Comparing the wars of decolonization: Extreme violence during reoccupation and counter-insurgency, 1945-1975

This project engages in comparative research in order to learn more about causes, forms and nature of (extreme) violence by Dutch military forces in their attempt to reoccupy the Indonesian archipelago (1945-1949).


The first results of the project Comparing the Wars of Decolonization are presented in July 2020 in the academic journal BMGN-Low Countries Historical Review (Vol. 135, No. 2, Dutch only). You can read the introduction, written bij Thijs Brocades Zaalberg and Bart Luttikhuis, here (Dutch only). An extended book of articles (in English) will follow in 2022 at Cornell University Press. 

In an interview with Dirk-Jan Wolffram, chair of the BMGN editorial team, Thijs Brocades Zaalberg and Bart Luttikhuis share more about this publication. Watch the interview here. Via this link you can also listen to an interview with researcher Roel Frakking on the article he and professor Martin Thomas (Exeter) wrote for the BMGN-Low Countries Historical Review.

About the project

In recent years, extreme violence by Dutch security forces in Indonesia has drawn a wave of scholarly and public attention. Similar processes have been taking place in France and the United Kingdom in relation to for instance torture, executions and mass deportation in colonial conflicts in Algeria, Malaysia and Kenya. To a lesser extent, the same is true for Indochina and the former Portuguese colonies. But research on the violent aspects of the Dutch-Indonesian conflict (1945-1949) in the Netherlands has too long remained isolated, one might even say parochial. This has impeded our ability to fully understand the escalation of violence in this war.

This research project therefore aims to compare the causes, forms and nature of the extreme use of violence applied in the age of decolonization. It supports the larger research program Independence, Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia, 1945-1950. Experts from two sides of the comparison will explore the question which factors were shared among the wars in various empires (such as legacies of racism and colonial violence, or the nature of irregular warfare), and which factors may have been unique to certain cases (such as leadership, international scrutiny, or the legacy of Japanese occupation in the cases of Indonesia and Indochina). Overall, the comparison will broaden and deepen our understanding of Dutch, French, British and Portuguese patterns in decolonization violence and the nature of colonial warfare in general.

The project is an intensive collaboration between the twelve international and Dutch scholars in a theme group that culminated in a three-month period at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies in Amsterdam (NIAS) in Spring 2019. For each comparative study, an international NIAS-fellow worked together with one Dutch expert on the decolonization war in Indonesia. The project’s findings are presented during the conference organized by the theme group on 20-21 June 2019 in Amsterdam. The main papers will be published in a book by Cornell University Press in 2022. In July 2020 the leading historical journal BMGN-Low Countries Historical Review published a forum in Dutch where the theme group members  presented and discussed their findings.

NIAS theme group members and their research topics:

1. Introduction: Comparing extreme violence in the wars of decolonization 

Dr Thijs Brocades Zaalberg (Leiden University and Netherlands Defence Academy) and Dr Bart Luttikhuis (Leiden University and Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies)

2. Bloody decolonization: Dutch and French responses to revolutionary violence in the Indonesian archipelago and Indochina, 1945-1946.

Professor Pierre Asselin (San Diego State University) and Dr Esther Captain (Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies)

3. ‘Technological violence’ in colonial counter-insurgency: ‘ways of war’ and the role of heavy weapons in escalations of force 

Professor Brian McAllister Linn (Texas A&M) and Azarja Harmanny MA (Netherlands Institute for Military History)

4. Sexual violence and gendered experiences of decolonization war in Indonesia and Algeria. 

Dr Natalya Vince (University of Portsmouth) and Dr Stef Scagliola (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies)

5. Communicating excessive violence: Political awareness and levels of responsibility in Indonesia, Malaya and Kenya compared. 

Dr Huw Bennett (Cardiff University) and Professor Peter Romijn (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies).

6. Windows onto the micro-dynamics of insurgent and counter-insurgent violence: evidence from late colonial Southeast Asia and Africa compared. 

Professor Martin Thomas (University of Exeter) and Dr Roel Frakking (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies).