of Dutch officials. Many of them died horrible deaths in what was a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention.

For Indonesia, the Revolusi was a time of shaking off the shackles of three centuries of Dutch colonialism, and the bloody day of the actual revolution in Surabaya (October 28th, 1945) has been named the Day of Heroes. The darker side of that day has been entirely whitewashed in Indonesia. Thus, very few Indonesians know today that some of their freedom fighters were also cold-blooded killers who didn’t seek out conflict with soldiers but were hunting for civilians.

In my book Silenced Voices (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008), I wrote how two of my family members, Willy and Joke Francken, two young girls in their teens, were assaulted and massacred in the Gubeng Transport during that fatal day of the Revolusi in Surabaya.

History is never black and white, but that seems to get lost in our times of cancel culture and tribalism. While Willy and Joke died with gaping holes in their young, starving bodies, their younger brother Harry was saved by a freedom fighter in the same bloodthirsty crowd.

A few years back, I visited the street where this massacre happened. There is nothing there to remind people of this bloodbath, but all over Surabaya you can find statues of freedom fighters or so-called pemudas. Interestingly, the Bersiap may well have been the greatest massacre of Dutch civilians in Dutch history, but there is no Bersiap monument in the Netherlands either. All that remains is the overwhelming number of white crosses sprinkled all over Java with the dates of the war and Bersiap on it.

One could view this as a very successful attempt to write these victims off as collateral damage and the price the Netherlands paid for colonialism. As a result, there is a high chance that, in another century, these victims and their suffering may be forgotten altogether.

The Rijksmuseum rubbed salt in the wound of these victims and their families: Upon the advice of an Indonesian curator, the term Bersiap was to be omitted from the upcoming Revolusi exhibit because in the mouth of Dutch people this was considered “racist” vis à vis the freedom fighters, who, in the Dutch context, were allegedly portrayed as savage and primitive.

During the French Revolution many aristocrats didn’t live to tell the tale. As historians we can all support the idea of the French Revolution, but I hope and pray that as historians we can also agree that some of the mass killing of an entire class of aristocrats was primitive and savage?

The potential omission of the word Bersiap caused an uproar among the families of the victims as they saw it as a further whitewashing of the record. The director of the museum (Taco Dibbits) tried to control the damage by declaring publicly that the word would be included.

This then triggered the schoolyard antics I’ve opened this piece with, for not only did Remco Raben, a historian of the exhibit, declare that the museum director was pressured by extremist and right wing factions in Dutch society, but also by what he stereotyped as a fringe element (i.e. the families of the victims) who were no more than a “duister clubje” (“a dark/sinister little club). I myself happen to be white but many descendants of the victims are of mixed race, or Indo heritage, and it’s funny, or maybe Freudian, that those who are quick to gaslight others with the word racism can actually say something racist themselves.

The inclusion of the word Bersiap also triggered the you started it rhetoric. Because shortly after Dibbits did his best to soothe the noise that came out of the Dutch colonial closet, Jeffry Pondaag of Stichting KUKB went after the Rijksmuseum once again for including the word Bersiap, with the argument that the Dutch were the colonizers and occupiers and basically had it coming to them after more than three hundred years of colonialism.

He also argued that because the Bersiap violence happened under Dutch rule (the Dutch finally granted Indonesia independence 1949, and not in 1945 when Sukarno read his independence Proklamasi), the victims are a Dutch problem, not an Indonesian one. What he left out is that the Dutch were killed by Sukarno’s independence fighters, and while Sukarno may have silently condemned the violence, he did nothing to stop it because it served his independence agenda.

At the same time, the Dutch themselves are their own worst enemy: In a country that has become a beacon of free speech, freedom and liberalism, colonialism and colonial exploitation don’t sit well with the image The Netherlands wants to present to the world since the 1960s.

Dutch historians have done their best to condemn all forms of Dutch colonialism and the cultivation system (or cultuurstelsel) which was one of the most exploitative tools any colonial power has ever used, but their Calvinism cannot mitigate the guilt the Dutch still may feel in the Netherlands vis à vis the Indonesians. Because of this, there has been a tendency to gloss over the hardship endured during the Bersiap.

In fact, when I told two Dutch historians that I was writing about the abovementioned Gubeng Transport at the time of the revolution in Surabaya, they told me in hushed tones that I simply could not go there because it was considered controversial and “not done”. When, as a director of the Indo Project, I wondered out loud why there are Holocaust memorials all over Germany, but there is not a single statue or monument to commemorate the horror of the Japanese internment camps in the Dutch East Indies, Dutch historians ridiculed and lectured me.

