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Historian Jennifer Foray On How Dutch Decolonization Differed From Its European Neighbors

The Dutch Queen Juliana signs the document transferring sovereignty to the United States of Indonesia in The Hague,December 27, 1949.
Information Ministry
Republic of Indoneisa (Public Domain)
The Dutch Queen Juliana signs the document transferring sovereignty to the United States of Indonesia in The Hague,December 27, 1949.

World War II left the Dutch Empire in flux.

Queen Wilhelmina fled to London, and Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia cut the Netherlands off from the Dutch East Indies, an expansive colony stretching from the tip of mainland Asia to the northern edge of Australia.

“They realized during the war that maybe this was not sustainable,” said Jennifer Foray, a Purdue University historian who studies 20th century Dutch decolonization. “The Netherlands would never really return to the Indies as it had, but they wanted to control the exit process.”

Foray is the author of the 2014 book Visions of Empire in the Nazi-Occupied Netherlands, and she says the Netherlands was unique among European nations during the Second World War. The British Empire’s hold on India was never threatened, and the French maintained a strong presence in Africa well into the 1950s. But both the Netherlands' metropolitan center and its chief colony were occupied (Amsterdam by the Germans and the Dutch East Indies by the Japanese).

“You see some voices that are very progressive calling for a rethinking of colonial relationships,” Foray said. “And then you see voices that are saying, ‘Well, this was a time of great misfortune for our country. We can’t afford to let loose of our most important colony right now.'”

The Netherlands eventually lost the Dutch East Indies by the end of the 1940s when the state of Indonesia emerged after a war for independence. By the 1950s, the Netherlands became the center of post-World War II peace and tolerance, exemplified by the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But even the acceptance and diversity you’d find in a city like Amsterdam can be stretched thin, especially as more and more outsiders arrive.

“So now the Indonesians and the Surinamese and the Curacaoans are seen as, ‘Well, they’re ours, because they were from our colony.’ They’re very different kinds of immigrants than the Moroccans or the Algerians,” Foray said. “That’s very different than other groups of immigrants, asylum seekers.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Jennifer Foray, welcome to World Views.

JENNIFER FORAY: Great, thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: Well, Jennifer, you've done some really interesting work, particularly on the Netherlands and their colonial experience. How you examine their experience of war and occupation, imperialism, and decolonization. And I really want to kind of focus on that. Obviously the Netherlands was a major colonial power at one point in time. They had colonies all over the world. And yet there was something about their experience with the Second World War and resistance movements during that time that caused them to question their colonial presence. So tell us, just start there and tell us a little bit about how you got involved in that kind of research, but then how it is that the Dutch began to question their colonial presence around the world.

FORAY: I first became involved in this topic, admittedly, very many years ago through The Diary of Anne Frank. And that's actually what started me looking at Holland as seen during World War II. So from there I really moved in different directions with that. I had a Fulbright to the Netherlands after I graduated undergraduate where I investigated university student resistance during the German occupation. The Netherlands was occupied by the Germans from May 1940 until May 1945. And then from 1942 to 1945 their most important colony - the Dutch East Indies, today's Indonesia - was occupied by the Japanese. So my work has really gone in this direction of looking at using the Dutch as an example. How it is that a society subjected to occupation, foreign rule, considers itself and wishes to proceed as an imperial power. And so what we find in the Netherlands and what I've examined is these different cross currents of ideas that happened during the war, many led by underground resistors, writers, journalists who when not resisting the German occupiers were trying to plan a different and potentially better future for the country and for the empire. So what I argue is that the war forced a rethinking on the Dutch part, but it really also created these circumstances where they couldn't avoid it any longer. Of the other European empires, only the Netherlands was occupied by the Germans or any foreign power at home, in its metropolitan center, and occupied its most important colony, occupied abroad as well. So British India, obviously, was not obviously. Indonesia was. And this really cut off parts of the empire. The queen went to London during the war and ruled the country in absentia from London, technically ruling over the colonies as well. So there's a lot in flux during this period. And that's really what I focused on. So you see some voices that are very progressive and calling for a rethinking of colonial relationships. And then you see voices that are saying, 'Well, this was a time of great misfortune for our country. We can't afford to let loose of our most important colony right now.

