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David van Reybrouck’s Oral History

When violence reigns, famine rages, and millions die, what does that mean for human life? The Belgian historian gives history a concrete face: in a brilliant book, he lets eyewitnesses from all camps talk about the Dutch East Indies.

Indonesia is a silent giant, writes David Van Reybrouck, and lets the country’s inhabitants speak. (East Java, 2021).

Robertus Pudyanto/Getty

Last summer broke various records. For example, since the beginning of written records, there has rarely been as much reporting about Indonesia in German-speaking countries as there has been in recent months.

In general, the country is a “silent giant” that one “seldom if ever hears of,” as historian David Van Reybrouck wrote in 2020. But the island state made the headlines with the scandalous Documenta in Kassel, after all the artist collective that curated the exhibition comes from Jakarta. Documenta ended two days ago. And almost at the same time, Van Reybrouck’s book about Indonesia was published in German: it offers the opportunity to keep the “silent giant” in conversation.

“Revolusi” is the name of the most recent creation of the celebrated and award-winning Belgian, the title refers to the Indonesian struggle for freedom in the immediate post-war period. In August 1945, Indonesia became the first colony after the Second World War to declare its independence – but it was only in 1949, after a four-and-a-half-year, extremely bloody struggle, that the Netherlands conceded sovereignty to the archipelago.

For more than 300 years, the Southeast Asian islands had previously been in the sphere of influence of European power: Van Reybrouck devotes the first third of his book to this long colonial history.

“Max Havelaar” accuses

Around 1600 it was the “desire for taste” that drove the Dutch to Asia. They want to import spices, and if possible without expensive intermediate trade: The East India Company, a private company with political sovereignty, establishes trading posts on individual islands, for the time being without occupying any areas. In the early 19th century, the commercial project turned into a political venture. In Indonesia, more and more land is being subdued, the locals have to grow coffee, tea and tobacco, later tin ore, rubber and petroleum are mined.

The brutality used caused protests even at home – in 1860 a former colonial official denounced the conditions in the novel “Max Havelaar” – but the abolition of slavery was followed by further wars of conquest, and it was not until 1914 that the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia, was complete.

The Dutch have no understanding for the sense of freedom that is stirring in some subjects at this time. When the first Indonesian mass party emerged in 1927, the authorities intervened, dissolved the movement and imprisoned its leader, who later became President Sukarno. Conditions remain as they were described in a Dutch newspaper in 1915: “In our view, the Javanese is a child: cheeky, moody, tiresome and lazy, unreliable and rough. (. . .) It is not the subordinate who has to issue admonitions, but the master. We are the Lord.”

Sukarno (1901-1970), the President of Indonesia, declared the island nation's independence in August 1945.

Sukarno (1901-1970), the President of Indonesia, declared the island nation’s independence in August 1945.

Everett Collection / Imago

Dutch people dine in a restaurant in Java, circa 1940.

Dutch people dine in a restaurant in Java, circa 1940.

Hulton Archives/Getty

From 1945 the Indonesian Republic fought against Dutch colonial rule under the leadership of Sukarno (left).

Everett Collection / ImagoHulton Archives/Getty

Research on Tinder

A little later, however, the masters themselves became subordinates: in 1940, Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands, and in 1942 Japan took over control of Indonesia. The second part of the book is about this time. Europeans are systematically interned, the indigenous population is strictly controlled, subjected to military drills and forced labor. In 1944, the Japanese policy of exploitation led to a terrible famine, on Java alone 2.4 million people died, five percent of the population.

The numbers are huge, the terms are disturbing, but can you really imagine what they meant to the people? If anyone manages to give history a concrete face, it’s David Van Reybrouck. The historian works with oral history. Even in his major study of the Congo, the book that made him famous in 2010, he wove testimonies from contemporary witnesses and had rebel leaders, soldiers or ordinary people tell stories. Van Reybrouck proceeds in exactly the same way in the Indonesia book.

In years of research, he tracked down people from all camps who could provide information about the colonial era and the independence movement. The researcher didn’t miss a single channel. He even used Tinder to make contacts, ask young people about their grandparents and ultimately have hundreds of conversations in Dutch retirement homes, Japanese living rooms and Indonesian villages.

Do what Germany did?

