The darker side of European identity

Written by Rosie on . Posted in Profiles

Bart Luttikhuis

Bart Luttikhuis, history researcher

Three years into his history PhD at the EUI, Bart Luttikhuis has uncovered a definition of European that is far from the beacon of integration celebrated today.

“This project fascinates me because a lot of this talk about European identity is something that is from the start something very positive, but in this context it’s used as a way of excluding people and justifying privilege,” he says of his work investigating the ‘Construction of Europeanness in the Dutch East Indies’ between 1910 and 1940.

“At least for the case of the Dutch East Indies and possibly for other colonial societies, too much emphasis has been put on race as the defining factor of social hierarchy,” Luttikhuis says. “It’s always claimed that in the colonial imagination there was this clear separation on the one hand of natives and Europeans. What I’m arguing is that in the Dutch East Indies European is not equal to white; it’s often an identity and there’s more of a class denominator.”

In the legal system during this period, he says, there was a distinction made between ‘natives’ and ‘Europeans’. The latter term was not however restricted to those born in Europe but based on education and development, with Japanese people being classed as ‘European’ and Indonesians able to gain the same status under certain conditions.

In addition to numerous trips to the Netherlands to visit archives, Luttikhuis has spent the past two summers in Indonesia researching and improving his language skills. The trips were funded by the Department of History and Civilisation and seen as vital to Luttikhuis.

“The material you find in the Netherlands is the work that civil servants found important enough to bring back; every-day running of the government. You can get much more of a feel of ordinary people [by visiting Indonesia].”

Although Luttikhuis is researching a policy in place a century ago, he says that its legacy is still present in Dutch society today. “There are discussions going on about immigration, especially from Islamic countries. You see a lot of the ways of constructing what it means to be Western and non-Western are very similar to what happened in the Dutch East Indies; all the talk about Western civilisation has very strong routes in this colonial rhetoric,” he says.

The connection between what Luttikhuis terms “one of the blackest pages of European history” and the inclusive, non-discriminatory term of ‘European’ as it is used today is an unsettling realisation, but the researcher argues it is one which must be examined.

“It’s important for Europe to look at its black pages. A lot of use of history in political rhetoric or public discussion likes to think Europe is always a positive thing, [but] what it stands for also has different backgrounds. That’s important to keep in mind.”

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