Indonesia, World War II, Hitler, and the Holocaust

A month or two ago, I read a blog post by another expat living in Indonesia. She talked about the apparent lack of knowledge in Indonesia concerning World War II, Hitler, and the Holocuast. A little shocked by what she’d written, although not terribly surprised given the anti-Semitism in Indonesia, I decided to ask some of my friends about their high school history classes.

I have one friend who comes to me with all his questions about the US and Christianity and (though I’m usually fairly bad at answering them) Judaism. In turn, I go to him with my questions about Indonesia and Islam. We recently had a performance together along with another of our friends so, as I wiped red paint off my face, I took the opportunity to question them both. Even though I had already anticipated their answers, it was still shocking to hear them out loud.

I started by asking what they thought of when they heard the words “Word War II.” After establishing that World War II wasn’t the one with Archduke Franz Fredinand, they expressed a fair amount of knowledge about Japan (not surprisingly) and also mentioned the Soviet Union. With prompting, they also acknowledged that Germany had been a player.

I realized we were going to need to get more specific. What about Hitler? Yes, they’d heard of him. Hitler had been the leader of Germany. They stopped there.

I was floored. What about the Holocaust?

My one friend had no idea what I was talking about. In her defense, she said she’d never liked history in school. My other friend—the one who has all the questions about American culture—is generally more curious about the world outside of Indonesia. He does a lot of reading on the internet and though he doesn’t completely understand all of it (hence the questions for me), he’s pretty well-versed in general world knowledge.

He did, however, hasten to add that the Holocaust is not covered in school. There was maybe one sentence about it in the textbook, he said, and there wasn’t any further explanation. He went on to say that he doesn’t necessarily see Hitler as the evil person that he is in the West. He killed a lot of people, but how was that different from the Europeans colonizing America and slaughtering Native Americans in the process? Also, Hitler did manage to lead Germany well, for the time that he was in power. I’m not sure I agree with those views, but they were good things to talk about.

Nazi Germany taken care of, I steered the conversation back to the Pacific front. I’ve always been interested in how World War II is taught in Asia and this was my chance to find out. What did they learn about what Japan did during the war?

My friend laid out the big points of their invasion, including Pearl Harbor and the occupation of Indonesia. Which brought me to my major point of curiosity, given the lack of explanation about the Holocaust: what was life like in Indonesia under the Japanese?

My friend didn’t have much to say about this, just that it was bad. When asked bad in what way, he said a lot of people were forced to work (possibly in labor camps; failure in translation here is my fault). I asked if they learned about the Japanese killing people and got little response. Did they learn about Nanking? No.

Which basically backs up what Katherine wrote in her blog post. Indonesian schools have a strong tendency to gloss over the darker bits of history, whether they concern Europe or Asia.

As I already mentioned, there is a good deal of anti-Semitism in Indonesia, which partially explains the lack of coverage of the Holocaust. I’m tempted to speculate that there’s a similar explanation for the lack of education concerning Japanese atrocities during World War II. There is also a certain amount of anti-Chinese feeling in Indonesia and the Japanese mainly targeted Chinese. Now, that’s all speculation and I am very far from being an expert on this, but maybe it’s something for me to look into.

2 thoughts on “Indonesia, World War II, Hitler, and the Holocaust

  1. I noticed the same thing while in Jakarta. I once walked into the newsroom and someone was doing the Sieg Heil. I was really taken a back and also just disturbed. Later in the day I grabbed a coffee with a colleague who is half Indonesian/half German and she said the same thing — that Indonesians generally don’t know what Hitler and all of the imagery symbolizes.

  2. Thanks for the shout out Zoe. Interesting to hear what your friends thought, and see the added Japanese twist. This whole topic is is a great example of how the narratives of history are created. Nice work!

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