So why are we seeing this? The root of the problem lies in the way the decolonization of the former Dutch East Indies was handled by the Dutch Government more than 75 years ago. It was a catastrophic failure with effects that continue to haunt not only the Dutch Government but the people who were affected. A public back and forth of finger pointing, such as this recent debacle involving the Rijksmuseum, does not resolve the injustices done in the past nor will the opinions of academics and public officials. Uncovering the truth about human rights violations that occurred during the period of decolonization INVOLVING BOTH parties is needed.

The Indo Project, as an international nonprofit organization is devoted to educating others on the history and culture of the former Dutch East Indies. Our main interest is in bringing resolution between those who fought for independence and those who suffered before, during, and after.

We feel that the Rijksmuseum brawl is a mere symptom of a festering colonial wound that won’t heal until we see some sort of truth and reconciliation commission that is not solely subsidized by the Dutch government, or led by an Indonesian task force, but by an independent and international body of researchers and organizations.

On a more modest scale, a Bersiap monument in The Hague or Amsterdam might be a start to tell the victims: We see you, we hear you and we will not forget you.

We are in this together. The Dutch and the Indonesians. Let’s stop waving flags, exchange barbed insults on social media and let’s come out of our silos and camps to join hands so that colonial exploitation and mutual genocides never happen again. Only then, we can move on in a postcolonial and more humane world.

Inez Hollander, Ph.D.,

Author of Silenced Voices (Ohio University Press: 2008) and

Director Emeritus of The Indo Project

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you for your comprehensive and clear description and analysis of the current brouhaha in The Netherlands about the Rijksmuseum’s “Revolusi” exhibit, Dr. Hollander. It has been very heartening, to me, to see so many Indische voices galvanized, as this has really touched on a very long-suffered and deep pain – what our forebears went through. You alluded to the “emaciated women and children who came out of the Japanese internment camps.” My Mother and her family were first interned by the Japanese, and after Indonesians declared their Independence (only two days after the Japanese capitulated), my Mother and family were interned by Indonesians. In the case of my father, who was a KNIL soldier and Japanese POW forced to work on the Birma railroad, as soon as he was liberated the Dutch ordered him to fight against Indonesian Independence. My parents suffered back to back wars. My Father had no choice but fight against Indonesians, in the land of his birth, against some of his own blood as his grandmothers were Indonesians.

    Holland may be for some, as you say, a beacon of free speech, freedom, and liberalism – but let’s not forget that the word “apartheid” is a Dutch word and that the current King has a Golden Coach with imagery of colonial subjugation and slavery. A coach he has said would not be used in the current politically sensitive climate; the coach would be saved and stored for the future, when it may be acceptable to use it again. Is the King serious? In what future world will it ever be acceptable for a monarch to ride around in an image that promotes imperial power and subjugation?

    And the Dutch regime has never compensated my Father for the time he spent as a Japanese prisoner of war building the Burma Railroad, even though Burma compensated The Netherlands financially for this railroad.

    Oh, don’t even get me started…the Dutch have a lot to answer for. That’s why I am grateful for the Indo Project for bringing light to history, issues, accountability, and in this way honoring our forebears and lessening the pain Indos collectively feel, especially my parents’ generation – what is left of them.

    • The events endured by the family portrayed in “Sapphire Promise” are extremely similar to what your family went through. I did my best as a writer, through recollections from my friend, Iris, to capture the nuances of life on Java before, during both wars, and after. This tumultuous part of history needs to be brought forward. I’ve been asked to attend many Zoom book club meetings to speak about Sapphire, and what I’ve discovered as a common element is that women, in particular, want to write down stories from their elderly family and friends. I created a document to assist them in doing that, and I hope by preserving history from a personal perspective, we can present all views. Please feel free to contact me if you’d like a copy of how to get verbal stories recorded. Now is the time. We lost Iris in December, six days short of her 98th birthday. She left us knowing that her voice had been heard and her story told accurately. It was a true privilege that she trusted me to take on an emotionally charged project.

  2. Dr Hollander, you have again left me dumbfounded with your interpretation of current and past events having to do with our history. With out your words, I wouldn’t even know where to start or end with my own thoughts on the current socio-political climate in the Netherlands. Like many other 3rd Gen Indische-Americans, I don’t have a full grip on the Dutch language, so everything I would try to read might be poorly translated. Thank you to you and the Indo Project for your perseverance and dedication to writing the truth and facts about our history in a way we can understand, so that we may form our own educated opinions of current events coming from the Netherlands.