Anyone who remembers that time is now between 90 and 100 years old. There are often gaps in memory, but some events are burned into people’s heads. An Indonesian, for example, describes in great detail how, as a 15-year-old, he had to witness the execution of two Dutchmen in 1942. A Japanese ran up and rammed his bayonet into the enemy’s bellies. “The guts were oozing out.”

Many locals tell how they survived the great hunger, ate banana peels or papaya leaves and killed dogs with machetes. A Japanese soldier, on the other hand, still remembers that the Indonesians greeted him warmly in 1942, since they initially saw the Japanese as their liberators: “The residents of the area came to us smiling and gave us food! Bananas, coconuts, papayas! Such friendly people!»

Van Reybrouck also cultivates the oral history approach in the last third of the book, which reports on the actual «Revolusi». When Japan capitulated in the summer of 1945, the Indonesian freedom fighters took the opportunity to proclaim their country’s independence. In Amsterdam, however, this declaration counts for nothing, it is naturally assumed there that the Dutch East Indies will again belong to the crown after the interruption caused by the war. As a result, resentment broke out on the islands, and young people in particular resorted to violence and murdered Europeans indiscriminately.

Representatives of this generation, who spread terror with bamboo spears, have their say in Van Reybrouck, as do Dutch soldiers who were recruited to win back the colony. Some of them could not believe that, as soon as the war was over at home, it was about to start again on the other side of the world: “We had only just been freed from German oppression and now we wanted to do the same in Indonesia what Germany had done, occupy the country. It was too crazy to be true.”

Bloody “police actions”

Until 1949, diplomatic efforts and armed conflicts take turns. The Netherlands twice carried out a “police action” in Indonesia, the euphemism concealing full-fledged military operations that led to months of guerrilla fighting and countless war crimes. A total of 97,000 Indonesians were killed in those years, and the Dutch lost around 5,000 men.

Dutch troops on a damaged road after a military operation, early 1949.

Dutch troops on a damaged road after a military operation, early 1949.

United Archives / Imago

The fact that the slaughtering came to an end in 1949 also had something to do with the international situation: the newly formed UN put the Indonesia problem on the agenda, and in 1949 the Americans sided with the Indonesian Republic – from whose moderate leadership they drew support in the Pledge to fight communism in Southeast Asia. In the face of external pressure, the colonial rulers ultimately had no choice but to recognize Indonesia’s full sovereignty.

David Van Reybrouck tells all this in a brilliant manner. You read his book spellbound, in addition to the eyewitness reports, the author’s talent for writing makes reading an experience. Of course, one could complain that the historian provides few fundamentally new facts, but there is already research on Indonesian colonial history. But the complicated processes have certainly never been described so vividly and accessible to a broader audience.

Understand the modern world

However, the strong narrative style also has its pitfalls. In fact, Van Reybrouck is careful to give his material a unique meaning. Rather than simply depicting the decolonization of Indonesia, he interprets it as a key element in a larger, indeed the very big, story – which, as the subtitle says, led to the «emergence of the modern world».

Indonesia would have been the “first domino” to trigger a decolonization push and thus shaped a number of new developments around the world. According to the author, European unification, for example, is to be understood less as a peace project than as an “energetic reaction” to the “anti-imperialism of the south”, which in turn found its strongest expression in Indonesia. It was there, in Bandung, that an Asian-African conference was held for the first time in 1955, a political meeting without Western participants.

Even if one is willing to attribute many international developments to the liberation of the Global South, it is strange, if only for chronological reasons, to claim Indonesia’s special status. Some countries became independent shortly before the island state, such as India or Burma, others a little later, such as Laos and Cambodia, and Tunisia and Morocco soon followed. In all of these places, World War II acted as a catalyst for independence and strengthened anti-colonial forces.

Of course, every colonization and every decolonization has its own story: every country deserved a book like Van Reybrouck wrote about Indonesia. But in order to fathom the formation of the modern world, there seems little point in highlighting a single place. It would be much more interesting to deepen the connections between decolonization and world war. Not to equate events or to start a victim competition, but to recognize connections between historical processes.

David Van Reybrouck: Revolusi. Indonesia and the emergence of the modern world. Translated from the Dutch by Andreas Ecke. Suhrkamp-Verlag, Berlin 2022. 752 pages, CHF 49.90.

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