This memo provides an overview of the emergence of the original research programme design that was approved in February 2017. Thus, it does not cover the social and political background; more information about this can be found on the main page of the website.

This document answers questions regarding how the text of the original programme of early 2017 was developed, and who was involved in the research design and phrasing of the research question. It covers the period from the proposals of 2012 to the awarding, by means of a Cabinet decision on 23 February 2017, of a 4.1 million-euro grant to implement the programme proposed by NIOD, the KITLV and the NIHM.

1. The government’s letter to the House of Representatives, 2 December 2016

The overview begins at the time when the Dutch government decided to award additional resources to subsidise research on this historical period, as outlined in a letter to the House of Representatives on 2 December 2016.

“The Cabinet realises that additional research may cause pain to the group of East Indies veterans, but considers it important that a further investigation should also pay attention to the difficult context in which Dutch soldiers had to operate, the violence on the Indonesian side, the military action in which violence played no or hardly any role, and the responsibility of the political, administrative and military leadership. In addition, the investigation should also address the suffering of victims and surviving relatives of the ‘Bersiap’, a period characterised by a power vacuum in which there were many victims from diverse population groups, which have received little recognition in research and publications.”

The Cabinet went on to state:

“All things considered, the Cabinet concludes that in contrast to the earlier decision, there is now sufficient reason to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of the context of the use of violence and the period of decolonisation. Such an investigation should not be limited to the acts of violence by all parties, something that has been addressed by many individual studies, but should emphatically examine the broad context of post-war decolonisation (including society) and the political, administrative, judicial and military action in 1945-1949 in the former Dutch East Indies/Indonesia, from the perspective of both central government in The Hague and locally. Importantly, the follow-up research should take an integral approach and address the issues raised by Dr Limpach’s study in more depth. The spiral of violence during the so-called ‘Bersiap’ period will be included in the investigation. Likewise, the political decision-making in The Hague on decolonisation, the broad support in the Netherlands for maintaining the relationship with the Dutch East Indies/Indonesia, the dispatch and actions of Dutch troops and the limited information provision, as well as the post-1949 aftermath and the care of veterans, deserve further research.”

The passage about the ‘bersiap’ is especially relevant here, because various politicians would subsequently claim that it was thanks to their actions that this theme was included in the research programme.[1]

That sounds plausible – at least, so long as one assumes that the three institutes only started working on the programme after the Cabinet decision of 2 December 2016; but this was not the case. In the summer of 2016, a few months prior to the publication of Remy Limpach’s book, which would form the immediate reason for the Cabinet’s decision, there was already a full draft proposal. This proposal contained almost all of the elements of the proposal that was accepted by the Cabinet on 23 February 2017.

2. First programme proposal, 2012

The formulation of the proposal in the summer of 2016 was preceded by a long history; one that dates back to 2012, when there was already a proposal that was very similar to the final programme of early 2017.

September 2012: Research proposal on ‘Dutch military violence in Indonesia, 1945-1950’ KITLV, NIMH, NIOD

The research is divided into four elements:

  • (45%) An empirical investigation to establish and analyse the use of violence by Dutch troops in the period 1945-1950, understood in the broader context of the Indonesian revolution, from the proclamation and bersiap period to the transfer of sovereignty and dissolution of the KNIL. Based on a thorough analysis of the sources, this will not only include a reconstruction of military actions and/or ‘excesses’, but will also cover questions regarding the training, command and organisation of Dutch troops, the nature of the violence (forms, frequency), and an analysis of responsibilities (those giving orders and those carrying them out; civil and military; Batavia and The Hague).
  • (20%) Directly linked to this, it will be investigated whether and how violence subsequently led to investigations by military, legal and/or official agencies in order to establish facts and interpret events, both in response to and independently of parliamentary questions.
  • (15%) A smaller but, from a scholarly perspective, extremely interesting part of the research will focus on the explanation for the violence, on the one hand at the micro-level (based partly on insights from behavioural science) and, on the other hand, in the broader context of the use of violence in post-war decolonisation processes in Asia. 
  • (20%) A fourth theme concerns the public reception of the Dutch military actions in the period 1945-1950, both in the Netherlands and in Indonesia. This covers the broad terrain of the media, public debates, myth-making and scholarly research. On the Dutch side, particular attention will be paid to the role of the media, interest groups and the Dutch parliament, as well as responses to this from successive cabinets. Naturally, attention will also be paid to possible differences between scholarly and public opinion. The same will be done with regard to Indonesia, wherever possible linked to Indonesian researchers’ recent plans to analyse the country’s own historiography of the Indonesian revolution.

