A Fictional War: Dutch propaganda and the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949)

Dutch soldiers shopping at a Javanese market, 1947.

Paul M.M. Doolan

In December 1949, the Netherlands was forced to hand over sovereignty of its colony, the Dutch East Indies, to the Republic of Indonesia. Their long domination of the Indonesian archipelago had come to a brutal end with the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949). Hundreds of thousands of Dutch who had called the former colony home repatriated to the metropole and 150,000 soldiers returned from a war that had proven futile. Their memories were not forgotten, though their compatriots did not care to hear their stories. During the decades that followed, the war faded from Dutch collective memory. Today it frequently makes the news.

The foundations for unremembering had already been constructed during the war, by means of official representations of the war. Carefully contrived representations, including visual representations, gave the impression that the Dutch military were involved in a great humanitarian exercise, not in a war. The Dutch military authorities contrived this false impression, but the press distributed and the public consumed this manipulated image, producing a fiction that would complicate the act of remembering in the future.

War is inevitably coupled with representation, but it is only in modern warfare, Paul Virilio argues, that representation outstrips the facts.[1] With the invention of the camera, governments realised the importance of controlling visual image-making while being aware of the dangers that images from the front could induce. Susan Sontag argued that the first war photographer, Roger Fenton, was sent to the Crimean War (1854-1856) by the British government with instructions to avoid photographing “the dead, the maimed or the ill.”[2] The representation of warfare conveyed in Dutch cinema newsreels followed these instructions to a tee.

Commander-in-Chief of Dutch forces, Lieutenant-General Spoor, was cognisant of the fact that the conflict was one of representations in the public arena as well as military combat. Consequently, he set up a military information service with headquarters in the colonial capital Batavia. Historian Louis Zweers demonstrates that this Dienst voor Legercontacten (DLC) [Military Contact Service] produced all sorts of propaganda in a variety of media.[3] This was fed to a compliant Dutch press who became complicit in silencing the reality of the war. The representation mediated by the press was not so much of a war but of a humanitarian mission in which what is destroyed by the Indonesian republicans one day, is rebuilt by the Dutch on the next. This was in line with the directives of the DLC that informed their correspondents that reports should focus on the role of the army in reconstruction, re-establishing security and order as well as providing humanitarian aid in the form of medicine, food and clothing.

Lieutenant-General Simon Spoor, Commander-in-Chief of Dutch military forces.

An important source of public information came from the news journals of the Polygoon company, shown in cinemas throughout the Netherlands.  The late 1940s were the golden age of Polygoon, when they enjoyed a near monopoly in cinema newsreels. Film historian Gerda Jansen Hendriks shows that members of the Polygoon leadership were happy collaborating with the military authorities in creating propaganda, its Chairman admitting: “we are in principle willing to make propaganda for the army in the Indies, as long as it is good propaganda.”[4]  Members of the Polygoon board included representatives from the Ministry of Education, Arts and Science as well as the Government Information Service (RVD). The company did not itself have any camera crew in the Indies, but proved to be more than happy to accept and broadcast film footage supplied to them by the army.[5]

Multifilm Batavia studio around 1947 (Dutch Government Information Service RVD)

The production company Multifilm Batavia provided Dutch audiences with newsreels. This company provided the facade of a private organisation, but as Jansen Hendriks shows, it was a government institution. Its weekly newsreel, Developing World was meant to give the “impression of peacefulness” in order to win over opposition to the war in the Netherlands, but also internationally. Ultimately, however, though the filmmakers may have believed they were serving a “noble purpose”, in essence they were “pulling the wool over people’s eyes.”[6]

Consequently, it is not surprising that newsreels and films like Brengers van Recht en Veiligheid [Bringers of justice and security] and the series Soldaat Overzee [Overseas soldier] only showed carefully staged scenes and never any real fighting. Popular were shots of soldiers setting off for the kampongs [villages] with their bags of medicine meant for the villagers, the Red Cross prominently displayed. There were frequent shots of troops dispersing food aid, mending roads and bridges, and carrying out patrols in order to ensure the safety of the villagers. What is absent in these films, and therefore unrepresented, is the act of killing. There is no burning or bombing of villages, no dead bodies or wounded. Soldiers go on patrol – they crouch, they break suddenly into a run, they leap to the ground and open fire at an enemy that remains unseen by the camera.

