Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World

  • By David Van Reybrouck
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 656 pp.
  • Reviewed by Todd Kushner
  • April 18, 2024

An outstanding account of one nation's unsung fight for freedom.

Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World

Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands less than two days after Japan’s capitulation in World War II. This declaration capped nearly 50 years of national awakening by Indonesia’s native peoples. It would be followed by five years of both negotiation and bloody struggle as the Dutch fought to regain their colony and the Indonesians fought to retain their freedom.

In Revolusi, Belgian cultural historian David Van Reybrouck tells the captivating story of Dutch colonization of the East Indies and Indonesians’ fight for freedom. Given the 300-year span of the Dutch colonial period, Van Reybrouck had to limit his coverage to the most important developments. The key feature of the book, however, is Van Reybrouck’s punctuating his analysis of the 1930-1950 period with first-person narratives of those who lived through it.

He conducted formal interviews with 185 people in 20 different languages, scouring nursing homes and retirement communities to identify those who could tell their stories from seven or more decades prior. These efforts took five-and-a-half years and involved travel not only to the Netherlands and Indonesia but also to locations as far-flung as Tokyo, Berlin, and Nepal. In addition to these many interviews, Van Reybrouck drew on a wide variety of secondary sources (around 490 are listed in his bibliography) and extensive archival material.

The firsthand narratives are enthralling. They range from amusing anecdotes of Dutch isolation from much of the native population (“Dutch people? I never saw any”; “We only saw the Dutch one time, when the whole family went to the doctor for [immunizations]”) to the horrors of sexual violence (“They should be ashamed of taking our childhood away from us like that. We had to service five to ten [Japanese] soldiers a day, and if we refused we were beaten or tortured”) to the commitment of independence fighters (“In the forest we slept on the ground with our rifles in our arms…We were starving all the time…Despite the hunger, we could still move quickly when the Dutch [soldiers] came”).

Van Reybrouck highlights developments given little mention in the historical record. He notes, for example, the vital role played by Indonesians in Dutch resistance against the Nazis. Of the 800 Indonesians in the Netherlands during the 1940 German invasion, 60-100 (or 7.5-12.5 percent) were in the resistance, a much higher proportion than the native Dutch community. He interviews Djajeng Pratomo, the last surviving member of the Indonesian underground in the Netherlands, who recounts many of his dangerous exploits, including printing and distributing subversive newspapers and stealing weapons from police stations. Similarly, the author recounts stories of Jews fleeing the Netherlands to Indonesia to avoid ending up in German concentration camps, only to be interred by the Japanese — not for being Jewish but for being Dutch.

The underlying theme of Revolusi is the pigheaded Dutch opposition to even modest Indonesian efforts at greater self-rule. The development of an Indonesian identity first emerged in STOVIA, the medical school for Indonesia’s native population (one of the few educational opportunities available to them) and became more of a mass movement in SI, the Islamic Union, which spawned not only nationalist leaders but also, interestingly, the Indonesian Communist Party.

Beginning in 1901, Dutch colonial authorities officially pursued an “ethical policy” of balancing colonial exploitation with improving the livelihood and Westernization of the local population. Yet the Dutch also crushed any signs of unrest, including by exiling anticolonial leaders and supporters to inhospitable areas of New Guinea. After the Japanese occupation in World War II, the Dutch fought a series of military campaigns against Indonesian forces in an attempt to restore colonial rule. In these struggles, the Dutch committed widespread war crimes and undermined the political settlement to the conflict that their own senior minister had negotiated.

The importance of WWII in the Indonesian independence story is a key theme here, and Japan played contradictory roles in it. Japan’s victory over the Dutch in 1942 demonstrated that Europeans were not superior to Asians after all. Japan released political prisoners (employing some to spread anti-Western propaganda), provided Indonesians widespread educational opportunities, and eventually allowed Indonesians to organize military units (although members were only armed with bamboo spears, the military training provided the nucleus of units that would later fight against recolonization). And after the Japanese capitulated, their weapons stores would be utilized by Indonesian forces promoting independence.

Still, Japan did not come to liberate Indonesia; it came to conquer and exploit it. Japan imposed forced labor, including mining coal and digging tunnels. Of the 300,000 Javanese forced by Japan to work overseas, only 77,000 returned home. Indonesia had one of the highest civilian casualty rates in the war, with 4 million deaths.

Van Reybrouck attributes the Dutch obsession with controlling Indonesia to economic dependence, misplaced beliefs of racial superiority, and a national ethos tying colonial rule to the Netherlands’ international standing and self-worth. The book’s prologue vividly describes the 1936 sinking of a Dutch steamship. And in chapter three, Van Reybrouck returns to a discussion of colonial-era ships and especially the stratification of decks’ passengers based on class (tied extremely closely to race), with the luxurious top deck being mainly reserved for Europeans, and with each successive level growing more crowded and uncomfortable. Native Indonesians were berthed on the bottom.

The author uses this stratification as an analogy for the stratification of Dutch East Indies society; the steamship parallel is employed throughout the book to explain changing circumstances. Van Reybrouck is clearly sympathetic to the Indonesian cause but doesn’t ignore its darker sides. The atrocities committed by the Pemuda (radical Indonesian youth) against the Dutch, for instance, are recounted and denounced. Similarly, though he sees the Dutch as shortsighted, stubborn, and racist, he doesn’t vilify them but lets their actions and words speak for themselves.

While Revolusi does a brilliant job telling the story of Indonesia’s revolution, its secondary theme illustrating how the world shaped Indonesia and how Indonesia shaped the world is less developed. Some elements are obvious — the Netherlands and Japan clearly influenced Indonesian history. Others are tangential, such as the operations in Indonesia of British Gurkhas. The role of other countries — including especially the United States — in pressuring the Netherlands to allow Indonesian independence was significant.

However, discussion of Indonesia’s global influence after independence, especially through its leadership in the non-aligned movement, is wedged into a final chapter that covers too much ground, is largely a condemnation of America’s Cold War foreign policy, and seems like an afterthought. Nevertheless, Van Reybrouck has written a magnificent book. Indonesia has been, he says, the most consequential country in which the international community does not seem interested. Revolusi brings the fascinating story of its struggle for independence to a wider world that should know more about it.

Todd Kushner is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus