The Dutch Indies, 1945-1949. Only about 10 percent of the Indonesian population wanted independence. These “roving gangs” needed to be stopped, but there was definitely no war raging. At least, this was the picture created for the Dutch by a successful propaganda war.
The information given to the Dutch population at the time of the Indonesian War of Independence was misleading, according to Dutch historian Louis Zweers. The Dutch military communication service decided which photos and information could be published in the newspapers. It proved to be a successful strategy.
The Dutch believed that their soldiers were protecting the Indonesian population against a few “long-haired terrorists” or “bandits,” instead of thousands of guerrilla fighters.
They had no idea that in fact a war was raging and that at least 100,000 Indonesians and over 5,000 Dutch soldiers died in the years between 1945 and 1949.
Zweers, who was born in 1948, analyzed thousands of photos and news reports from the war. They had been lying untouched in boxes in the National Archive in The Hague for decades, until in 1995 he received a phone call from an archivist.
“It clearly had little priority,” Zweers recalled. “People didn’t want to know about it.”
He himself had become interested in Indonesia at a young age, because of his grandfather who had taken part in the military expedition in Lombok in 1894 and left him his awards, photos and papers.
In addition, the historian’s niece moved to Indonesia to be with her Indonesian husband in 1951, at a time when almost all the Dutch left the country.
This interest in the country resulted in the compilation of 20 books about the Dutch Indies and Indonesia, and his Ph.D. thesis about the censorship of the news on the Indonesian War of Independence.
Zweers reached the conclusion that the battle for public opinion in the Netherlands was equally important as the actual battle being fought in Indonesia. The Dutch government wanted to maintain its hold on the colony and did everything it could to convince the world that a “building mission” was going on, and not a “combat mission.”
“The Dutch military did the exact same thing recently when referring to the Dutch mission in Afghanistan,” Zweers explained.
The Dutch referred to the military activities in Indonesia as politionele acties , or police actions, and the term has been used in the Netherlands ever since.
“This veiled language was used to make clear that it was a justified, internal matter to restore law and order,” Zweers said.
If people knew that an actual war had broken out, the Netherlands would be even more fiercely criticized by the Americans and British, he added. The picture that was sent out would also have a big influence on the morale of the Dutch soldiers’ families.
The 250 employees that worked for the Dutch military communication service in Batavia therefore made sure the press zoomed in on the humanitarian side of the conflict and legitimized the Dutch military action. This all went very smoothly, especially after hiring American PR agency Swanson.
At the beginning of the war, obedient journalists were allowed to visit certain areas outside Batavia together with press officers. Journalists could also travel inland by jeep without being accompanied, but this was extremely dangerous, because of the various militias and the fact that being Dutch automatically made them a target. Most journalists stayed at hotels in the capital and attended the press conferences and receptions. One exception was Dutch war correspondent Alfred van Sprang, who worked for United Press and disguised himself as an American.
During the last months of the war in 1949, when a fierce battle was being fought between the Indonesian freedom fighters and the Dutch army, the press was denied access to all areas of operation. Thousands of victims died in the jungles and mountains of Java and Sumatra, but the Dutch still read stories about how their army was helping to bring order in Indonesia. The newspapers frequently showed photos of Dutch soldiers offering food and clothes to the thankful Indonesian people.
“The soldiers did things like this too, but photos of casualties did not pass the censorship, because it would give an undesirable image of the war,” Zweers noted.
The pro-government Dutch media did not attempt to break from the army press officers’ censorship. The foreign press was more critical — and the army press officers had a harder time convincing them that the war was a humanitarian intervention. According to the Dutch press offices, foreign journalists were biased and supported the Indonesian republicans.
Occasionally, a letter from a Dutch soldier telling his family the true story of what was really going on slipped through the cracks. Some of these letters were published in the few critical, left-wing press. However, this did not cause widespread outrage among the Dutch population. Zweers believes this was because there were no photos published with those letters.
“There was no visual proof of burned kampongs or civilian casualties,” he said. “Also, most people believed the army when they responded by saying that these reports were highly exaggerated.”
A war does not exist without photos, and no photos means no impact on public opinion, according to the historian.
“The same goes for Syria at the moment. Only after photos of the gas attack were spread did a shock wave hit the world and could voices be heard saying the chemical weapons had to be removed from the country.”
Also, the photos taken in the Dutch Indies were still black and white.
“Blood doesn’t look as shocking in gray,” Zweers said.
“During the Vietnam war, color photos and moving pictures were shown. You could hear the cries of the wounded. That made a big impression.”
Nowadays war photos are often taken with mobile phones and immediately posted on the Internet.
Amateur photos were taken at the time in the Dutch Indies as well, but very few of actual acts of war. And most of those few photos were not found until much later — even up until now.
Recently, an ex-marine who fought in the Dutch Indies between 1946 and 1948 showed two photos that he owned of mass graves at Madura on Dutch TV.
One might wonder what would have happened if there had been more press freedom and a more critical coverage of the war by the Dutch press.
Would the Dutch people and the 150,000 Dutch soldiers who were fighting against the Republic of Indonesia have been more strongly opposed to this war? Zweers believes the answer is yes.
“There certainly would have been more protest in the Netherlands, as happened in the United States during the Vietnam War.”
“However,” he adds, “you never know whether the politicians and the military would have listened to the public.”