We see the military at their preparations: watches being synchronised, maps being studied intensely, soldiers marching and boarding trucks, engineers preparing materials for repairing bridges, armoured vehicles being checked, planes on reconnaissance flights, telegraphists opening lines of communication, divisions moving into position. Soldiers form human chains and ford rivers, mobile telephones units maintain communication, armoured vehicles protect the infantry. The innocent are never in danger from the Dutch. The enemy are consistently referred to as “terrorists.”  The people of Indonesia are docile victims of terrorists, dependent on Dutch aid. These films, made to entertain and inform the western gaze, appeal to a cultural archive and form a part of an asymmetrical colonial discourse in which the colonizer’s knowledge of the colonized is privileged. Only the Dutch, it seems, are capable of restoring normalcy for the people of the archipelago.

However, by 1949 the Dutch found themselves isolated in the international arena, their aggressive war condemned by their western allies as well as the United Nations. Closer to home, a small minority of the left-of-centre Dutch press had always opposed the colonial war. In late 1948, questions were raised in parliament regarding reports of the use of excessive violence by Dutch troops. In February 1949 the socialist weekly, De Groene Amsterdammer, published a letter from an unidentified officer who wrote that Dutch officers “defend with passion and conviction the assertion that, for instance, if you are shot at from a kampong [village] than this kampong should be set on fire from four sides before the inhabitants have the chance to run away. And whoever then tries to escape (…) you shoot with a machine-gun, preferably not bothering with if these include women of children.”[7] De Groene Amsterdammer published another anonymous letter a couple of months later, this time from a conscripted soldier. He wrote of the misdeeds perpetrated by Dutch soldiers, the military terror and the cowardice of those afraid to speak out against the outrages.[8] In an article in the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool, the writer, a well-known hero of the resistance against the Nazi occupation, wondered if the citizens of a future independent Indonesia will build monuments in villages to remember the victims of Dutch atrocities, just like the monuments being erected in the Netherlands to remember the victims of Nazi atrocities.[9]

With the tide of public opinion gradually turning against the war, the number of Polygoon cinema newsreels featuring the war sharply decreased in late 1948 and 1949. Een Grote Soldaat Ging Heen [A great soldier went there] is a short but sombre 10 minute film showing the funeral of Lieutenant-General Spoor, who had died unexpectedly in May 1949. In effect, the Dutch East Indies itself was being buried. Before the year was over, the Dutch had recognized the independent Republic of Indonesia.

The Dutch defeat and the loss of its great colony in 1949 proved to be something that Dutch society has had difficulty coming to terms with. In the 21st century, the issue of Dutch war crimes in Indonesia has become a regular item of front page news. It is only now that Dutch society is emerging from a fiction that lasted for decades, a fiction whose foundation was carefully laid during the war itself.

Paul M. M. Doolan is author of Collective Memory and the Dutch East Indies: Unremembering Decolonization (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021)

[1] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. by Patrick Camiller (New York/London: Verso, 1989) 1-8

[2] Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin Books, 2004): 44.

[3] Louis Zweers, De gecensoreerd oorlog: Militairen versus media in Nederlands-Indië 1945- 1949 (Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2013) 29-40

[4] Quoted in Gerda Jansen Hendriks, Een voorbeeldige kolonie: Nederland-Indië in 50 Jaar Overheidsfilms, PhD dissertation (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam): 237

[5] Ibid., 246

[6] Jansen Hendricks, Gerda, Frank Klein and Petter Otten. “The final years of the Dutch East Indies as recorded by muiltifilm Batavia,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 5:1 (1985): 78-82

[7] Anonymous, “Een officier schrijft aan zijn vrienden”, De Groene Amsterdammer, (Feb. 26, 1949)

[8] Anonymous, „Nog een brief uit Indonesie“, De Groene Amsterdammer, (April 2, 1949)

[9] Pieter ‘t Hoen, “Gegevens voor de P.G. te Batavia: Onafhankelijk enquete is noodzaakelijk,“ Het Parool, (April 4, 1949)