The Hague celebrates the day of memory: between culture of memory and colonial “feelings of guilt”

by Giuseppe Menditto

Every August 15, the Netherlands celebrates its National Remembrance Day, a commemoration held at the Indisch Monument Memorial in The Hague  – and at other symbolic places in the country – to commemorate “all Dutch citizens and soldiers killed during WWII in battle, in prison camps or during forced labor as a result of the Japanese invasion.”

The monument is unique due to the fact that it houses the soil of seven Indonesian war cemeteries, to which an eighth urn with the soil from Galala Tantui on Ambon Island was added in 2008.

Designed by Jaroslawa Dankowa, the memorial was inaugurated on August 15, 1988 by Queen Beatrix and consists of 17 bronze sculptures, a map of Southeast Asia and the inscription “The spirit conquers.”

The commission that chose this project in 1986 was composed of the then mayor of Amsterdam and former government official of the Dutch Indies as well as the deputy mayor and former resistance fighter. They underlined how the monument symbolically represents “the struggle and the conquest, the humiliation, the repression, hardship, pain and despair. But also the hope, perseverance, courage and solidarity.”

Today, commemorations throughout the country mark this day of collective sharing with a moment of silence. Melati, the jasmine of the Indies, is worn as a symbol of respect, commitment and compassion.

Unlike May 5, the date of the German capitulation celebrated throughout the country with flags hanging in many houses, August 15 is not a public holiday and has not always been celebrated

The date was officially adopted by the Kok cabinet in 1999 as the “official end of the Second World War for the Kingdom of the Netherlands” (Formeel einde Tweede Wereldoorlog). Today, 15 August is remembered in all government buildings, on television and on the government’s website where readers can download instructions for displaying the national flag.

This is an important celebration for the Indo-Dutch community, for both those who have experienced the story for themselves and for the grandchildren who accompany or remember their grandparents.

But this has not always been the case. And what exactly does The Netherlands celebrate?

At noon on August 15, 1945, the announcement of the Japanese emperor Hirohito was read on the radio about the acceptance of the terms of surrender formulated by the Allies: the Potsdam declaration, signed by Churchill, Truman and Chiang Kai-Shek, called for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. This ultimatum stated that, if Japan did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction.”

At that precise moment, the Second World War formally ended: on August 6, the US dropped the “little boy” bomb on Hiroshima, three days before the launch of the “fat man” on Nagasaki. Japan was at the end of its rope and could only surrender.

On the “eastern front”, after three years of Japanese occupation (1942-1945), the Kingdom of the Netherlands regained “possession” of the Dutch East Indies that it was unable to defend because of the Nazi invasion. 

Between December 1941 – when the Netherlands declared war on the “Land of the Rising Sun”, and March 1, 1942, the day General Hitoshi Imamura landed in Java – Dutch government officials had already fled to Australia bringing with them political prisoners, family members and collaborators.

Initially, the Indonesian population welcomed the arrival of Japanese forces, who were hailed as liberators from the Dutch colonial yoke. Only when Indonesians were compelled into forced labour to contribute to the imperial cause did the population realize the true nature of the Japanese face. The Japanese propaganda of the “light of Asia” that would have illuminated all Southeast Asia revealed itself for what it was … another attempt at colonization.

Unlike the Dutch, the Japanese army facilitates the politicization of the Indonesian population, especially in Java: Japanese soldiers train and arm many young Indonesians while giving their national leaders the opportunity to express themselves and organize themselves politically.

For this reason, while the Japanese empire is forced to surrender, the Indonesian nation begins the first steps to claim the independence of the country. On August 17, in fact, only two days after the Japanese surrender, independence was declared: the Indonesian National Central Committee (Komite Nasional Indonesia Pusat) appointed Sukarno as president and Hatta as vice-president of Indonesia.

The beginning of the revolution for Indonesia’s independence was accompanied by much violence. Indo-Dutch and Dutch citizens, held in prison camps by the Japanese, end up directly in those facilitated now by the Indonesian “freedom fighters”.

This is how the Indonesian War of Independence began, one of the darkest pages in Dutch history, which ended only after five long and hard years of diplomatic, military and social struggle: in December 1949 the Dutch authorities were forced to recognize the independence and sovereignty of Indonesia.

Late celebrations?

Returning to the celebrations of August 15, in the Netherlands a commemoration of the end of the Second World War took place for the first time only 25 years later, on August 15, 1970. It was attended by 10,000 people, including members of the royal family and representatives of the government. 

But it was in 1980 that a first official event was organised, entrusted to the Commemoration Foundation, in which 11,000 people, the royal couple, members of the government and the Indonesian ambassador took part. 

However, the Indisch Monument was only inaugurated in 1988.

Why did it take 43 years in the Netherlands to erect a national monument to the victims of the war in the Dutch East Indies?

The political climate in the Netherlands immediately after the war was marked by the guilt surrounding its colonial past and its relations with Indonesia. As a result, it was a long time before there was official recognition of the suffering of war victims in the former Dutch Indies.

In the 1960s, the 300,000 Dutch, Indo-European, Moluccan and Chinese citizens who arrived in the Netherlands were told that the Netherlands had already gone through “its own” war and that there was no room for their stories about “that distant Asian war”. They had lost their possessions, status and country of birth. Now they also risked losing their past and their identity.

Today, the Hague Indies Monument can be enrolled in the “culture of memory” that was spreading in the eighties and recognizes at least four groups of war victims from the period 1941-1945: members of the armed forces, women and children in the camps, prisoners of war and Indo-Europeans like the Romushas, all forced to work.

Evidencing that a shared memory is still far away, it is enough to remember an episode, even if not more recent: three years after the inauguration of the monument, the Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu laid a wreath of flowers during his state visit on July 19, 1991. That same day, the crown was thrown into the water by a Dutchman of Indonesian origin. The official apology of the Dutch government only triggered angry reactions from Indonesian survivors to the Japanese occupation.


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