    • Amen to this and for reminding people of what’s going on.
      I am still dumbfounded by the unscrupulous ethics of some of these Dutch and Belgian Historians.
      Sometimes it’s better to view from afar to form an objective opinion, as you did so very well.
      Thanks to everyone from the Indo project

  3. My comment is restricted to one aspect of what Inez Hollander wrote. Before I comment, my mother and sister were in concentration camps on Java and my father was a POW who worked on the Burma Road and then was sent to Japan, where he worked in coal mines. After Japan surrendered, he worked as a liaison officer with the Red Cross and went to the site of an atomic bomb explosion in Nagasaki after August 9th. (He learned some Japanese during his time as a POW and was officially a Second Lieutenant because he had to have military training to work for the KPM.) My Ph.D. dissertation is about the Netherlands East Indies in the cultivation system period (1930-1870), and I have published refereed articles on the comparative historical sociology (CHS) of the archipelago. There is ambiguity in the statement: “For Indonesia, the Revolusi was a time of shaking off the shackles of three centuries of Dutch colonialism …” It is true that the political rhetoric was about “shaking off the shackles of three centuries of Dutch colonialism”. However, it is absolutely necessary to point out that the “300 year” idea is very, very misleading and hyperbolic. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was founded in 1815 and in its present form (after Belgian independence) from 1830. From 1815 to 1942 is about 127 years. From a strictly scholarly perspective that century or so of colonial rule was a mixed bag. The idea of “shackles” is misleading. I was born in Friesland Province, and no one would say we “Frisians” need to shake off the “shackles” of the colonial rule of the Province of Holland (one province at one time, now two). The relationship between Friesland and Holland (as well as other provinces in what is now the Kingdom of the Netherlands) was also a mixed bag (some good, some bad, some excellent, some horrible). We can, of course, go back to the V.O.C. period and discuss whether or not that was a good thing or a bad thing, but scholarly, academic study of details makes it clear it was not a simple matter, either. Then there is the intermediate period which was a result of the Napoleonic Wars. I myself was surprised to learn that British and French forces actually fought in Java before Thomas Raffles was fully installed as Lieutenant-Governor. History is complex. The archipelago is variegated, with many different languages and ethnic groups. Why is there a nation-state in the archipelago now? Why only one nation-state called the Republic of Indonesia? The word “Indonesia” is, of course, based on Latin. There would not have been a nation-state called Indonesia if there had not been a century of “colonization”. Yes, some of that involved wars and some of those wars were not pretty. I have written about the Aceh War, and that too is a complex story. (Remember that the Islamic fighters were not all peace-loving nationalists and they were not entirely autonomous with respect to the Ottoman Empire, etc.) My deep interest in Indonesia is due to my parents and sister living there. I was very lucky to obtain a grant to do my dissertation research at the Arsip Nasional (with LIPI support). The first weeks I was thrilled to open a copy of a super-secret letter from the Governor-General to the Minister or Colonies. After a few months such copies of letters sent became routine. Few of them really needed to have been secret for so long. (They often just involved relatively trivial incidents of the sort we hear about on the evening news in Canada today.) There is much misinformation about the period 1815-1942. What I would strongly encourage is for the King of the Netherlands to fund 1,000 dissertations on all aspects of the life of the archipelago. Active support for such research exists in Australia and there has been some support in other countries, but the bias has been that somehow it was not a good idea to really look at history. Moreover, I do not just mean idiographic, descriptive history but the kind of analytical approach called comparative historical sociological (CHS) inquiry. I have been surprised that Professor Cees Fasseur is not longer well known in the Netherlands. He was known for a while, in part because of his biographies of the monarhcy, especially Queen Wilhelmina. But his excellent, archival research about Java in the nineteenth century is hardly ever referenced anymore. But Robert “Bob” Elson’s excellent work is also ignored. The cultivation system itself is not well known and far too many people have a sentimental feeling about Multatuli’s Max Havelaar. But the region Douwes Dekker discusses in that work of fiction was entirely outside of the cultivation system itself. How ironic. Were there problems? Yes, of course. Were they precisely what the political rhetoric of the 1930s said they were? Absolutely not. It is akin to the political rhetoric of the U.S. “revolution” (and “civil war”) of 1775-1789, and after. (Those who were “patriotic” were kicked out of town as Tories and “Loyalists”, as if being loyal to the King was a bad thing.) The “Dutch” do not have to be ashamed of the colonial past in general, except in so far as all colonial powers are now considered to have something to answer for. We tend to forget that Sukarno also had many things to answer for, and that national unity was not what everyone living in the archipelago wanted on 17 August 1945. I have already written too much for a brief post, but I am available at my email address: hbakker@uoguelph.ca, and would be happy to discuss these issues with anyone who is at least somewhat open minded. Simplications of complex historical events often lead to tragedies, and often it is the ordinary person who suffers the most. Sartono Kartodirdjo wrote well about Javanese history and should be consulted on peasant rebellions. There is much to learn. Why not grant many excellent students of history and the social sciences the opportunity to really dig in the archives in The Hague and, of course, in Jakarta. I must ad that my mother received financial compensation (to some extent) from the Dutch government for her time in concentration camps. (My father died in the USA before we even knew such compensation existed and my sister never applied, apparently)