The proposal of 2012 was not awarded funding. Although it had the backing of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Timmermans, it received insufficient support from the coalition. The decision was also affected by hesitations regarding Indonesia’s position and/or fear of a potentially negative Indonesian response. The three institutes simply had to accept this, but each decided nevertheless to continue the research into the events of 1945-1950. Moreover, new publications and the legal cases brought against the State by the victims, supported by Jeffry Pondaag’s Komite Utang Kehormatan Belanda (KUKB) and his lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld, ensured that the issue remained in the spotlight. The initiative was thereby kept alive.

3. Publication of Brandende Kampongs [Burning Kampongs] and the emergence of the ODGOI research proposal

Things finally began to move in the first half of 2016. The immediate cause was Remy Limpach’s doctoral thesis, co-supervised by Peter Romijn, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and director of research at NIOD. Limpach defended his thesis in Bern, but even before it had been published, his conclusions were attracting due attention.[2] On 25 January 2016, Limpach’s findings were discussed by the standing committee for Foreign Affairs and Defence. The committee indicated that it wished to respond to the findings in some way, for example by holding a round-table discussion. Sjoerdsma (D66) and Van Bommel (SP) played particularly active roles.

NIOD, the NIMH and the KITLV decided to pick up where they had left off in 2012. At a meeting of the institutes in Leiden, Professor Petra Groen suggested that the research by Limpach, who was now working for the NIMH, had answered a number of questions that had been identified in 2012, and that part of the original proposal had thereby been superseded.

The media were likewise keeping a watchful eye, including the NRC Handelsblad (24 March 2016), which also referred to the 2012 research proposal. For NIOD, the NIMH and the KITLV, this was the signal to start writing a new version of the proposal. The result was a memo that included notes on the intended direction of the programme. This document, which was in fact a commentary on the proposal of 2012, sketched out the contours of the final programme text of February 2017, including the focus on the judicial and political context, international comparative research and the bersiap. 

Research on Dutch military actions in Indonesia, 1945-1950, KITLV-NIMH-NIOD draft 8/6/16

“Focused new research is therefore desirable and also possible. From this perspective, the KITLV, the NIMH and NIOD agreed with this                          common agenda for further research:

  • The role of military justice with regard to excessive violence, particularly the investigation of actions that already qualified as war crimes at that time. A focus on the institutional and personnel structure of the military-judicial organisation of the army (KL), the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) and the navy (KM), and the links between this organisation and the military leadership. A focus on judicial frameworks and practices of prevention and the punishing of excesses, and, vice versa, the absence or dysfunction of these (whether or not this was intended; punishment, limitation, looking away). A focus on the treatment of suspects, prisoners and internees.
  • The information war as part of counter-insurgency warfare: the functioning and dysfunction of the intelligence and security services and the police (including violent acts by these services). A focus on the treatment of suspects, prisoners (of war) and internees.
  • Mechanical violence: the use of modern means of deployment (artillery, naval artillery, the air force) with a relatively high risk of civilian victims, also in the light of existing judicial frameworks.
  • The impact of the dynamics of the war (alternation between periods of fierce warfare and negotiations/cease-fires) on motivation, state of mind and eventual attitudes with respect to excessive violence by troops.
  • Military culture and excessive violence: the impact of the KNIL’s legacy and of the German and Japanese occupation on the mentality of the entire army.
  • The bersiap period: not only critical for more effective charting of the violence against Dutch citizens and communities linked to the Dutch authorities, among others, but also as a motivating element in later warfare. A focus on the lead-up to and breeding ground for the bersiap violence, as well as the psychological consequences for Dutch soldiers and citizens.
  • Political responsibility for the provision of information about the war, especially excessive violence, during the war and in the first decades of the aftermath: who knew what and when? In what respects and when should we speak of a cover-up, a hush-hush policy? Did this also have an impact on archiving, information and propaganda? Which social and political considerations played a role in this? (The reputation of the army and politics, policy regarding veterans, concern about legal consequences.)
  • The role and social significance of moral authorities in the Netherlands and Indonesia, especially churches, home-front organisations and mental healthcare (usually religious).
  • The specific nature and broader context of decolonisation wars and counter-insurgency warfare. Comparisons with French and British actions during wars of decolonisation.” 

During the summer, consultations were held with officials from various ministries, in which the three institutes drew on their contacts: NIOD with Education, Culture and Science (OCW) and Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS); the NIMH with Defence; and the KITLV with Foreign Affairs (BZ). In these discussions, looking ahead to the publication in September of the translation of Limpach’s book, it was clear that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Koenders, was keen to achieve what had proved impossible in 2012. The discussions indicated that political interest was being fuelled by the upcoming elections in early 2017. On 17 August 2016, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs asked the institutes to send a preliminary proposal. The answer was received by return of post; the text was almost identical to that developed in June.

Two weeks later, on 31 August, there was a response from Foreign Affairs. Although positive in tone, it also stated that in the light of political and public sensitivities, ‘more could be emphasised’ with regard to both the Dutch perspective and cooperation with Indonesia. This latter point in particular was new, and the institutes worked hard on the issue in the following months, recognising it as an attempt at innovation. In practice, the comment resulted in a passage on cooperation with the Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), in addition to the expansion of the existing section on the bersiap.

