TWO great postwar questions have been educating the Dutch people in the realities of foreign relations: What is to be the future of their next-door neighbor, Germany? What is to be the future of their distant overseas territories in Indonesia?

Those who have lived for five years under German occupation have found in German pillage, imprisonments and executions plenty of reason to hate the Germans. To such persons "the German problem" is not academic. But its real significance became clear to the Dutch people only gradually, and the forms which it took in Dutch eyes changed more than once. Initially, the Dutch spoke about an annexation of German territory. Then they talked about the desirability of occupying militarily a sector of western Germany. Now the question is focused on Dutch economic relations with Germany -- and in this form, indeed, the problem is seen to be one almost of life and death.

Annexation was a most unusual idea for the Dutch Government to entertain. Never during the last three centuries had the Netherlands made any claim to other people's territory. After the Dutch "Golden Age" in the seventeenth century, various territories had been lost, until a static condition was reached following the Napoleonic wars. When some portions of Germany were offered to the Netherlands after the First World War, the Government declined them: the Dutch had no wish to create a German irredenta within their borders.

But in the summer of 1944, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs in the London Government, Dr. Eelco van Kleffens, suggested first in an article in FOREIGN AFFAIRS,[i] and afterwards through diplomatic channels, the possibility that the Netherlands might annex German territory in order to make good the injury the Germans had done to Dutch soil by wanton flooding. The Government did not make an outright claim, wishing to leave the matter open for action by Parliament; it simply reserved the right to ask for some annexation. The question was much debated in Holland in the months after liberation. There was a general feeling, of course, that the Germans ought to pay for the immense damage they had wilfully inflicted upon the Dutch people. From the beginning it was clear that there was no possibility of extracting sufficient reparations from Germany, in cash or in kind, to satisfy the claims of all the Allied nations; and to a great many people in the Netherlands, the annexation of German land seemed a natural and justifiable method of obtaining "payment."

Moreover, the German invasion of Holland in 1940 had destroyed much of the validity of the former argument against the creation of a German irredenta. The Dutch had been careful -- perhaps overcareful -- not to offend touchy German feelings and to preserve a "spiritual" as well as political and military neutrality. Nonetheless, the Germans overran their country overnight. What use, then, was there in not annexing German land? Plainly, however, it would be impossible to permit the Germans of any annexed territories to remain within the Dutch frontier: during five years of war the Dutch had seen too many German faces to want to accept a German minority with "rights" and some day, perhaps, Dutch status. The idea of a transfer of German population did not seem so unthinkable as it would have seemed six years earlier, before the horrors of the German concentration camps, Germany's extermination of the Jews and her deliberate starvation of the western provinces of Holland. But the Dutch have a strong tradition of tolerance and they remained reluctant to support a plan entailing the uprooting of millions of men, women and children.

Early in 1945, Holland and Belgium asked to have their own sectors of military occupation in Germany. Their aim was to be included among the Allied nations which would exert the chief influence in deciding Germany's future. As a result, the Belgians were given charge of a tiny portion of the British zone, though ultimate control remained in the hands of the British authorities. The question of granting a similar zone to the Dutch was dropped, however, when all available Dutch troops had to be sent to Indonesia.

Now the Government of Dr. L. J. M. Beel, which has been in office since July 1946, has announced that it intends to ask only for some small strips of German territory which would straighten the boundary between the two countries and thus reduce its length by about 100 miles. It does not even use the word "annexation," but prefers to describe this restricted proposal as "frontier corrections." It states that frontier regions could be better drained if the whole of a frontier river were in Dutch hands, that a shortening of boundary lines would mean a reduction in the number of customs officers necessary, and so on. Inevitably, some critics ask the Government whether these advantages are not so insignificant as to make it hardly worth while to raise the questions which any forcible transfer of territory can bring into being. At any rate, only about 100,000 Germans live in the areas in question -- so small a number that they would hardly have to be evacuated.

Happily, the Netherlands Government has not restricted its attention to the question of frontier corrections, which after all is minor. It now has begun conversations with Great Britain and the United States, which, it is hoped, will lead to a greater Dutch influence in decisions affecting the future of the German economy. Those decisions will be of tremendous importance to Holland. Sometimes it is thought, quite mistakenly, that the economic relations of the Netherlands and Germany have to do chiefly with the export of Dutch fruit and vegetables. The surplus of these went almost entirely to Germany in prewar times and cannot very well be sold elsewhere. This is indeed a major aspect of German-Dutch trade, but still only a part of a larger question. Before the war, about one-fifth of Dutch foreign trade was carried on with Germany. Contrary to Nazi propaganda, Germany was not Holland's "best customer;" Holland's best customer was the United Kingdom. But Germany is not only the hinterland of the great port of Rotterdam, but plays a vital part in the country's whole economic life. The Dutch Government is particularly concerned, at the moment, to get Rotterdam's trade going again. The British and American authorities in Germany are using Hamburg and Bremen almost exclusively as ports of entry for Germany; as long as they do so, Rotterdam cannot revive.

