The Frenchman in the passenger seat pointed out the house. It was early evening in the Friesland village of Marshum and the house windows glowed warm and yellow through the falling snow. François Brigneau had been hunting Westerling for days.
Brigneau was a Paris-Presse journalist with a shelf full of awards and a murky past. His wheelman was a handsome journalist called Henri Gault. In a decade’s time Gault will invent the term nouvelle cuisine. Right now he is a cheerful Paris-Presse restaurant critic with enough time on his hands to drive Brigneau round Holland looking for a mysterious Dutch adventurer. Until yesterday they were not having much luck.
“Where is Westerling?” Brigneau asked his contacts.
“Who is Westerling?” said his contacts innocently.
Turk Westerling was the most notorious man in the Netherlands.
The Collaborating Journalist
Dutch journalists were no more helpful. Westerling is in the Côte d’Azur. No, he’s in Lille. In Breda. Lecturing French officers about psychological warfare. Singing in the opera.
Eventually Brigneau got an address in Friesland (Fryslân to the locals) for Westerling’s Eurasian wife. He and Gault drove through the night over the North Sea Canal. Marshum was a small village, barely on the map. They got out of the car, coats buttoned against the snow, and approached the house.
Brigneau knocked on the door and tried his best to seem sociable. It was a challenge. He looked like the type who collected union dues down the docks. Barrel-chested, square-faced, thick-haired. No-one who met Brigneau would be surprised he knew his way around a machine-gun. But that was a long time ago. These days he preferred to fight his battles with a notebook and pen.
Most journalists have lives duller than the stories they write. Not Brigneau. His Paris-Presse work went down smooth with the paper’s conservative readers. They would have choked on a croissant if they knew their favourite journalist had been a Nazi collaborator. As Emmanuel Allot he joined the black uniforms of the paramilitary Milice and tried to stop the Allies liberating France. He ended up in prison. A post-war trial acquitted him. No-one was more surprised at the verdict than Brigneau.
Back on the streets he discovered a talent for journalism. As Allot he was an outcast. Under the name Brigneau he won awards for his writing. In 1956 he took a working holiday in sunny Francoist Spain and managed to track down a couple of far-right heroes: Léon Degrelle, a Belgian who fought on the Eastern Front for Hitler, and Otto Skorzeny, the Third Reich’s special forces man.
The resulting articles made a stir and Paris-Presse sent Brigneau off to collect more scalps. Politics was never far from his mind. A piece on ‘Triumph of the Will’ director Leni Riefenstahl one week, an interview with Spanish communist El Campesino the next.
In 1959 he was in Friesland looking for Raymond Paul Pierre Westerling.
The door of the house in Marshum opened to reveal a man with the short and stocky body of a wrestler, topped by dark hair sprouting from a glossy widow’s peak. His shirt was open to the waist and the sleeves rolled high over forearms hard as rock. This heap of Dutch muscle had a jaw so square it could teach geometry.
An Indonesian sorcerer’s mask hung from the door frame overhead. A white oval of wood, splashed with red. A long serrated tongue poking out of a grimacing mouth.
The man looked at them. Then he nodded.
The Dutch Empire
“Dutch journalists? What a surprise,” said Westerling after Brigneau and Gault explained their problems finding him. “They telephone me every week. They lied to you. They know how to lie very well, Dutch journalists … . But come in.”
The Westerling place was a warm, oversized cottage. In the main room a fireplace sent wood smoke up the chimney.
The three men spoke French. Westerling knew it like a native. His family had used it at home in Istanbul. They were third generation Dutch in the heart of the Islamic caliphate. French at the dinner table, English for school, Turkish at work. At night Westerling’s mother sang him to sleep with Greek lullabies. Westerling had not learned to speak Dutch until he joined Queen Wilhelmina’s army at twenty-two.
The three men exchanged some polite chat. Westerling was not stupid. He knew his guests were chasing the same story as those lying Dutch journalists. The man from Marshum was famous for only one thing: Indonesia.
It used to be the Dutch East Indies, a sunlit inkblot spray of 13,000 islands where the Pacific met the Indian Ocean. The men from Amsterdam had arrived in the sixteenth century to chase spices and tea. They found monsoons and sweaty humid days and sepia-skinned natives battered from centuries of confrontations with any passing Muslim merchant who fancied himself a king. Soon the Dutch owned the place.
White settlers built tea plantations in Sumatra and laid out coffee fields in Java and drilled for oil in the Celebes. Local aristocrats collaborated with Holland. Everyone else lived their lives, quietly cursed the foreign infidels, and got as much European schooling and medicine and capitalism as their new overlords allowed.
Independence movements powered by native Islam were big news from the nineteenth century onwards. Dutch readers scanning newspaper stories like ‘The Unrests in Bantam’ (1888), ‘The Unrests in Sukabumi’ (1902), “Unrest in Kota Waringin’ (1907), ‘Unrests in Makassarand’ (1910) learned that “prang sabil” was local for Jihad.
Repression and arrest kept the Indonesians in their place. Amsterdam had no intention of giving up the East Indies. By 1939 the islands were the second largest oil producer in the world.