The most important additions to the document of 2 September 2016

  • In this research, emphatic attention should also be paid to the chaotic period between mid-August 1945 and early 1946, thus prior to the large-scale Dutch military deployment. In this so-called ‘bersiap’ period, many thousands of Europeans, but also Chinese and Indonesians accused of ‘collaboration’ with the Dutch colonial authorities, fell victim to brutal violence, whether or not committed by organised combat groups.
  • Where possible, the researchers will cooperate with historians from the countries involved, first and foremost with Indonesian historians, especially from the renowned Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta. In Indonesia, there is increasing interest in research on the decolonisation war (including the bersiap period).

4. Developments following the publication of Brandende Kampongs

As everyone had expected, the press conference in Nieuwspoort on 29 September 2016, at which the revised translation of Limpach’s doctoral thesis was presented, provoked many responses. On the same day, the Foreign Affairs committee stated that having ‘received the Cabinet’s response to the doctoral thesis by Mr Limpach regarding Dutch military actions in Indonesia’, it wished to hold a joint hearing with the Defence committee. On 16 November, in consultations on international human rights with the standing committee on Foreign Affairs, Koenders stated – in relation to further research – that “we are currently in negotiations with a number of organisations about whether this will take place, and if so, how. Naturally, I have also spoken to the Indonesian government about this.”

In the meantime, until the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017, the three institutes continued to work on the text of the programme proposal, based on the previous texts. One additional programme element was added in this period, at the request of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS), which backed the inclusion of a helpdesk to provide support to all of the groups that had been affected by the events. This request led to the establishment of a separate oral history project, Witnesses & Contemporaries.

Yet another project was added to the original proposal: Regional studies, a project that both intended to promote academic innovation and provided an excellent opportunity for cooperation with Indonesian researchers in practice.

Finally, the programme underwent a major restructuring: in the interests of drawing up a sound budget and establishing a working organisation, the ‘old’ bullet-point proposal was transformed into an overarching programme with sub-projects, modelled on NWO and European research programmes.

5. Conclusion

This brief history of the emergence of the programme has clearly shown that the main lines and various parts of the programme were developed by the institutes from 2012 onwards. At the same time, it is clear that certain elements were added or received greater emphasis in the contact with politicians and ministries. During this process, the institutes never had the impression that the independence of the research was threatened as a result. On the contrary, the cooperation with Indonesian historians was seen as a window of opportunity, whilst the ‘Witnesses & Contemporaries’ project, as a separate side programme, represented a continuation of previous projects at each of the three institutes.

None of this alters the fact that a political struggle also took place to get the government to agree to award extra funding to an independent project. A case in point is the vision of MP Angelien Eijsink (PvDA), who gave her personal backing to the research and played a key role in the political decision-making:

"From the House of Representatives, in consultation with the institutes and various interest groups, the political support was created for launching a broad research study in 2016 (in response to the study by Limpach). When preparing the letter to parliament, the different spokespersons of the House of Representatives considered the possibilities for maximising cooperation with civil society organisations and other stakeholders. The government provided a platform for those involved and their surviving relatives, so that they could also provide input in practice. The aim was to ensure that everyone felt their interests had been reflected in the research design. Veterans had many concerns in this respect: they wanted to avoid a situation in which that era was viewed too much in the light of the present day, and for them it was also extremely important to include the Bersiap. For the parliamentary groupings of the political parties involved, the Bersiap and the contribution of veterans were likewise important matters to consider in the final proposal. Other issues that were considered to be of importance, such as the involvement of Indonesian researchers, also emerged in the discussions with interest groups. The spokespersons heeded all of the input from academia and society, and drafted the letter in consultation with the institutes. A state of like-mindedness was achieved, allowing us to create broad support. From a political perspective, it was a positive development that we could create this space, and that based on connection, unity and endorsement by the various stakeholders – political parties, interest groups, and the institutes – we could take a political decision."

It is an interesting and important quote, and, above all, one that says a great deal about the way in which political support was created for what was seen as a socially sensitive topic. At the same time, however, this does not detract from the fact that the emergence of the programme followed its own dynamics.


[1] For example, MP Han ten Broeke of the VVD stated: “The demand that the Bersiap be included in the investigation dates back to when I became involved in the emerging discussion on this. It happened after conversations with many actors (interested parties, both those with a family past and veterans, but also political stakeholders). I then proposed to the VVD parliamentary party that this should be one of the demands attached to our support for the research. The parliamentary party endorsed this line and I subsequently followed it. Although it was not formulated as a demand, it was an important condition whereby by we – the VVD – ultimately agreed to such an investigation.”

[2] See, among others, Anne-Lot Hoek in