The Indonesian Revolution: War Propaganda in Pamphlets



The proclamation of Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945 was just the beginning of an extremely tough struggle by the Indonesian fighters to prove that the new nation was worthy of existence and could be part of the post-war world community. For one thing, they had to knit unity among the country’s people, who at that time numbered around 70 million and consisted of various ethnicities and religions spread across thousands of islands. But the Indonesian government also had to fight foreign enemies: first Japanese troops, then Allied forces, followed by the bloodiest war of all, which lasted over four years, namely the war against the Dutch, Indonesia’s former colonizer who wished to restore the colonial order.


Propaganda played a vital role in the Indonesian resistance to the Dutch. In contrast to Dutch propaganda, which was supported by adequate funds, personnel and facilities, Indonesian propaganda was carried out under very restrictive conditions. Indonesian propaganda was conducted by the Indonesian government, through the Ministry of Information, and by non-state actors, including artists. They were united by the same ideal: defending Indonesian independence from Dutch encroachment.


Indonesian visual propaganda, as portrayed in posters, caricatures and other media, greatly helped the Indonesian government in fostering support among the Indonesian people for the fight against the Dutch. These images promote many things, ranging from legitimizing Indonesia’s right to independence, calling upon the Indonesian people to unite behind the government, framing the Dutch as a ruthless colonial force, persuading the youth to take up arms against the Dutch, encouraging women to provide assistance in the form of clothing, food and medical support, and convincing the international community that Indonesia’s existence is a political reality and contributes to post-war world peace.







As might be expected, most of the propaganda themes from the Dutch side were in stark contrast to the Indonesian ones. These included a call for support from the Dutch to save the Dutch East Indies (Nederlands-Indië, instead of ‘Indonesia’) from the grips of Japanese fascists and their Indonesian accomplices. Calls also included the recruitment of Dutch youth as war volunteers, appealing for moral support from the Netherlands for the Dutch soldiers who were sent to Indonesia and asking Dutch troops to be careful about the threat of mosquitoes in Indonesia. Although their propaganda themes are different, there are common elements in the approaches taken by Indonesia and the Netherlands. Both sides frame the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’, for example by constructing a negative image of the enemy, thereby legitimizing the use of violence. The goal of each side is clear: to win the war.


This exhibition is a visual tour of politically motivated artistic works created by Indonesian fighters and their enemy, the Dutch. It is an extraordinary opportunity to scrutinize these images, which can still be found in outstanding condition after they have survived the tough years of war and the intervening period of more than seven decades. This exhibition will be valuable as a source of learning and teaching, for researchers from diverse fields, as well as for members of the general public who are interested in the visual history of this war. This jointly curated exhibition helps to understand this complex history and it should inspire further study of neglected aspects of this Dutch-Indonesian conflict and the history of post-World War II Southeast Asia.



Muhammad Yuanda Zara


Collecting, viewing and telling



What do we see and what don’t we see? That is the question. This catalogue of propaganda posters, photos, drawings and personal memories gives impressions of the Indonesian war of independence from various perspectives. Such sources typically incorporate a self-image — the friendly, valiant Indonesian soldier or the powerful bona fide colonizer for instance — while simultaneously presenting a picture of the Other — the murderous, underhand enemy. The propaganda posters and drawings do this explicitly. They show the war from the outside, whereas the photos take us inside. We see a group portrait of Indonesian soldiers, Royal Dutch Indies Army soldiers drinking beer at the temple of Borobudur, the corpse of an Indonesian man, shot dead in the middle of the street. What self-image did that photographer have when he took that picture? What does that beer at Borobudur say about the everyday practice and experience of violence? We can no longer ask these photographers or the people in their photos, but that was possible in other cases. Oral records of people’s memories show us their doubts and ambiguity when looking back at the war. “Then you ask yourself if you really went through that and it makes you feel guilty. You took part in something that you didn’t want.”


But what don’t we see and hear? It is not just the war that links these photographs, posters and interviews. They are also connected by the fact that they are all kept in the Indonesian collection of Leiden University Library. Previously, these materials were split across two separate collections, belonging to the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). These two institutes were set up in colonial times to increase Dutch knowledge about its colonies and facilitate the (violent) colonial occupation. After decolonization, all three institutions continued building up knowledge and collecting material, including from postcolonial, modern-day Indonesia. The oral history collection is a good example.







The question is how, when and under what circumstances the collecting organizations acquired these objects. We get a glimpse of this sometimes, for example in the information about the Pusat Propaganda posters, but often we have nothing to go on. Yet it is still important to ask this question. The history of a collection is an influential part of the bigger story and the personal histories that this exhibition aims to recount. How the value attached to these photos, posters and diaries changed in the past has an impact on how we view the past and determines what we see and don’t see.


Many of the photo albums were donated by the owners’ descendants for use in future research. The contradictions between what the photographers wanted to say with their albums, what the families knew about that and what the collectors saw in them can not only be part of processing the war but can also point to a blind spot. Sometimes the contradictions are obvious. One example is the Nasrudin photo album: it was not donated but taken during a military operation — as was also the case for the Indonesian propaganda material — and possibly used for identifying other Indonesian soldiers. It is right to ask whether that album really belongs in Leiden.


Digitalization and international collaboration have substantially improved Indonesia’s access to the collections in the Netherlands. The fact that this exhibition is also being displayed in Indonesia in digital form is therefore highly symbolic. These developments only make the need to have a good picture of the history of colonial and postcolonial collections all the more urgent. We need to know not just what we are looking at but why we are looking at these particular artefacts and what it is we are not seeing.


Marieke Bloembergen & Alicia Schrikker