The Japanese wartime take-over made a mess of Amsterdam’s plans. Modern samurai herded Dutch civilians into camps and raised the rising sun flag over Batavia. Some Indonesians went into the jungle to fight the invaders. Others saw a future in the arms of Emperor Hirohito’s Co-Prosperity Sphere.
None of the locals, regardless of what side they took, were interested in turning back the clock when Japan surrendered in 1945 and the Dutch returned. A rebel coalition of republicans, Islamists, Soviet-friendly leftists, right-leaning authoritarians, former collaborators, outlaw sultans, and self-confessed bandits started a fight for independence.
The rebels used fine speeches and appeals to national pride. When that failed they used machetes and rifles. Dutch families recently released from by the Japanese found themselves locked up again in bamboo concentration camps deep in the jungle. Villages that preferred not to take sides were burned to the ground. Women were raped. Men hacked into bloody chunks with curved swords.
The Dutch had even fewer scruples. They sent in Raymond Westerling to keep the tricolour flying. Everyone called him “Turco”. The Turk.
The French journalists manoeuvred themselves into the living room. A fireplace cracked and popped in a corner. Brigneau rested a notebook on his thigh and started asking questions.
Westerling had slammed enough doors in enough faces over the years. But he made time for his French visitors. For the last four years Paris had been fighting the Front de Libération Nationale in its colony of Algeria. The FLN wanted independence and to prove it threw bombs into cafés full of Europeans. The French army fought back with rubber hoses and live bullets. Westerling thought Brigneau’s readers would understand the parallels with Indonesia.
And he had a weakness for pressmen smart enough to flatter him.
It was more a monologue than interview. Seven years ago the Dutchman had written up his experiences as Mes Aventures en Indonésie (“an astonishingly egotistical account,” said the book reviewer at Brisbane’s Courier-Mail) while on the run. His stories were well-oiled with repetition.
He talked about commando raids through filthy swamps and beautiful Eurasian girls and coups directed by Indonesian Sultans with chic blonde wives and palaces of cool stone. He had a good story about a guerrilla leader abducted at the request of a British officer supervising Japanese disarmament. The guerrilla tried to escape. A sword came down. Later Westerling presented the guerrilla’s severed head to the British officer in a biscuit tin while they were having dinner.
“He strangely lost his appetite.”
Westerling was keen to explain his philosophy. He saw himself as a humanitarian, cutting out the cancer of insurrection with scalpel precision that left innocent flesh untouched.
“I killed with my own hands,” he said, “because I wanted to be solely responsible. I killed, under orders, murderers who had committed innumerable atrocities, not innocent people.”
More conventional soldiers would locate an enemy village, move units through the jungle noisily enough to send the guerrillas fleeing, and launch a textbook mortar barrage. Innocent locals would be pulped by falling shells. “Killed in the crossfire”, officers wrote in their reports, as they liberated the village’s burning huts. A few days later the enemy would return and resume operations.
When the Americans go into Vietnam in the 1960s a CIA agent will contact Westerling to ask his opinion about Uncle Sam’s tactics. The Dutchman will not be impressed. It is a time when an American officer in the Mekong Delta can make himself notorious explaining the facts of life to a journalist after the battle of Bến Tre.
“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
The Americans in Vietnam will make the same mistakes as the Dutch in the East Indies. Their bombs and bullets miss the real targets and catch peasants in the crossfire.
Back in Indonesia, Westerling preferred to creep through the trees with a gang of hand-picked local militia. Surround the village and assemble the inhabitants. A terrified village elder would point out guerrillas, real or imagined. The guerrillas got a commando dagger across the throat. Their bodies went in the river while Westerling gave a speech telling the villagers that Holland loved them.
It was efficient, said Westerling. It saved lives.
To everyone else it was a war crime. Over 3,000 Indonesians died in four months during one of Westerling’s pacification campaigns in South Celebes (now Sulawesi).
“For my much milder operations I was sometimes described as a monster,” said Westerling. “Was it because I executed personally the measures which I considered necessary? Because I did not shirk from what I considered necessary?”
He had just finished a story about how the rebels killed an Indonesian woman he loved when three young girls, two blondes and a brunette so cute the neighbours competed to babysit, ran into the room. Westerling’s daughters. The smell of food drifted in from the kitchen where his wife Yvonne was preparing a meal. The girls crowded Papa then squashed their noses against the window to watch the snow fall.
The Dutchman told Brigneau and Gault another story.
Death in the Club
It was a sunny mid-morning in Makassar and the Indonesian spy was sitting an inside table of the Society Club.
We were both Club regulars, said Westerling. I used to take my coffee on the terrace but had to move inside after nationalists loyal to that smooth-faced traitor Sukarno began throwing grenades at any whites out there.
The spy was a businessman with good contacts in the Celebes’ Dutch community. Off-duty he passed information about troop movements to local guerrillas. Dutch soldiers died in ambushes.
I thought there was enough proof for a trial and the hangman’s rope. Dutch lawyers were less sure. So one afternoon I put my hand on the businessman’s chest as he tried to get by and told him to resign from the Makassar Society Club.