    • I found your message very interesting, as I wrote “Sapphire Promise,” the enhanced memoir of my friend, Iris (Ockerse) Dunki-Jacobs, who was born in 1923 in Batavia. Her husband, Richard, also was a POW (along with her father) and worked on the Burma Railroad. Her brother, Claude, was taken POW, sent to Japan, and was working in a coal mine when the atomic bomb went off. He survived, but died of leukemia in his early 60s. Richard was KNIL and remained in Sumatra fighting for the Dutch until 1949. The book shows Iris’s life, pre war, and her privileged life prior to her and her mother being interned in Tjideng Camp. Readers demanded to know how Iris’s life unfolded afterward, so I wrote an epilogue ending in the 1970s. The epilogue is available as a free download on my website (www.sallybrandle.com) Iris literally defended herself and her young children- with a gun -against freedom fighters in Sumatra. Extensive research that I included on the historical occurrences have opened the eyes of many as to what transpired in this area of the world. Showing history through the eyes of a young woman who went from spoilt (her term) girl, to being forced to be a Japanese interpreter, provides a different perspective of survival.

    • “However, it is absolutely necessary to point out that the “300 year” idea is very, very misleading and hyperbolic. ”
      Tempo Doeloe, a book written by E. Breton De Nijs (Tempo Doeloe: Fotografische documenten uit het oude Indië 1870-1941, concurs – p. 67:
      “De 350-jarige soevereiniteit over Indonesië is een mythe. De hele negentiende eeuw is in geschriften, in officiële stukken en in werkboeken nog voortdurend sprake van “zelfbestuurde onafhankelijke vorsten”. translated –
      The 350-year (Dutch) sovereignty of Indonesia is a myth. Throughout the nineteenth century, writings, official documents and workbooks continue to speak of “self-governed independent monarchs”.

  4. As an Australian who is proud of his Dutch heritage, it is always extremely disappointing when I am reminded of the heartless and unethical manner in which Dutch nationals living in the East Indies were treated after World War 2, by the Netherlands’ Government. This current controversy about the use of the term “bersiap”, once more underscores the shame I/we am forced to carry – despite the fact that my family suffered three and a half years of imprisonment and trauma that continues to the present day.
    I am always amazed how similar the experiences were, of the families who suffered under Japanese occupation In Indonesia. My father, too, was sent to work on the Burma Railway, my mother also, with six children, was imprisoned in a concentration camp. (And, yes, my father drafted into the KNIL and imprisoned as a soldier, somehow never received the four plus years of backpay he was owed.) They survived, though they carried the emotional scars with them for the rest of their lives. Other members of my extended family were not as fortunate, including my grandmother who died while in prison, plus uncles and cousins I never came to know.
    I was born in 1947, but I have recorded my siblings’ war time experiences, as it became obvious to me, as a teacher of history, that there was a total ignorance, lack of understanding and empathy, about the suffering that was endured by so many people under Japanese occupation, and then during the years following the war.
    While the well-known story of the Jewish Holocaust perhaps allows the survivors of that terrible crime, to feel a degree of “closure”, the story that we’re left with, more often than not, makes us feel shame or worthlessness. As a person who sees himself as coming from the “left” of politics, it is devastating to see how my family and the memory of their history, must now be condemned or at least ignored, as to do otherwise, would label me as a supporter of colonialism. Why must they suffer the “guilt” of what their country did over hundreds of years?
    There is so much more I would like to say, but to conclude I would like to return to the issue of “Bersiap”. My uncle was a victim of “Bersiap”. He was a Jesuit priest, Fr Joop (Joseph) Versteegh, an Indo like my father, recently released from a concentration camp and now in charge of a parish in Magelang, central Java. A group of nationalist men, protesters or rioters, “arrested” him and a group of his fellow priests and brothers in their presbytery. The eleven men were of Dutch, Indo and Indonesian background. They were summarily “tried” and then executed, presumably by being hacked to death, on the feast day of All Saints, November 1, 1945. There is a memorial to him in Magelang, I have seen it, and it is a tribute to Indonesians that the deaths of these men is remembered. I suspect there is no such remembrance in the Netherlands, as there they are too conflicted or confused, to know what may be spoken and what memories are permitted.
    Bill/Wim Versteegh (Australia).

  5. PS
    I could add, on a more ironic note, That I still have the account that was sent to my mother, by the inaptly named organization “Nederland Helpt Indie”, for the repayment of 496 guilders and 86 cents, to cover the cost of the bedding they provided when my family arrived in Nederland from Indonesia in 1946, with NO possessions. They had no belongings and no money. There is so much more we could say about this time in history, but perhaps it is enough to respect and remember the people who endured it and bring to account those who try to white-wash what happened.
    Bill

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