These past few weeks have been a setback for democracy in Indonesia.
On the one hand, it was a democratic election. The governor of Jakarta – a man best known by the nickname Ahok – was voted out, not arrested by the military or assassinated.
On the other hand, Ahok was a progressive voice in this predominantly Muslim country. He is a Christian, and Chinese. An increasingly vocal religious minority in Indonesia began a campaign of vilification against him allegedly because he had the temerity to refer to a verse in the Qur’an concerning the acceptability of having a non-Muslim rule Muslims. Indonesia is a secular country that just happens to have the world’s largest Muslim population: over 200 million Indonesians are Muslims, making it greater than the Muslim populations of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt combined. But things are never quite that simple or obvious in Indonesia. As it turns out, Ahok was the target of the Indonesian military who used his ouster as a signal to the immensely popular (and progressive) Indonesian president, Jokowi, that they will not tolerate a “return to communism.” In Indonesia, “communism” can be a code word for many things.
In 1965 – the infamous Year of Living Dangerously – Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was deposed by the military under that specific pretense, fighting communism, and as many as one million Indonesians were slaughtered in the process, both by the military and by roving paramilitary gangs. Many of those killed were members of the Chinese minority as it was assumed that Sukarno had cut deals with Communist China and that the Chinese in Indonesia constituted a kind of “fifth column” of covert support for Beijing. Once the dust had settled – and the blood had dried – a new president, General Soeharto, went so far as to ban the use of the Chinese language in Indonesia. One could not bring anything into the country that was printed in Chinese characters, for instance. That still was the law as late as 1998 when I visited Jakarta on business in the midst of the Asian Economic Crisis which eventually saw Soeharto’s ouster as president after more than thirty years in power.
This is not to say that the entire reason for the massive uprising against Ahok was motivated by religious fanaticism, racism and anti-Chinese sentiment alone. There are other forces at work, and racism is just one of them. But it is a leitmotif that runs through twenty-first century political reality just as it did in the twentieth century, and is not confined to Indonesia.
Recently, the Washington Post published an article on the American National Election Study (ANES) which demonstrated that racism had a greater effect on the American 2016 election than authoritarianism (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/17/racism-motivated-trump-voters-more-than-authoritarianism-or-income-inequality/). In other words, it suggested that the average Trump voter was motivated more by racial ideas than by purely political or economic concerns. It is a conclusion that can be debated, of course, and statistical analyses are always subject to interpretation, but it is consistent with a global trend. We have seen openly racist politicians gain in elections in Europe, for instance, and this past weekend saw another one in France in which the extreme right candidate, Marine Le Pen, did not win but came in second: well enough that she will be in the run-off election next month.
The problem with talking about race and racism is that racism is usually presented as something isolated from other ideas and positions when, in my opinion, it is inextricably linked with a whole host of other political and philosophical concepts, of which authoritarianism – and its cousin, fascism – is probably the most familiar.
But what does Trump – or fascism for that matter – have to do with an election in Indonesia?
The Intercept has published a detailed and very enlightening article on the subject by veteran journalist Allan Nairn (who was once imprisoned by the Indonesian military for his coverage of the East Timor situation). Provocatively entitled Trump’s Indonesian Allies In Bed with ISIS-Backed Militia Seeking to Oust Elected President it provides a very useful summary of the current political (and military) situation in Indonesia and was published before the Jakarta election took place.
Now, one may or may not wish to give credence to Nairn’s reporting based on one’s political position regarding Donald Trump. I get it. What facts do we trust as facts, and which do we believe are invented for political or ideological purposes? So let me offer my own perspective, based on some years of experience in Southeast Asia and specifically in Indonesia. There are some useful data points to be considered, and strangely they have resonance with my own work concerning international fascism and especially post-war Nazism.
One of the personalities described in Nairn’s article as having a close working relationship with Donald Trump is Hary Tanoe. You may never have heard of him, but in Indonesia he’s a household name. He is a celebrity, an obscenely wealthy man for a developing country, and rules a media empire as well as vast real estate holdings. In other words, he is Indonesia’s answer to Donald Trump. Indeed, as of this writing, he is building two huge Trump properties in Indonesia including a hotel on the popular resort island of Bali.
Why is this important?
When I was in Singapore and Indonesia in the period 2012-2013, I was researching the book that eventually became The Hitler Legacy. During that time, I was involved on an almost daily basis with a Singaporean Chinese man who had a cache of documents in his possession that revealed a great deal about the individual I was researching: Dr. Georg Anton Pöch, the man many Indonesians believe was really Adolf Hitler.
(Hang in there.)
During this time, the Singaporean Chinese man – whom I shall call Luke, like the Evangelist – had meetings with Hary Tanoe on this very issue. Hary Tanoe wanted to make a film about Dr. Pöch and wanted to buy Luke’s cache of documents. How did it come about that Tanoe knew anything at all about this project and, indeed, went so far as to invite Luke to his private estate to discuss it?