Even more fundamental, of course, is the necessity of setting German economic life on its feet, so that the Germans can pay for Dutch imports with their own agricultural and industrial products. Most responsible persons in both Great Britain and the United States realize that western Germany cannot be allowed to rot away in misery while German industry in the Soviet zone is working at full capacity. The German problem must be tackled in a positive way. That does not imply, of course, a "soft" policy for Germany; there is nothing the Dutch would like less. But the Dutch are in a position to see that the maintenance of a vacuum in Germany would spell hunger and poverty, not only for the Germans, but for the neighboring nations -- and a permanent political danger as well.

To get production under way in Germany, huge sums will have to be invested in German industries. Dutch investments in Germany were estimated before the war at the equivalent of about $400,000,000. Dutch circles have a good deal of "know-how" for the job of rebuilding German industry, and might be useful as intermediaries between the United States and Germany. They usually are proficient in the German language, and have an insight into the German way of thinking, feeling and acting. Dutch experts in economics, education and public administration could be used to advantage in positions of some authority in Germany.

II

The second big problem which brought home to the Dutch the simple but sometimes neglected truth that foreign policy is conditioned by distant events even more than by domestic wishes was the situation which developed after the war in the Dutch East Indies. During the war the Dutch had dreamed of "liberating" the Indies from the Japanese in more or less the same terms that Holland itself would be liberated from the Germans. But alas, the Japanese surrender freed the Indies only theoretically from Japanese domination; Lord Mountbatten, to whose command the Indies had been transferred just the day before, did not have enough troops to compel the Japanese to surrender or himself to take over the whole of Indonesia.

Moreover, it appeared that the Indonesian nationalist movement, dating from before the First World War but much reinforced during the Japanese occupation, looked forward to a "liberation" not only from the Japanese but from the Dutch, too. It expressed itself as being completely dissatisfied with the prewar status of Netherlands East Indies. In the first months after the Japanese capitulation, many people in the Netherlands imagined that this agitation originated only with "rebels," headed by the Japanese collaborationist Soekarno. But this pleasant illusion could not be maintained after the former Resistance leader, Sjahrir, had to a large extent taken over command of the nationalists. The Dutch had to face the hard fact that there was a more or less general desire in the Indies to be rid of them, if not as economic advisers, at least as political rulers.

Luckily, the Government of Professor Willem Schermerhorn (June 1945-July 1946), in which Professor Logemann held the portfolio of Overseas Territories, was quick to grasp the real situation. It saw that the international situation made only one solution possible: an agreement with the nationalist elements headed by Sjahrir which would give Indonesia a status of equality in the Netherlands Commonwealth. If it had resolved upon a militaristic policy under the slogan, "Peace and order first, agreements afterward," as suggested in some quarters, the Allied authorities would not have supported it for a moment.

Mr. Jonkman, who became Minister for Overseas Territories in the cabinet of Dr. Beel, has continued the progressive policy of his predecessor. His task is easier, however, because even conservative circles in the Netherlands have come to realize that the idea of fighting a colonial war cannot be entertained. They now are willing to grant Indonesia if not complete independence, at least a large degree of autonomy. This was confirmed by the fact that on November 13 Professor Schermerhorn, Chairman of the Dutch Commission-General to Indonesia, and Sutan Sjahrir were able to issue a joint statement to the effect that they had found a "possible basis for agreement." It later was announced in Batavia that the Republic of Indonesia, including Java, Sumatra and Madura, will be recognized; that this Republic and all the other territories of the Netherlands Indies will be formed into a United States of Indonesia, which will be linked to the Netherlands in a Netherlands-Indonesian Union, in equal partnership under the Queen; and that there will be close military and economic coöperation between Indonesia and the Netherlands.

At home the Dutch people have come up against the Indonesian problem in very direct and personal terms -- they have had to send Dutch troops out to the Indies. This certainly has made Mr. Jonkman's task more difficult. Few want to go to Indonesia as soldiers, or to see their sons go. Communist propaganda has been telling them that in supporting such a policy they are risking Dutch lives in a "new colonial war." The Government explains that the troops are going only to perform police duties. The chief aversion to service abroad springs, however, from the understandable desire to settle down to everyday pursuits after the trials and upheavals of the last five years.

In the first months after the start of the uprising, the presence of either Dutch or British troops in Indonesia was frowned upon from all sides. But this has changed. The troubled situation in Sumatra, which Indonesian republicans claim as part of their territory, makes it very probable that even Sjahrir and his followers will now be glad, once they have reached a political agreement with the Netherlands authorities, to see some Dutch troops on hand in Sumatra to ensure peace and security after the British troops have left.

The American public has lately become very opposed to "colonial" politics (except, as the London Times recently remarked, in the case of Hawaii, the Philippines and Puerto Rico), and the American press would certainly have spoken in critical terms of bloodshed in Indonesia. Americans did not always realize that blood had already been spilt by the extremists, and was still being spilt. One need not favor the thesis that military pacification must precede political negotiations to regret that the Allies were not more helpful in putting down gangsterism in Indonesia. Most of the so-called extremists are not political radicals, but simply bandits.

