Dutch Memorial Day: Maintaining colonial innocence by excluding people of color

On Dutch Memorial Day – May 4 – the Netherlands remembers its war dead from World War II and after.

A close look at the holiday reveals a culture that maintains its innocence about a history of colonial oppression.

Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands on Aug. 17, 1945. This followed 350 years of Dutch East India Company control and Dutch state rule, as well as Japanese occupation during WWII.

After the declaration, the Netherlands waged a war to re-establish colonial control over Indonesia. The war, whose dead included Indonesians killed by summary execution, cost an estimated 300,000 Indonesian lives and around 6,000 casualties on the Dutch side.

While Indonesia has, to some extent, faced its history of decolonization violence, the Netherlands has not done so.

As a social scientist and director of Dutch and Flemish studies at the University of Michigan, I examine the reasons for this in my writing and teaching about issues of inclusion in the Dutch-language area.

Paid independence

The Indonesian War of Independence ended in 1949 with the signing of an internationally mediated independence agreement requiring Indonesia to take over the Dutch East India government’s debt, effectively paying the Netherlands 3.8 billion guilders for its independence. Payments continued until 2002.

A Western European nation thus rebuilt itself after World War II with Marshall Plan loans from the United States, plus a comparable amount of money from Indonesia, which was itself recovering from the war.

The struggle for historic justice for Indonesia continues today, on Dutch Memorial Day. The day involves a ceremony with two minutes of national silence and the laying of wreaths by the Dutch monarchs.

The Indonesians who fought against the Dutch and were killed in the war are not commemorated in this ceremony, despite the Netherlands officially considering them Dutch at the time.

Indonesian soldiers training to fight the Dutch in 1949. Public Domain

An exclusive Memorial Day

Dutch Memorial Day is no stranger to protests against exclusion, and the Indonesian victims of the war are not the only ones who have been ignored on this day.

It took decades, for example, for Dutch Holocaust victims to be remembered.

Currently, a Dutch movement called “No May 4 For Me” has been protesting the exclusion of Indonesian casualties from remembrance while their killers are remembered. Among the killers were former Dutch Nazis, who were sent to Indonesia after World War II to fight for Holland in the War for Independence.

Recognizing Indonesian independence

So who is, and who is not, commemorated on Dutch Memorial Day?

The key to the answer is this: The Netherlands does not officially recognize Indonesia’s 1945 independence – it recognizes the 1949 date of the sovereignty agreement instead.

Here’s why the Netherlands cannot recognize Indonesia’s 1945 independence: If the Netherlands recognized that date, that would mean that the country had attacked a sovereign nation after World War II with the purpose of recolonizing it. And then the massacres, euphemistically referred to in the Netherlands as the “police actions,” would not be “police actions” but war crimes, as explained by Ady Setyawan and Marjolein Van Pagee.

Military action

According to the official Dutch story, however, Indonesia was “Dutch” during the “police actions,” and thus killing your own people is not a war crime but, rather, law enforcement gone wrong.

Except that law enforcement in the “police actions” were not police officers but soldiers serving in the Dutch army.

Dutch soldiers in Indonesia in 1947. Fotograaf Onbekend/National Archive of the Netherlands
The publication “De Doden Tellen” (“Counting the Dead”), issued by the government-appointed National Committee for Memorial Day, betrays the inconsistencies of the official story. It cites the conflict as “police actions” while simultaneously using language of military “conquest.”

“During the so-called police actions, the Netherlands conquers areas and declares them as Dutch territory once again,” the National Committee publication says.


The Netherlands wants to count the people it has killed as its own, so as not to have committed war crimes, while at the same time not commemorating their deaths.

What lies beneath the surface of the exclusion is segregation on the basis of race.