And … why did he need the documents, when the facts of the case had already been published by another Indonesian?
The unlikely story begins with the arms dealer (and fight promoter) Soeryo Goeritno. I covered this tale in my Ratline and again in The Hitler Legacy. Goeritno studied petroleum engineering in Moscow during the Soviet era. He eventually married a Russian woman and came back to Indonesia, working in a variety of odd jobs until the Soeharto regime found him useful as an arms dealer. After a few years, Soeryo Goeritno (a Javanese prince, by the way) became the most high-profile arms dealer in Indonesia with clients ranging from the Indonesian government to the post-Soviet Russian government, and including even the Taliban.
In 2010 he became interested in the case of Dr. Pöch and the possibility that the European doctor was actually Adolf Hitler in disguise, and published a small book (really a pamphlet) on the case entitled Hitler Mati di Indonesia (“Hitler Died in Indonesia”). The book contained photographs of Dr. Pöch as well as of Goeritno himself standing at the gravesite of Pöch in the Indonesia city of Surabaya, which is where the doctor died in 1970.
Why would this Javanese prince, arms dealer, and fight promoter involve himself in something as dubious as a possible Hitler sighting in Indonesia? There is the weird Russian connection here, which may or may not be meaningful, as well as deep – very deep – ties to the Indonesian military. Why bring attention to the Pöch gravesite with his self-published book on the subject? Indeed, he writes as if there is no question at all that Pöch was, indeed, Adolf Hitler, thus making the gravesite a kind of shrine to the Führer.
In 2012, Hary Tanoe was considering making a film based on the case and contacted “Luke” in Singapore and invited him to his estate outside of Jakarta to discuss the business end of things. As this was going on, I was looking at copies of the Pöch documents in my possession and realized that the doctor was Austrian, like Hitler, was of the same age and height as Hitler, and was married to a blonde woman as was Hitler (to Eva Braun). The photograph in Pöch’s passport looks amazingly like Hitler when the latter was serving in the German army in World War I. To make matters worse, it seems that “Doctor” Pöch was a lousy physician and did not seem to have any medical training at all.
And … he was intent on living in as remote a location as possible and avoided all contact with the outside world.
None of that meant that Pöch was Hitler, of course. He could have been just another Nazi war criminal. As it turned out, the real Dr. Pöch was chief medical officer of the Salzburg Gau during the war. In other words, he was a Nazi and quite possibly a war criminal in charge of euthanasia and other abominations under the guise of eugenics. In addition, his wife was a famous anthropologist who consulted for the Nazis on questions determining the “Jewishness” of specific individuals. His post as chief medical officer did not mean that Pöch was any kind of family doctor. He had medical training, but was a medical researcher rather than a general practitioner. He did not deal with patients, but with statistics.
As I was conducting this part of the investigation from my berth in Singapore, phoning and emailing contacts in Indonesia, Singapore, Europe and the States, Luke was in Jakarta talking about movie rights to the work in which I was engaged. Luke knew the Javanese prince, Goeritno, and had visited him at his home. (I have the photos to prove it.) Goeritno also wanted the rights, and bargained with Luke to get the Pöch documents from him. When bargaining didn’t work, he sent goons to visit people close to Luke in an attempt to intimidate them physically and force Luke to agree to have Goeritno take over the project. It all was getting very nasty and intense, and Goeritno was becoming increasingly desperate. Why?
It goes back to where Luke first got the Pöch documents.
Back in the 1960s, an Indonesian doctor who was part of a medical expedition to that country organized by the United States heard of the mysterious “German” doctor and out of curiosity managed to visit him at his home in Sumbawa (an island in the Indonesian archipelago east of Bali). That visit stayed with him a long time, until the 1980s when the news was filled with reports that Klaus Barbie – the Nazi “Butcher of Lyon” – had been located in Bolivia and was being extradited to France to stand trial for war crimes. The news reports contained a great deal of information about Barbie’s escape from Europe to Latin America and the role that the Catholic Church and the International Red Cross played in helping him to make his way to Bolivia with false identification papers. (We would eventually learn that the CIA was also involved in the Barbie escape.) There were background stories on World War II and Hitler, Eva Braun, et al. and our Indonesian doctor – Sosrohusodo or “Sosro” for short – claimed he realized that the German doctor he had visited back in the 1960s had actually been Hitler himself, aided in his escape by the very same apparatus that had been essential to Barbie’s flight to Bolivia. Thus began his own investigation, the result of which he inherited the Pöch documents, which included a passport and an address book. The latter contained a detailed description of Pöch’s flight from Allied territory to northern Italy after the war. These documents proved invaluable in establishing a timeline as well as clues to the identity of the doctor and his mysterious wife. In fact, internal evidence in those documents demonstrates beyond doubt that Pöch knew the same contacts in the “ratline” who earlier had enabled Barbie to escape. To Dr. Sosro, this was all the proof he needed.