Since the latter part of 1945, many foreign circles seem to have become alarmed at the possibility that an entirely independent Indonesian Republic might be set up. Expecting the U.S.S.R. to take an aggressive course in eastern Asia and the Pacific in the next few years, they do not want to see such an important territory in that area pass into the hands of a government which, while independent in name, might in fact be largely controlled from Moscow. The British, who have had to bear the chief responsibility for what was done militarily in Indonesia, but who were severely handicapped by a lack of available troops, adopted a policy of caution and moderation. They did not want to see Java, and possibly other parts of the Indies, become a fully independent republic. And even Sjahrir, though publicly asking for complete constitutional independence, knew very well that simply to get rid of the Dutch would not be the equivalent of securing freedom from all foreign influence. But the British had far too great difficulties of their own in India to wish to give Indian nationalists a pretext for accusing the London Cabinet of siding with "capitalist aggressors" against their Indonesian fellow nationalists. Nor was the Labor Government free of pressure from sincere but not always well-informed elements which wished to see all help denied to the Netherlands Government. In the desire to avoid anything like military repression in the Indies, the British policy often seemed to Netherlanders vacillating and weak.

Dutch public opinion was greatly upset, in the last months of 1945 and the first of 1946, by the inability of authorities in the Netherlands East Indies to get clearance for supply ships bound from Australia to Indonesia. Australian crews and dockworkers, visibly under the influence of Communist propaganda, asserted that the supplies were for a Dutch colonial war against the Indonesian republicans. Gradually, however, it became apparent that the Netherlands Government was in reality pursuing a policy of appeasement, and the Australian workers were persuaded that the supplies were for civilian use and for relief. Gradually, too, Australian public opinion became somewhat alarmed at the potentialities of the situation. It was realized that an undefended Indonesia could under certain circumstances be a great danger to Australian security. It was realized further that Australian trade relations with the Dutch East Indies, which should grow in importance, depend on Dutch as well as Indonesian cooperation with Australia.

The debates in the Security Council about the presence of British troops in Indonesia illustrate the character of the Soviet interest in the problem. Unless Russia expands into the Pacific, Indonesia is too far away to be a Russian satellite state. But Russia can use the Indonesian problem to embarrass the western Allies by accusing them of "imperialism." Sjahrir and his fellow nationalists naturally tried to exploit world opinion as a means of strengthening themselves at home and reinforcing their position abroad. But now they are coming to see that Russia is using them as a pretext for propaganda for her own political purposes, and they have recently appeared less anxious to have the Indonesian problem brought before the Security Council. At the same time, the Dutch people have learned an important lesson, namely that their policy in the Indies is inextricably bound up with world politics as a whole. They would have learned it even without the threatened intervention of the United Nations Security Council.

III

I have cited the German and the Indonesian problems as prime examples of how necessary it has been to reorient Dutch foreign policy. In the nineteenth century the traditional Dutch policy was one of neutrality. The neutrality of the Netherlands was not guaranteed by the Powers, as was that of Belgium and Switzerland, nor was such a guarantee wanted by the Dutch, who thought it would lay too much stress on the rôle of the Powers in Dutch affairs. Holland wanted to be left alone. She looked upon the policy of neutrality as the best way of achieving that end.

After the First World War the idea of neutrality became less attractive, in the light of what had happened to neutral Belgium in 1914. Dutch policy, although working along much the same lines as before, began to be called a "policy of independence." The new name implied a realization that the Netherlands might not be able to remain neutral in a war, but that she did not want to commit herself beforehand to any international grouping. She preferred to stand aloof as long as a deliberate choice did not become absolutely necessary. This policy of independence, although more realistic than the neutrality policy, nevertheless partook of the illusion that the hour when a choice was to be made could be selected according to Dutch preferences. It is hardly necessary to point out that this illusion was disposed of by what happened in the Second World War. Now the Dutch realize that they can only look around them and decide which side they had better take -- with or without reservations. The question whether the Netherlands should or should not accept certain international commitments is no longer debatable.

This implies not only a change in the groundwork of Dutch foreign policy, but also a recasting of the Dutch diplomatic service. Before the Second World War, Dutch diplomatic missions abroad were mainly centers of social intercourse. The situation has now changed considerably. Many legations have been raised to embassies, and the diplomatic and consular services have been fused into one Foreign Service, as in Britain and the United States. The personnel of the new Foreign Service is being expanded rapidly, and many reforms have been promised; but, of course, time will be necessary for the development of the sort of democratic foreign service called for by the more active needs of the new Dutch diplomacy.

The era of either a "neutrality policy" or a "policy of independence" is ended. The experience of the Dutch people with the German problem and the Indonesian question has brought home to them the truth that their foreign policy is dictated, not by themselves, and not even by the policies of the big Powers, but by the development of world forces. This portends not merely a more active but a more imaginative foreign policy.

[i] Eelco H. van Kleffens, "If the Nazis Flood Holland," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July 1944.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now