Military Trials of War Criminals in the Netherlands East Indies 1946-1949 Cover

Military Trials of War Criminals in the Netherlands East Indies 1946-1949

Fred L. Borch

Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, 270 pages

Book Review published on: October 25, 2019

Military Trials of War Criminals in the Netherlands East Indies 1946-1949 is about the trials of Japanese personnel and Dutch collaborators who carried out crimes during World War II in the Netherlands East Indies, an area today referred to as the Republic of Indonesia. These crimes were serious and included mass murder and unlawful executions. Hundreds of trials took place, and a large number of defendants were sentenced to death. Fred L. Borch believes that the purpose of these trials was to punish wrongdoers and to show what could happen to those who engage in criminal activity as occupiers during wartime. Very importantly, this book reiterates the point that a defeated country can expect to pay a high price for atrocities committed during wartime against the victor.

In his introduction, Borch notes that not much information is well known about the trials of war criminals in the Netherlands East Indies, and his goal in writing this book is to change that. It is obvious that he has accomplished his goal, as the twelve chapters provide a great deal of information about these trials through careful analysis. Many of the chapters focus on a particular crime and its implications, which helps the reader obtain a better, more in-depth understanding of each crime’s significance in the described trials. In essence, the book provides a type of legal guideline that could be used in the future if such prosecutions take place involving defeated countries whose military personnel and representatives are charged with war crimes.

Sound academic scholarship is an obvious characteristic of this work, exemplified by Borch relying on official court records as his primary source of information. This is understandable considering the professional background of the author. He served as a military lawyer for twenty-five years, which gives him the advantage of being able to structure the material in conformity to legal guidelines. In addition, the significant bibliography suggests the use of scholarly secondary sources to add more pertinent information to the work.

Perhaps the primary significance of this book is that it focuses on an area in the Pacific that has not been given much attention concerning atrocities committed by the Japanese and their collaborators during the Second World War. Most books that deal with World War II war crimes focus on the war trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo. Hence, this book is unique in that it provides the opportunity to engage in a comparison between what happened in the East Indies and what happened at Nuremberg and Tokyo regarding trials of defendants for war crimes. This comparison is enlightening because although there are similarities, there are also differences. One important difference is that after the war, the East Indies government was accused of engaging in some of the same atrocities against those individuals in their country who were fighting for independence that came about in 1949.

The work contributes to the field of history in a number of ways. For example, it includes subject matter viewed as wartime criminal activity that is not commented on much in other books. Thus, the concept of “collective responsibility” is given a great deal attention, and it is explained quite well in its relationship to wartime crime. Basically, this concept implies that if you were a member of an organization that committed atrocities such as the Japanese military police committed, you could incur criminal liability. In addition, the chapter on “forced prostitution” brings to light a new type of crime for which a country’s military personnel can be prosecuted as war criminals. The book also has another historical contribution by explaining the effect of certain elements of Japanese philosophy that affected its behavior in the East Indies. For example, the phrase “Asia for the Asians,” implied a desire on the part of the Japanese to make Asia devoid of European influences. The code of “Bushido” suggested that it was the greatest honor to die for the emperor, and one should not surrender—to do so would bring dishonor on oneself and one’s family. This was a reason why so few Japanese soldiers in the Pacific became prisoners.

Interestingly, the author notes,

History shows that soldiers in all armed forces are capable of committing war crimes. Soldiers serving in the U.S. Army committed war crimes in World War II, and in Vietnam, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other armed forces—British, French, and Italian—likewise have committed war crimes. The war crimes committed by the Japanese in the Indies were different, however, in that they were the manifestation of the race war triggered by the “Asia for Asians” ideology and the code of Bushido. The severity, viciousness, and widespread nature of the crimes during the occupation of the Indonesian archipelago, reflect these two factors and the records of the war crimes tribunals contain overwhelming evidence supporting this view.

Borch has written this book in a manner that makes it quite readable. For example, legal concepts used in relation to the trials of the Japanese can easily be understood; this contributes to a better understanding of how and why the prosecutions came about. Thus, academicians and others who have an interest in a particular aspect of war crimes during the Second World War will find this work to be interesting and informative. This book will enable readers to make a comparison of treatment afforded the defendants in the East Indies with the treatment of enemy combatants in other parts of the world after the Second World War. In addition, the fact that new aspects of these trials in the East Indies could be used in future prosecutions for war crimes should make this book appealing to students of international law.

Book Review written by: William E. Kelly, PhD, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama