The way to shed imperial instincts

The Dutch king’s apology for violence used in a former colony, Indonesia, stands in contrast to actions by a few other former empires.

Antara Foto/SigidKurniawan via REUTERS
The Netherland's King Willem-Alexander and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo at Bogor Palace, near Jakarta, Indonesia, March 10.

In a few nations whose ancestors once ruled empires, such as Russia and Iran, leaders can’t seem to shake historical memories of having once controlled lands that are now independent countries. Others, like Germany, have largely given up old impulses for imperial-style power. On Tuesday, the Netherlands provided an example of what a former colonizer can do to exert a different kind of influence – through humility.

During his first visit to Indonesia, the Dutch king, Willem-Alexander, apologized for the “excessive violence” used by the Dutch empire to hold on to its former colony. For 350 years the Netherlands ruled what was then the Dutch East Indies, killing thousands in the late 1940s during the Indonesian war for independence.

The apology was a first by a Dutch monarch. The king made a point of acknowledging “the pain and sorrow” of families whose loved ones were killed as independence fighters. In 2013, after a court suit, the Netherlands compensated many widows and children of those killed. But now the apology marks a new level of bilateral reconciliation.

In a highly symbolic gesture, the king laid a wreath at a cemetery for Indonesia’s fallen soldiers. And scholars from both countries have been collaborating on a history of the war for independence.

For his part, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, graciously accepted the apology. “We try to learn from history to strengthen our commitment to build an equal relationship that respects and benefits each other,” he said. The countries used the occasion to seal deals for $1 billion in new trade.

Despite such steps, the king and his government probably know the difficulty of shifting public opinion in the Netherlands. In a YouGov survey last year, half of Dutch people said the old empire, which included Indonesia, is something to be proud of. Only 6% said the empire was a shameful period.

The Dutch, in fact, are prouder of their former empire than people in seven other countries surveyed by YouGov: Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Japan, and Germany. In most of the European countries, the prevailing attitude toward former colonies is one of indifference.

The world’s era of colonization largely ended by the late 20th century. Yet in recent years, Russia has retaken parts of Ukraine. Iran commands other parts of the Middle East by proxy militias. And China has taken many islands far from its coast. When a former imperial power tries to clean up its past rather than re-create it, the world makes progress. The Dutch king’s apology is an example.

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