After a failed attempt to study at the University of London, in the early 1960s Notosusanto – by then a lecturer – was contacted by General Abdul Haris Nasution and tasked with writing a history of the revolution and Madiun Affair. By 1964 he had become head of the Indonesian Army's history division, holding an honorary rank. Continuing to teach, he wrote extensively on the revolution and other military events, including the first book on the 30 September Movement of 1965. Between 1983 and his death Notosusanto served concurrently as rector of the University of Indonesia and Minister of Education and Culture.
Nugroho Notosusanto was born in Rembang, Central Java, Dutch East Indies, on 15 July 1930, the first of three children born to R.P. Notosusanto, a professor of Islamic law and later one of the founders of Gadjah Mada University, and his wife. The family was well connected, and several of Nugroho Notosusanto's relatives were bupati (regents); his grandfather, Notomidjojo, was likewise connected to the nobility. While still a child Nugroho Notosusanto began writing short stories; his father later recalled that they were filled with themes of struggle and nationalism. Another of Notosusanto's relatives, Budi Darma, later recalled that he had always stood at attention, "like a soldier", when the future national anthem "Indonesia Raya" was played.
Nugroho Notosusanto began his elementary education at a Dutch-run school in Malang, East Java, in 1937. The following year he transferred to a school for native Indonesians in the colony's capital at Batavia (now Jakarta), graduating in 1942. He completed his junior high school studies in Pati.
During the Indonesian National Revolution from 1945 to 1949 Nugroho Notosusanto's family lived in the temporary national capital at Yogyakarta so that his father could work for the Ministry of Law. The younger Notosusanto fought for the revolutionaries. He first joined the 17th Brigade of Student Army (Tentara Pelajar), later transferring to the People's Security Army (Tentara Keamanan Rakjat). During this period he exclusively did reconnaissance and often slept at the homes of local villagers. Historian Katherine McGregor suggests that this influenced his later short stories, which took humanist themes.
After the end of the revolution, Notosusanto was given a choice between resuming his studies or going to Breda in the Netherlands for further military training. Influenced by his father's disapproval of the military, he finished his senior high school education, despite wanting to continue with the army. After graduating senior high school in 1951, he immediately enrolled with the faculty of literature at the University of Indonesia (Universitas Indonesia, or UI). However, he continued to resent the older generation and political leadership.
During the 1950s Notosusanto wrote extensively, focusing on essays but also writing poems and, later, short stories; the last of his creative works were written around 1956. He published four short story anthologies between 1958 and 1963. The first, Hudjan Kepagian (Morning Rain), consisted of six short stories. It dealt with the struggle against the Dutch colonists during the revolution. His second anthology, Tiga Kota (Three Cities), was published the following year and followed events in three cities: Rembang, Yogyakarta, and Jakarta. The others, and his numerous stories which were published outside of anthologies, mostly dealt with the war and the positive effects of revolution.
Aside from his writing, Notosusanto was active in student and political organisations, the student press, and academic conferences. With other students he picketed the British and French embassies in Jakarta, supporting independence for Egypt and Algiers. He also travelled extensively, visiting Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, and the US on academic sorties. He completed his bachelour's degree in history from UI in 1958, becoming a lecturer at UI after graduation. On 12 December 1960 he married Irma Sawitri Ramelan (better known as Lilik). Together they had three children: Indrya Smita, Inggita Sukma, and Narottama.
By the early 1960s Notosusanto had abandoned his literary career, focusing instead on history. In 1960 he received a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, England. He dropped out in 1961, and returned to Indonesia in 1962. Around this time he was recruited by General Abdul Haris Nasution to provide a version of the revolution amenable to the Indonesian Army and counter a Communist Party of Indonesia-backed history which ignored the Madiun Affair of 1948. In 1964 he was chosen as head of the Department of Military History. He also worked as a lecturer at UI.
During the mid-to-late 1960s Notosusanto wrote extensively on the military history of Indonesia, including a book on Supriyadi's anti-Japanese rebellion in 1945 and the Battle of Surabaya. His 1968 book on the 30 September Movement coup in 1965, written in collaboration with Ismail Saleh and entitled The Coup Attempt of the 30 September Movement in Indonesia, was the first on the subject to be published. It was later used as the basis for the pro-Suharto film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of G30S/PKI; 1984), for which Notosusanto received a writing credit.
Sometime after 1968 Notosusanto conceived of Satria Mandala Museum in Jakarta as a modern museum showcasing the military's role in the country's history. The museum, modeled after the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Museo Nacional de Historia in Mexico City, Mexico, opened in 1972 and contained numerous dioramas. In a later pamphlet Notosusanto wrote that dioramas were necessary as "the habit of reading is still developing ... [thus] historical visualisation remains an effective way to express the identity of ABRI". In existing museums he revised the dioramas to better suit the needs of the New Order government.
During this period Notosusanto continued to teach, although he also became involved with administrative work at UI. He served as assistant dean at the university's faculty of literature between 1963 and 1964, later serving as assistant rector from 1964 to 1967. After writing his thesis on "The Peta Army During the Japanese Occupation in Indonesia", Notosusanto received his doctorate in 1977 from UI; the thesis was translated into Indonesian and published in 1979 by Gramedia. Two years later he was made a full professor.
Notosusanto was made a member of the Fourth Development Cabinet when it was formed on 16 March 1983, replacing outgoing minister Daud Jusuf and taking office three days later. During his two years as minister he worked on several programmes, including compulsory education and student selection systems. He also instituted a new curriculum, replacing the one which had been in use since 1975 and promoting the humanities. Concurrently with his work as Minister of Education and Culture, Notosusanto served as rector of UI; students were disapproving of his selection, considering him a military official sent to limit their freedom. He died at his Jakarta home on 3 June 1985 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried at Kalibata Heroes' Cemetery. At the time he was a brigadier general, the highest rank then available for civilians in military service.
For his military and civilian service, Notosusanto received several awards from the Indonesian government, including the Bintang Dharma, Bintang Gerilya, Bintang Yudha, Dharma Naraya, and Satyalencana Penegak. McGregor describes him as "the central propagandist of the New Order regime", writing that he worked "tirelessly" to support the military. She argues that he controlled a "cult of personality" built around President Suharto, giving the reorganisation of history museums as an example. According to McGregor, Notosusanto relegated the country's first president, Sukarno, to a background role while he "inserted Suharto, together with other military men, into new places", legitimising the New Order government.