GRILLOT: It's so interesting, because obviously the Netherlands having been a really important colonial power, as I mentioned, and as you discussed, then shifts really to become the center of post-World War II peace and tolerance in some ways. You create The Hague, you have so many institutions that then settle in The Netherlands. They're known kind of as a seat of international law. But your reference to average, everyday people really - journalists and people that are contemplating these things - they're the ones that actually brought this about? This was kind of a contemplation on their part that then brought about a whole different...

FORAY: Yeah, that's a really great point, because I think in some ways the 20th century in the Netherlands and Dutch society is fairly conservative. And yet that, not much now, but throughout the 20th century, and yet that functions alongside this idea of tolerance and liberal ideas and kind of a place for everyone to have their say. And that existed alongside the colonies. There were already colonial reform movements for a more just, progressive form of colonialism. So that most certainly did exist. What you see during decolonization and even during the last phases of imperialism in the Netherlands, and that will affect the postwar period, is that the Dutch really did wish to control the process. Which is no different than many of imperial powers to. They wish to control the process of decolonization. They realized during the war that maybe this was not sustainable. The Netherlands would never really return to the Indies as it had, but they wanted to control the exit process. And I think that does function alongside Dutch ideas of legality and norms. Much of decolonization in the Netherlands was done by constitutional reform. There is ways in which this is, yes, about a particular Dutch identity as well as more mainstream political movements. And then also in the Netherlands you see the influence - this is some of the work that I'm doing now - you see the influence of Indonesian politicians in the Netherlands who are really part of Dutch political parties and are trying to steer them perhaps in a very different direction, mostly on the political left.

GRILLOT: So would you consider the Netherlands to be a leader in the decolonization effort?

FORAY: No. Absolutely not.

GRILLOT: Because it seems like they weren't necessarily on the forefront of it. And how well would you say their particular colonies have done in the post-colonial period? Because it is interesting how they're very different. The colonies themselves depending on who their colonizer was, how well they've done in developing, modernizing, and becoming good solid countries and governments.

FORAY: Absolutely. And I think I'm personally a little bit loathe to get into some of the comparisons, because I've had both people say to me, and then also other scholars, who argue and say things like, 'Well, compared to the British or compared to the French, the Dutch weren't that bad.' Or the Dutch War in Indonesia in '45 to '47 didn't produce as many victims as another war. So I think it's really hard to say that there's any one model. I think what the Netherlands shows, and what the Dutch case show, is that this is messy. This is complicated. This is a process. And it is most certainly, decolonization is an ongoing set of relationships. And so you have very much Dutch-Indonesians relations today colored by a very connected past. Some of that also has to do with who's ruling Indonesia. Sukarno and then Suharto. And that shaped Dutch relations. Dutch relations with Suriname and Curacao, obviously, have been set in motion by the postwar period and their relationships with the Netherlands as well. But I think as a whole the Netherlands today reflects that history fairly well. It's obviously a very, very diverse society, but that can also paper over some of the problems of decolonization and some of the challenges that I think Dutch society and other colonized society, obviously, have had to contend with.

GRILLOT: Well that's what I was going to ask next. Anyone who's been to the Netherlands knows, and particularly Amsterdam, it's an extremely diverse community. So interestingly and excitingly so. It's a very vibrant place. I mean, I've been going there for many years, in and out for various reasons when traveling to Europe, and it's just incredible. The number of different kinds of people and languages that you hear. But like other countries in Europe, former colonial powers, you do tend to see a stretching of that. Stretching it meaning they're stretching the limits, perhaps, of their tolerance for diversity. Because you're starting to see a bit of backlash in other parts, and actually I thought the Netherlands might be, given its kind of seat as an international player, international law, that you would not necessarily see it there. But you have.

FORAY: Yeah, and I mean and one thing that I've noticed in the last...because I've been working in Holland for about 20 years now since I had that Fulbright as a graduating senior from undergrad, and one thing that I've noticed is that the in and out groups change frequently. So when I first began working there in the late '90s the immigrant group that was seen as not really acculturated, there were the Indonesians, the Indo-Europeans as well, the Moluccans, other group of Indonesian emigrants and those who had come from the colonies in the '60s and '70s. And then there were the Turks. And then that shifted in the last 20 years. So now the Indonesians and the Surinamese and the Curaçaoans are seen as, 'Well, they're ours, because they were from our colony.' They're very different kinds of immigrants than the Moroccans or the Algerians. The Turks have no become kind of old hat to them. They're one of their accepted minority groups since they've been there so long. But there is definitely a sense of, 'Well Indonesians are our people. And they've always been our immigrant group.' The Curaçaoans, the Surinamese, that's our empire, so that makes sense. That's very different than other groups of immigrants, asylum seekers, and so on. So it does definitely come into the discussion in ways that I think we couldn't have anticipated 20 years ago. And of course, much has happened in Holland since then as well. Populous politics on the right, Pim Fortuyn, especially in the early 2000s. Geert Wilders and a very far right populism as well. So there's a lot of motion and activity.

