Stef Scagliola is one of the participants in the NIAS theme group ‘Comparing the Wars of Decolonization’, which presented its preliminary results at a conference in the Amsterdam public library on 20 June. During the academic workshop held the following day, those results were discussed among experts from around the world. In the following blog, Stef Scagliola looks back on both days.

Language as a window on war 

by Stef Scagliola

Comparing historical processes can be liberating. You can take a broader, less detailed approach to history rather than adhering to the convention of factual reconstruction. This thought struck me when I took part in the conference ‘Comparing Wars of Decolonisation’ in the Amsterdam public library on June 20. To an audience of around 200 people, the NIAS theme group presented the preliminary results of three months of intensive cooperation undertaken at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies on ‘violence in decolonisation wars’. The following day, an academic workshop was held where historians from around the world present their views on the subject in various panels.

If the conference proved anything, it is the crucial role of language in understanding the actual meaning of those conflicts then and now. The choice of a name for an event or an act, the extent to which people have a shared understanding of it and the influence of a term on perceptions – these aspects are crucial to the shaping of history and, even more importantly, to the ways in which history can be manipulated. That is hardly a novel insight, but the importance of precise term definitions during the proceedings was striking.

For example, Statis Kalyvas, author of the pioneering work ‘The Logic of Violence in Civil War,’ urged the historians present to reject the term ‘colonial violence’. According to Kalyvas, the term has been stretched so far, been made so all-encompassing, that it is losing its meaning. Comparative research, he argues, is only successful if it studies specific forms of violence, such as ‘terror,’ and if it investigates the differences between its deployment in regular conflicts and in colonial ones.

Indonesian historian Bambang Purwanto noted that the language used to discuss this topic is mainly eurocentric. In his view, what took place in 1945 was ‘recolonisation’ rather than ‘decolonisation’, because the Japanese victory over the Netherlands in 1942 had already marked the beginning of a new period for the Indonesians. In 1945, the Indonesians were, from their point of view, defending something they had previously gained rather than fighting to attain it. He suggested replacing the term ‘decolonisation’ with ‘decolonialisation’; a process that can rid the history of the 1945-1949 war of its ‘colonial’ frames.

Language was also central to Raphaëlle Branche’s keynote speech, ‘The political use of decolonisation history.’ The expert on the Franco-Algerian conflict talked about a shared lexicon, the institutionalised official terms and meanings given to a certain period in history. For the decolonisation conflicts in Asia and Africa, this was determined by the frameworks of post-war Europe: the Cold War, the construction of NATO, and European unification. Branche identified five lexicons, in chronological order. The first is the ‘model’ of counterinsurgency. Although they were defeated, both the British and the French successfully incorporated this military expertise into the bodies of knowledge of their armed forces. The next lexicon concerns the repackaging of defeat in a story of reconstruction and new economic opportunities, which requires that the crimes committed by the democratic constitutional state are kept under wraps. Then comes ‘the language of denial’ when accounts of the violence of the colonial conflict are made public. This language was not sufficiently powerful to counter the ‘language of human rights activism’ in the 1960s. But the Vietnam protests, the British occupation of Northern Ireland, and the protests against dictatorial European regimes were offset by an interest in the ordinary soldiers who took part in the war. Documentaries about the trauma they experienced portray these people not as perpetrators but as victims of a tragic but inescapable fate. In the new millennium, a new wave of human rights activism saw the emergence of the next phase that included a role for ‘perpetratorship.’ Descendants and survivors of the coloniser’s violence were successful in suing the state on the basis of new legal procedures. The state was made to apologise and pay compensation. This took place against a backdrop of a society in which the recognition of historical injustice was becoming a social, political and cultural reality under pressure from younger and more self-conscious generations.

Then followed the results of the comparative case studies by the NIAS fellows. According to Pierre Asselin and Esther Captain, the high level of organisation of the Communist Party in Vietnam was decisive for the more controlled way in which violence was used during the 1945/46 revolution. The ‘Bersiap period’, as the Dutch-Indonesian community calls this period of time, or the ‘Berdaulat’, as Indonesians term it, seems to have been much more chaotic.

Huw Bennett and Peter Romijn, who compared the political control and accountability of the British and Dutch governments with regard to the use of violence, established similar patterns. In both cases, language served to frame reports of widespread violence, reduce it to smaller pieces, render it harmless, deny it. An exception to this similarity was the contradiction between the British tradition of ‘strict secrecy’ and the much more frequent leaks of sensitive information in the Netherlands. This can be explained by the direct association in the Netherlands between secrecy and the German occupation.

Brian Linn and Azarja Harmanny aimed to compare the use of ’technical violence’ in the decolonisation conflicts in Indonesia, the Philippines, Greece, Malaysia and South Korea. However, they soon discovered that the term ‘technical violence’, though common in Dutch publications on the conflict in Indonesia, was never used in descriptions of other conflicts. Its unique use was further highlighted by the charming way in which the American military historian Linn repeatedly tried to pronounce the term in Dutch. Obviously, conceptual clarity was a first priority here.

Given the nature of their research topic – a comparison of sexual violence committed against local women by members of the the French and Dutch armed forces – Natalya Vince and Stef Scagliola had the easiest job. After all, if no attention was ever paid to rape in the context of violence committed by Dutch military personnel between 1945 and 1949, then any information on that topic discovered in the sources is new. Most striking was the difference in politicisation of sexual violence in Algeria and Indonesia. In 1962, Simone de Beauvoir ensured that the rape of resistance fighter Djamila Boupacha during her detention became a national scandal. In General Nasution’s 1949 war journal, cases of rape appear to be casually mentioned as an aside. In the years immediately after the Second World War, a comparison with Nazi Germany was the best way to put an opponent in a bad light internationally.

Martin Thomas and Roel Frakking studied the microdynamics of violence. How do the intentions of the upper echelons relate to the behaviour of people at village level? They concluded that villagers took a very flexible approach to loyalty in order to safeguard their basic needs – safety, food, and a roof over their heads. This led to constantly shifting area borders, depending on who could provide those basic needs: the ‘interior borderlands’, as they were called.

During the final session of the workshop on 21 June, with presentations addressing very specific issues, recommendations made by foreign colleagues who had participated in the regular research programme ‘Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia, 1945-1950’ were discussed. Huw Bennett recommended making clear choices about terminology and adhering to these choices consistently. He detected a Dutch tendency to look for consensus, even though that is particularly difficult to reach with regard to this specific topic. He noted that criticism of the programme was sometimes unfair and painful, but that it was also important to recognise that these attacks came from those who had also experienced pain. That was also a segway to Natalya Vince's approach. She pointed out the need to design research agendas for such subjects in collaboration with researchers from the former colony. What that might look like was illustrated a week later at a NIAS seminar on decolonisation of historiography, which she organized with Bart Luttikhuis. The echoes of this plea were also heard the following day at conference centre De Balie during the debate evening with the title: “Who writes our colonial history?” These are clear signs that the framework is shifting in the debate on historical injustice. A younger, more diverse generation of historians, journalists and activists is asking different questions.

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