Indonesian National Revolution Photos the Dutch Army Didn't Want You to See

The Dutch Resistance Museum exposes news photos which were withheld due to the ‘police actions’ of 1945-1950.

by Yoran Custers
Jan 22 2016, 2:45pm

All photos courtesy of the Resistance

In early 1969, the Netherlands was rigorously shaken. In the television program  Achter het Nieuws (Behind the News), the war veteran Joop Hueting revealed that Dutch soldiers had committed war crimes during the Indonesian National Revolution two decades earlier. In saying that, he didn't just blame himself—he unveiled a national secret. Members of the Dutch House of Representatives asked for an explanation, but an extensive study would never come, out of fear of reputational damage, but also not to embarrass other veterans. At least that's how the story goes.

Last week, Hueting retold his story at the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam in honor of the exhibition  Colonial War 1945-1949 - desired and undesired images which is on view until April 3. The exhibition tells the story of the Dutch perceptions of the Indonesian National Revolution—one that was strongly affected by the Dutch media. It offers a chronological history, with two possible perspectives: On one side, you see the news photos that were approved to be published in the Netherlands, and on the other, you are confronted with images that were deliberately withheld by the military information service, for example, because they showed war crimes.

Undesired: Photo from the album of soldier Verplancke. Java, November 27, 1947. Three imprisoned young Indonesian soldiers. They seem wounded and their lower legs are tied with ropes. Dutch soldiers are watching. (Unknown photographer, NIOD)

Shortly after World War II, the Netherlands lay in ruins, but there was nevertheless a lot of effort immediately put into maintaining the Indonesian colony. Between 1945 and 1950, more than 120,000 young Dutch men were sent to Asia, with the goal to prevent the insurgents, led by Sukarno, from gaining power. In the Netherlands, the impression arose that this prevention went fine: the photographs publicized in newspapers and magazines showed how the Dutch brought order and peace to places that were neglected by the local authorities. In places where this was not the case, it seemed only a matter of time. The Dutch would perform humanitarian work, or "police actions," as they were officially called.

The reality, however, was quite different, and could just as easily be called war. The soldiers had "day and night patrol in a strange environment," as outlined in the exhibition. "Ambushes and shootings are the order of the day; the enemy is often invisible." And, in explanation: "As the fight lasts longer, the morale goes down. The soldiers become hardened by the guerrilla war. Compassion with Indonesian soldiers and civilians vanishes. "

Desired: An emaciated boy receives a ration and cigarettes from some Dutch marines. The editorialized photo zoomed in on the boy while the rest was cut away. West Madura, in late August 1947. (H. Wilmar, Spaarnestad Photo, NA)

These were not stories to be proud of. They certainly didn't put the Netherlands, a country in building, in a good light, and made it unattractive for new soldiers to leave for Indonesia. As a consequence, many of the images failed the selection process of the Netherlands' two military extensions in Asia. Also, the embedded photo reporters, who worked in the service of the newspapers, were careful in their selection of images, as they were protected by the Dutch military and therefore chose their side unconditionally.

The images that did come through the selection were published in newspapers and magazines such as  Panorama Katholieke Illustratie, and  De Spiegel, which then had millions of readers. But still, not all Dutch press followed the instructions of information services. Progressive newspapers and magazines such as  Het Parool Vrij Nederland, and  De Groene Amsterdammer were more critical and sometimes even strongly poke out against the conflict, simply substituting the word, "war," for "police action." Henk van Randwijk, the chief editor of  Vrij Nederland, for example, wrote, "A 'police action' with tanks and planes IS a war! Why are we hypocritically arguing over a word, if the matter is clear?"

Undesired: Fallen Indonesian fighters in a ditch, partly covered by palm leaves. On the far right, a bamboo spear can be seen. (W.F.J. Pielage, Spaarnestad Photo, NA)

That critical move was thwarted by the fact that these papers had few correspondents in the area, due to a lack of funding, and because their critical tone was barred by military leadership. Instead of photos, they therefore published letters from soldiers who spoke openly about the violence against the locals. But it did not lead to much change—the absence of images proved to be crucial.

The importance of image, especially of war, was underlined again in 2012 when some pictures turned up in a wastebin in the town Enschede—pictures of Indonesians executed by Dutch troops. The images were published by the newspaper,  De Volkskrant, with the headline, "first photographs ever of Dutch army executions in India." Again, there was commotion, and research was conducted which confirmed the structural violence. Gradually, the big picture becomes clearer, and it is the photographs themselves that play a major role in it.

Check out more pictures that the Netherlands could, or totally could not see, below:

Desired: A local woman and child receive a ration and a piece of bread from a Dutch soldier. West Java, 1946. Original caption: "With her broad smile she mumbles constantly, 'trima kassi, tuan' (thank you, sir)." (W. van de Poll, NA)


Undesired: Yogyakarta, Central Java, in early January 1949. Major General Dr. Simons, head of the Military Medical Corps, visits wounded Dutch soldiers. Doctor dr. Karamoy stands at a Dutch soldier with gunshot wounds. The series negatives were deliberately scratched so they would be unfit for publication. The Army Information Service didn't want any photographs of wounded and fallen Dutch soldiers in the media. (From Krieken, DLC, NA)

Desired: Soldiers on guard while broken rails are restored by Indonesians. (South Sumatra, Baturadja, November 1947. (J. Zijlstra, collection L. Zweers)

Desired: The landing of an amphibious vehicle with Dutch marines, Pasir Putih, north coast of East Java, July 21, 1947. The image recalls the landing of the Allied Liberators on the coast of Normandy at D-Day. Original caption: "The men storming ashore to establish a bridgehead on the beach. No opposition is offered." (H. Wilmar Spaarnestad Photo, NA)

Undesired: Dutch soldiers casually pointing their weapons at soldiers from the Indonesian government who have surrendered. Solo, Central Java, 21 December 1948. (T. Schilling, DLC, NA)

Undesired: Soldiers of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger, KNIL) in the company of captured, wounded, and killed Indonesian soldiers. Malang, East Java, in late July 1947. (Photographer unknown Army, TLC, National Archives, The Hague)

Desired: Residents of Solo, Central Java greet the invading Dutch forces at December 21, 1948. A krontjong band (in the white hats) plays music. The army photographer deliberately zooms in and leaves out of the picture what's left the street (T. Schilling, DLC, NA).

Undesired: An Indonesian pemuda gets pulled from a ditch (H. Wilmar, Marvo, NIMH)

Click here for more information.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Creators Project Netherlands. 


This Is What It's Like to Photograph Refugees in Europe

Why You Should Be Paying Attention to Agriculture Photography

Witness the Evolution of Photography in 102 Seconds

Yoran Custers

War crimes
Indonesian National Revolution
Joop Hueting
police actions