Sosro, however, was no ordinary physician. He was an officer in the Indonesian military. Gradually, the connections between the Indonesian military – very anti-communist and at times deeply involved with the American CIA – and our mysterious “German” doctor became more numerous. Indeed, at one point in the story an Indonesian general told Dr. Sosro to back off the investigation of Dr. Pöch and forget all about it.
Fast forward a few decades and the documents in Sosro’s possession were bequeathed to “Luke” after Sosro’s death. Sosro’s widow handed Luke the papers and asked him to tell the story to the world: Hitler had escaped Berlin after the war and fled to Indonesia, where he died and where his gravesite can be seen to this day.
After the publication of Soeryo Goeritno’s book on Pöch, using Luke’s documents, Hary Tanoe – the Indonesian real estate and media tycoon – approached Luke to get the documents for himself supposedly to use as the basis for a documentary film. Goeritno had only ever had copies of some pages of the document cache, never the originals. (Luke would carry them around in a rolling briefcase with several locks.) Hary Tanoe wanted the whole set, the originals. The reason for this was not made very clear, but there is the possibility that they suspected there was information in those papers that neither Tanoe nor Goeritno had seen and which implicated members of the Indonesian government or military in the escape of Pöch/Hitler to Indonesia. Clearly, there was a vested interest among certain Indonesian military and corporate circles in promoting the idea – considered by most historians to be positively outlandish – that Hitler had lived and died in Indonesia.
As suggested in the article in The Intercept Tanoe and others of his inner circle are angling for a shot at the Indonesian presidency. According to Nairn they hope to remove Jokowi – the progressive leader for whom Indonesians all over the world stood in line for hours to elect – and replace him with a military-backed regime that would dial back a lot of social and economic advancements. They are actively involved with paramilitary and militia-type groups in the country who are supporters of Daesh (the Islamic State, commonly referred to as ISIS). There is no way Tanoe and his friends would survive under an ISIS-style regime, of course. It can only be a cynical move to manipulate the power of the mob to take control. Jokowi had bravely organized public meetings to discuss the horrors of the 1965 period and the violent excesses and mass murder committed by the military at the time. This put Jokowi squarely in the crosshairs. Thus, the army has been working with radical religious groups – essentially instigating them and funding them, much the way the US government had thrown support behind the opposition in Chile in 1973 to destabilize Allende’s presidency – and using public figures like Tanoe to legitimize what essentially will be a coup.
Nazism is fashionable in some circles in Indonesia. There was never any real direct contact with the European side of World War II. The Indonesians had to deal with the Japanese (and with the colonial powers that came before, such as the Dutch). I have written about this period at some length in other places. Suffice it to say that there was for a time a Nazi-themed restaurant in Jakarta, and local bookstores carry translations of Nazi literature such as The International Jew by Henry Ford and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. On one occasion I even had the strange sensation of hearing terrorist leader Abu Bak’r Basyir talk of the “international Jewish conspiracy” … in a country without enough male Jews for even a minyan. Walter Hewel, one of Hitler’s closest friends, had lived and worked in Indonesia for ten years after the failed Beer Hall Putsch, setting up Nazi Party organizations among the German and Dutch expatriates throughout the country, before returning to Berlin once Hitler had come to power. Another famous German, Emil Helfferich, was a tea trader in Indonesia who was instrumental in getting Hitler into power in 1933. He was a member of the Freundeskreis Himmler, the Himmler “Circle of Friends”, who urged President Paul von Hindenburg to name Hitler Chancellor of Germany. He was also the chairman of the company we know as Standard Oil. Thus, the links between Indonesia and Germany – and specifically with the Nazi Party – were unexpectedly strong. Add to that the fact that Sukarno made speeches praising both Japan and Germany during the war – from a radio station in Tokyo, no less – indicates that there was a completely different attitude in Asia towards the Nazis than one would find in Europe.
Clearly, for some Indonesians Nazism means more than just some flashy uniforms and goose-stepping soldiers. Anti-semitism is one aspect, of course, especially among the more radicalized youth. But anti-semitism represents more than hatred of Jews alone; it is permission to hate a whole host of “others.” To give sly encouragement to a belief (based on reality or not) that Hitler chose to live out his days in Indonesia is to suggest that Indonesia is a player on a larger stage and that a man considered the most diabolic and evil of all leaders in the West may have been “misjudged.” If to hate an entire race of people called Jews is to give permission to hate others, then to honor a man like Hitler is to give permission to honor the military, to support violent solutions to social problems, and to cause deep suspicion about what has been told about the Holocaust and the causes of World War II. It means one can re-evaluate the Year of Living Dangerously as the moment when the military came to the defense of the country, rather than to the slaughter of its own citizens.
It means there is an alternate universe where bad is good, hate is love, and facts are fake.