Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Hueting Interview and Dutch atrocities in Indonesia

The collective amnesia that had gripped Dutch society for nearly two decades after the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949) ended on Friday, January 17th 1969.  That evening, viewers of the television progamme Achter het Nieuws (Behind the News) were treated to an interview with Joop Hueting, a former conscripted soldier in the Dutch army in Indonesia. The previous month the national newspaper de Volkskrant had published a page long interview with Hueting about his experiences of Dutch war crimes in the former colony. But the article had led to little or no reaction. The impact of Hueting’s interview in Achter het Nieuws would be on an entirely different scale.  Already, during the broadcast, telephone calls  began to arrive, mostly from irate viewers expressing their rage at Hueting’s words. In total, the television channel would receive 841 reactions. In the coming weeks no less than 460 articles appeared in the ten national newspapers commenting on the programme.  Seldom had a television progamme been the catalyst for the release of so much emotion.

Joop Hueting Interview, January 17, 1969
What shocked the public was Hueting’s revelation concerning the conduct of Dutch troops. In a calm, steady voice, he told: “I participated there in war crimes (…)  I can mention that kampongs were riddled [with bullets] - where no one could see the military necessity at the time – that interrogations took place where torture was used in the most horrible way, in which the military necessity was difficult to find – that acts of vengeance took place, in which the military necessity was also not to be found. For instance (…): we had prisoners and these prisoners were often shot dead and the slogan was ‘Go take a piss’, after which they would turn around and be shot in the back.”

The interviewer than asked: “Where those incidental examples or do you say: ‘I experienced that often’?” Hueting answered: “Those were not incidental examples – that was the normal state of affairs.”

For nearly 20 minutes Hueting continued his list, bearing witness to what he himself had experienced. He told of being on patrol when, while being under enemy fire, prisoners would be taken and, that often the easiest solution was simply to kill them. “That is a clear example of a war crime” he added.  But there were soldiers who, even when there was no contact with the enemy, would spot a farmer and “Bang – he would be shot dead.”  In what would become an oft quoted passage from the interview, Hueting described how two soldiers entered a house in a kampong and opened fire and then he himself entered the house and ‘I saw there, in the twilight, fifteen, twenty people – women, children and men, squatting down in a heap. And when I got used to [the light] I saw the blood spurting from arteries, the screaming, the death agony and death cries from the people in that little house. And the lads outside shouted at us: ‘hey, will you watch out lads, ‘cause you shot through the wall and almost hit us’.”

A shocking moment was when Hueting described interrogation practices: “That began with hitting and kicking (…) After the hitting and kicking sometimes the telephone was used, when the wires would be attached to the genitals and then a current would be released (…) and the people would shrivel up from the pain and pass urine.” 

He then told of one of the most upsetting incidents that he had witnessed: “a rope was taken and that was tied around the ankles of the man and then the rope was thrown over the beam that supported the interior gallery of the house. The rope was pulled on one side and on the other side the man – ankles above, head below. First the rope was gently released, until he came with his head on the concrete floor of the gallery, and then harder, until the blood was coming from pretty much everywhere and a sort of cracking sound came from his head. He died in a really sick way.”
Royal Dutch Indies Army
Hueting explained that the silence that had engulfed these events for two decades as being the result of two processes – because the former soldiers or veterans did not believe in “hanging out the dirty laundry” and because it was not in the interests of the politicians from that time to have these issues in the limelight.
From this point forward the issue of Dutch war crimes in Indonesia would appear and reappear consistently during public debates on decolonization. Hueting’s infamous interview of 1969 will form the beginning of this debate, yet he gave his own verdict quiet clearly: the responsibility lay not with the soldiers themselves, but with the political leaders and with the military commanders.