A few days later the Indonesian was at his regular table chatting with friends and Dutch businessmen and anyone else who liked to talk. He made sure to turn up in the morning because I only visited the Club after lunch. But I was early that day.
“Do you remember what I told you?” I said.
The Indonesian nodded. He looked afraid.
I pulled my revolver. I shot him in the face. The bullet knocked the Indonesian out of his chair. Blood flowed thick from his head wound and nose and ears and mouth.
Why did I do it? I wanted to shock public opinion.
Yvonne Serlinandi Westerling called everyone into the other room to eat. Gault appraised the brunette (half French, half Indonesian) as he passed. She was dark-eyed and still slim after four children. Good legs but a face too sour to be beautiful, in his opinion. They sat down to the traditional Indonesian dish of nassi-goreng.
Westerling chatted about his new career between forkfuls of food. The Dutch journalists had not been joking about the opera. The former commando may have looked like a chiselled gorilla but back on 8 June 1958 a sold out crowd at Breda Opera House saw him perform as Mario Calvadossi in La Tosca. A police cordon kept back demonstrators.
Brigneau was a cold-blooded old fascist who had seen a lot but even he found the Dutchman unsettling. The Paris-Presse man had come to Marshum expecting an exotic adventurer with wise words for French paratroopers conducting sweeps through the Kasbah. He had found something else, something unashamed and perverse and diamond hard. It explained the arrests, the controversies, the death threats, the inquiries, the massacres, the extradition demands, the conspiracies about the poisoning of a senior Dutch general, and everything else in the Paris-Presse clipping file.
And now the Dutchman was telling his visitors how he possessed one of the most beautiful singing voices in the world. Brigneau let him boast for a few minutes then changed topics to Westerling’s most infamous adventure. The coup d’état.
Brigneau had a personal interest in the subject. In 1958 French hero Charles De Gaulle had returned to power in what was effectively a putsch. Brigneau hated De Gaulle from the war and hated him more when the general announced independence for Algeria. Even moderate rightists started wondering about another putsch to remove De Gaulle. More than a few Paris-Presse readers would want to hear the first-hand account of a man who had already been there.
Westerling was happy to talk. He knew all about overthrowing governments. The once loyal soldier of orange had turned renegade after five years in Indonesia.
At first, the men in Amsterdam had supported his methods, regardless of the body count. The government wanted to award the Bronzen Leeuw medal for bravery in battle. But by 1947 local authorities were complaining that Westerling’s methods were driving natives into the arms of the rebels. Future sci-fi legend Brian Aldiss remembered meeting two British soldiers who served under Westerling in Sumatra. They boasted about beating a woman to death with golf clubs in a windowless basement.
“The Cocksure Commando,” ran the cover strapline on pulpy American magazine Male. “The hell-raising one-man army.”
“A self appointed dictator with strong psychopathic tendencies,” said an Australian journalist.
A confidential report cleared him but buried the Bronzen Leeuw idea. In 1948 Westerling’s commanders quietly retired him from field duty. Disgusted, he quit the army. Indonesia got its independence soon after and Sukarno became president.
Two years later Westerling was a rebel soldier of fortune leading the Angkatan Perang Ratu Adil (Army of the Heavenly Host – APRA) deep in the jungles of West Java. His followers thought him an incarnation of Prince Justice, a legendary Indonesian figure who would lead them into a thousand year empire. The strapping exemplar of Dutch Christian imperialism was rumoured to be a Muslim convert who had made the hajj to Mecca.
His militia had links with the religious extremists of Darul Islam who wanted to turn West Java into a Sharia state, and support from the politicians of Pasundan, a Javanese territory with big ideas about independence. Even more surprising, at least to those who knew Westerling’s fanatical anti-communism, were contacts with followers of a Trotskyite executed the previous year by the Indonesian army.
In his new life Westerling was supposedly loyal to Sultan Hamid II, an elegant aristocrat from Borneo who preferred the federalist state left behind by the Dutch to the republicanism of the new government. But no-one knew who really pulled the strings. When APRA marched on Jakarta in January 1950 the world could not decide if Westerling or the Sultan or Holland was giving the orders. Soon the bullets were flying all over Java.
Back in Marshum, Westerling helped himself to another plate of nassi-goreng. Then he told Brigneau and Gault how he went to war against the Jakarta government.
The last nine years melted away like butter in a hot pan and Turk Westerling was thirty-years-old again, sitting in another bungalow talking to a different pair of journalists, somewhere deep in the steam heat of western Java. He was about to change the destiny of the newborn United States of Indonesia.
He changed it so thoroughly that even today his actions affect the relationship between the archipelago and Europe. No-one can understand modern Indonesia without knowing Westerling’s story.
This was the introduction to a book about Westerling that got put on ice in favour of Haile Selassie’s foreign legion, due in 2017. It would have gone through a lot of rewriting before it hit the bookshelves. There are a few more chapters and a lot of research lying around somewhere. I could write a book about the books I haven’t written yet. Westerling, the history of Russian Roulette, Baron von Ungern-Sternberg … .
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