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Three British-Indian soldiers burn down houses in Bekasi (West-Java, 1945). Collection NIMH.

Comparing the Wars of Decolonization

Year Group 2018/19

This theme group is part of the large-scale research programme Independence, decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia, 1945-1950, carried out by the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH) and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

About the Topic

This subproject of the comprehensive program Independence, decolonization, violence and war in Indonesia, 1945-1950 starts from the premise that comparative research into wars of decolonization is essential to further our understanding of the use of violence during the Indonesian struggle for independence. For this project, a team of selected foreign experts will be invited to contribute to achieving this goal. Over the past decade and a half, in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, counter-insurgency research has flourished. In the process, historians and military theorists have started to re-evaluate the experience and lessons of the wars of decolonization and have launched critical new analyses. The struggles in Malaya (1948-1960) and Algeria (1954-1962) have attracted particular attention, but other conflicts have also been studied frequently. Overall, however, the violent Dutch experience is seriously underrepresented in counter-insurgency studies. Only in recent years the Indonesian case started to feature more regularly in English-language scholarly work.

Much can still be learned from a more systematic comparison that includes the Indonesian struggle for independence. In doing so, this project will structurally improve our understanding of the scale and forms of, motives for, and the conditions conducive to the extreme use of violence used in the course of decolonisation. Comparative research will also allow us to move beyond historiographic parochialism and help dispel lingering notions of colonial exceptionalism in the Netherlands as well as in other former imperial powers. Rather than providing an exhaustive history of colonial counter-insurgency, this project will contribute to an analytical framework supporting both the synthesis and the other subprojects in the research program.

For this purpose, the Indonesian case will be compared in-depth with several cases with similar characteristics such as the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), the Indochina War (1945-1954), the Algerian War (1954-1962) and the British occupation of the Dutch Indies (1945-1946), as well as in more general terms with other decolonization conflicts and civil wars. Foreign experts will shine their light on the Indonesian case, in order to better draw out the general and specific aspects of the Dutch-Indonesian conflict. These experts have been selected (among other criteria) on the basis of a proven track-record of detailed empirical work in one of the above-mentioned conflicts combined with more generalist theorizing on (civil) war, decolonization, and extreme violence. Their perspective will be supplemented with further input from experts on other conflicts during seminars and a final conference. The selected foreign experts will be asked specifically to identify which aspects of the war in Indonesia have thus far been overlooked and may thus help contextualize the severity of Dutch atrocities in the wider framework of imperial retreat.

Theme Group Members

  • Thijs Brocades Zaalberg (Coordinator and Fellow)
  • Bart Luttikhuis (Coordinator and Guest researcher)
  • Pierre Asselin (Fellow)
  • Huw Bennett (Fellow)
  • Brian McAllister Linn (Fellow)
  • Stef Scagliola (Fellow)
  • Martin Thomas (Fellow)
  • Natalya Vince (Fellow)
  • Esther Captain (Guest researcher)
  • Roel Frakking (Guest researcher)
  • Azarja Harmanny (Guest researcher)
  • Remco Raben (Guest researcher)
  • Peter Romijn (Guest researcher)