The immediate effect of the programme was explosive. Historian Van der Born described the effect: “Suddenly The Netherlands was awake.”  The eminent historian Wesseling, described it as “a bomb-shell”.  Lizzy Van Leeuwen referred to it as “a shocking broadcast”.   In the words of a recent Vrij Nederland article, “all hell broke lose”.   Two decades of silence had suddenly ended, and, though the issue of the behaviour of Dutch soldiers in Indonesia has waxed and waned, it has never again quite disappeared from public debate. In the 21st century it will land the Dutchstate in the courts and the publication of photographs of Indonesians being executed by Dutch will be front page headlines as late as 2012, more than sixty years after the end of the conflict and more than forty years after Hueting’s original interview.

Hueting had already tried to publish his views about the conflict in the late 1950s. He had sent his work to the newspapers the NRC Handelsbad and Het Parool. Both newspaper did not dare to publish the material at the time.   The Netherlands was an open society, a democracy, with a free press, not a totalitarian dictatorship. And yet, it was difficult to contest the official collective memory or state of forgetfulness.
But a decade later, much had changed.  

In the mid-1960s Amsterdam had become the birthplace of a colourful new anarchist group, the Provos. This anti-authoritarian movement, hugely popular among youth, took its name from its deliberate social provocations and these happenings or provocations were widely covered in the nation’s media. At the same time the Vietnam War had become a symbol of protest in much of Europe, including the Netherlands. In The Netherlands, as in much of the western world, 1968, the year that Hueting was interviewed by de Volkskrant, was a year of chaos and potential change. Europeans watched the students of Paris rebel in May 1968, followed by the crushing of the Prague spring by Russian forces in August. In February 1968 the West German radical student leader and one of the chief leaders of Europe’s anti-war movement, Rudi Dutschke (so called “Red Rudi”) made a chaotic and well publicized visit to Amsterdam.  Meanwhile, the Dutch government’s decision to penalize students for using the slogan “Johnson – War Criminal”, while dropping charges against an anti-war philosopher from the University of Groningen, had caused heated and emotional public debate.  The increasing polarization of views regarding the war in Vietnam led Herman Wigbold and Koos Postema to present an edition of the television programme Achter het Nieuws dedicated to this theme on April 16, 1968. It is the same Wigbold and Postema that will present the interview with Hueting seven months later. It is against this background of social change and conflict - of youth versus age, revolution against authority, the self-designated forces for peace against the perceived forces for war, that Hueting gained his opportunity to air his views.
Provo white bike action
The new medium of television had brought about a new form of historical representation. Here there was no need for the historian.  The historical actor himself was brought directly before the audience.  In this sense television was the most democratic of all media. Those who heard Hueting’s story that evening had no need of an interpreter; the journalist, the politician and the historian might aid the listener’s interpretation, but the television broadcast allowed everyone to have an opinion. In Hueting’s case the programme’s presenters had found an educated (he had just completed his doctorate in psychology) and articulate subject. For the most part Hueting spoke without prompting – he simply told his story, he shared his autobiographical memory and it quickly became the first part of building a new collective memory. The medium ensured that Hueting could democratically articulate and share his memories with millions at one and the same time, and most of those who heard him and saw him did so under identical circumstances – from the comfort of their own home.  Television, alongside cinema and the internet, have proven to be powerful agents in the construction and dissemination of collective memory. 

Of course a characteristic of the new medium was that it could not be repeated.  Many potential viewers missed the initial programme, and there was nothing that could be done about that. Television was not like a book that could be picked up at ones leisure, that could be read and reread, underlined and added to with marginalia. Not until the internet age and the availability of digital streaming could one archive interesting programmes and watch, and re-watch, at a time of one’s own choosing. Thus, the Hueting interview became known to a far greater number than those who had actually seen it. By means of quotations in newspapers his descriptions of cruelties and excesses became dispersed and widely distributed, entering into the public discourse, yet though those who had missed the programme could not go back and see it. The power of the TV event then, was not simply what it provided in itself, but as a catalyst towards further exchanges in TV, radio and print. As we have already seen, within hours of the event, the first print commentaries were being distributed. The debate had started, and it still continues.