Breaking Glass

Race, Genocide, and Memory

In 2012, U.S. historian William H. Frederick sparked a fierce controversy about a horrible if largely forgotten episode in Asian history, the so-called Bersiap movement of the 1940’s.  The affair demands our attention for what it suggests about the politics of memory, and how we value human lives.  It also reminds us of the quite vast areas of modern history that remain wholly unfamiliar.

The incidents in question occurred in the former Dutch East Indies, later the nation of Indonesia.  The Dutch had dominated this territory since the 17th century, making it perhaps the most celebrated example of European imperialism after British India.  Unlike the British, though, the Dutch did not succeed in making a relatively bloodless exit from their Asian possessions.

When the Japanese invaded in 1941, they interned Dutch civilians and coerced European women into prostitution.  They also targeted mixed-race Eurasians, the Indos.  Far from ending with the defeat of Japan in 1945, the Dutch agony actually grew still worse as much of the country fell under the sway of radical nationalists.  Besides a reasonably organized nationalist government and army, there were also legions of irregulars and youth militias, called the Pemuda.  Meanwhile, other military forces were in play.  The Dutch attempted to restore their rule, fighting a savage colonial war that lasted until...

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