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