GRILLOT: Well, and I have to mention the very high-profile murder of a filmmaker in response to his film about the Islamic world and particularly its treatment of women. So I mean it seems to be a growing concern in the Netherlands as well.

FORAY: It's a growing concern, but at the same time I mean I've seen some of that just more anecdotally in response to the Brussels attacks and the Paris attacks. I don't think any Amsterdamer would be very surprised if it happened there. On the other hand, there is a sense of, there are Muslim communities established in Amsterdam, especially, that have been there for a very long period of time. And even those who are not there for a very long period of time are integrated into, or not integrated, into various parts of Dutch society. So it's never black or white, and in 2004-2005, not that long after the murder of Theo van Gogh, I saw personally many cooperative grassroots organizations of just people speaking to one another. People on talk shows wearing hijabs that you would never see before. In some ways, yes, it is a very conservative bourgeois culture. And anything that's a little bit different. Women of any race can be seen as in the minority. So there's much more of a conversation now about this and what's acceptable. What are Dutch values? What does this mean? How do we make people Dutch citizens if that's what they want? Is it language solely? And at the same time the population of Amsterdam has become far more global and English-speaking as well at the same time. So it's very much an international city.

GRILLOT: It is an international city.

FORAY: Yeah. It's no longer strictly a colonial metropole. It really is a hodgepodge of international trade and so on.

GRILLOT: Well, shifting gears just one second because obviously we've been talking about your work on responses to war and trauma in the Netherlands. But in addition to that you've done some work on memorialization and commemoration after war. Tell us a little bit about that and whether it's focused particularly on the Netherlands or other parts of the world experiencing that.

FORAY: Yeah, I think it's very much linked to the way that... Part of what happens in the Netherlands and why it's unique - and this is what I'm working on right now - is that decolonization and this loss of the East Indies and the creation of and the acceptance of Indonesia happened so soon after World War II. So at some point there is very much a twinning and overlapping of certain narratives. And one thing that I'm examining now is these resistance ideas of good versus bad. Heroism, sacrifice, and how that tends to overshadow gradations and the gray that is in between. And then how that also shapes the way that Dutch political actors view what's happening in Indonesia. So since they viewed Dutch collaborators as the worst of the worst, true traitors and so on in the Netherlands, the idea was that those who cooperated with the Japanese in Indonesia during the war were just as bad. So they should be punished as well. So at some point these narratives overlap. And sometimes they play out in memorials. They play out in ceremonies. One thing that you see in the Netherlands after the war is the creation various civic organizations and memorial societies. Which to date, many of them are very, very active. So they will be organizations for the women of Ravensbrück concentration camp. The Dutch Auschwitz Comité. Various veterans’ organizations. Veterans who fought in the Indies after the war.

GRILLOT: Well even the Anne Frank house itself in Amsterdam is some sort of memorialization and commemoration. 

FORAY: Oh absolutely. Absolutely.

GRILLOT: It's clearly the most iconic one in the Netherlands.

FORAY: It's the most iconic one, and I think what I found fascinating about that memorial practice too is the levels of commemoration and ideas that keep being added on to that. So I'm living right now in Amsterdam a few blocks away from the house, and I've noticed in the mornings, the summer used to be the busiest time. Obviously you would have lines around the corner. It's very well-managed. You can get advanced tickets. And I've noticed that consistently now in the wintertime as well it becomes this pilgrimage. And that's not even just about the war, but because of The Fault in our Stars, which was set in Amsterdam. So that's another layer on top of that.

GRILLOT: Very interesting. Well Jennifer, thank you so much. We've just scratched the surface I know on this very important topic. But thank you for being with us today.

FORAY: Great, thank you so much for having me.

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