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The Indonesian military junta under Muhammad Suharto murdered hundreds of thousands of communists in the mid-to-late 1960s – with the full knowledge of the Federal Republic of Germany

On 1 October 1965, a military junta under the command of General Haji Muhammad Suharto (1921–2008) seized power in Indonesia by staging a coup, taking the president in office at the time, Ahmed Sukarno (1901–1970) (who had just got himself elected president for life in 1963 and headed up a unity government consisting of nationalists, Islamists and communists) completely by surprise. Although he officially remained in office, he was forced to give the military free rein, and they ultimately deposed him in March 1967. The leaders of the coup immediately banned the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), the third largest communist party in the world at that time. These repressive measures also affected any organisations that were directly or indirectly associated with the PKI. 

Between October 1965 and the early 1970s, the junta put leaders, members and sympathisers of the PKI in concentration camps and murdered them. According to Sarwo Edhie (1925–1989), an officer of the Army Frontier Regiment of the Indonesian Armed Forces’ Special Forces Unit, the number of people executed came to an estimated “two or three million”.[1] Although this crime is tantamount to genocide against communists, it has remained largely unknown to the world.

»Destroy completely«

Research in the political archives of the German Federal Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt) has revealed that the Federal Republic of Germany had been fully informed about the massacre in Indonesia, which was coordinated with the US, from the very outset.[2] For example, the Federal Foreign Office in Bonn, the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany at the time, was well aware that “the Indonesian armed forces have completely destroyed the Communist Party”, as the legation councillor Hilmar Bassler reported on 3 December 1965.[3] The documents further prove that the German Federal Government supported the military dictatorship in Indonesia without reservation – politically, economically and militarily.

[3]AA PA B 37 REF. IB5 173  
[3]AA PA B 37 REF. IB5 173  

A document dated 17 August 1965 proves that as early as 1965, the Federal Republic of Germany was already in possession of 22 industrial concessions, 18 trade concessions and two transport concessions – exporting capital to acquire cheap raw materials and labour power.[4] Documents from 19 January 1965 show that the Federal Government resolved to grant Indonesia a “special fund” of DM 100 million[5], while documents dated 17 May 1968 show that a “capital aid agreement” had been concluded.[6] Any allegation that Bonn was helping the Third World in this way would be completely wide of the mark; on the contrary, it was only concerned with neo-colonial dependency relationships.

[5]AA PA B 37 REF. IB5 173
[6]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 104

A closer look at the Federal Republic of Germany’s ambassadors in Jakarta reveals some very interesting facts. All of the men who held this post between 1952 and 1970 – Werner Otto von Hentig (1886–1984), Helmut Allardt (1907–1987), Dietrich von Mirbach (1907–1977), Gerhart Weiz (1906–1983), Luitpold Werz (1907–1973) and Hilmar Bassler (1907–1971) – had already made their careers in the foreign service between 1933 and 1945, and thus were in active service under Joachim Ribbentrop, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the German Reich during the fascist regime. Their Nazi past was never a problem for them in Bonn, in fact, one could almost say it was taken for granted. As an official in the Federal Foreign Office, Werner Otto von Henting, the Federal Republic of Germany’s first ambassador to Indonesia in 1952, had been able to help the former Mufti of Jerusalem and Nazi collaborator Mohammed Amin al-Husseini to flee from defeated Nazi Germany on 6 April 1945. Hilmar Bassler, the ambassador from 1968 to 1970, was responsible for Nazi propaganda in East Asia during WWII. As we can see, Bonn was sending diplomats with prior knowledge and connections to the Asian country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

The ambassadors and their staff were provided with knowledge, sometimes detailed knowledge, of the crimes of the Suharto regimes. For example, Meyer, the military attaché of the embassy in Jakarta, reported nonchalantly to the Federal Ministry of Defence in Bonn on 8 January 1965 that he had been informed by his Indonesian contact person, General Major Ibrahim Adjie, that the latter’s unit had caused 1,400 communist plantation workers to be “arrested as a precaution and an experiment” to test the reaction of the Communist Party, adding that 400 of them were later released, while “the rest were buried”.[7]

[7]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 169 A
[7]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 169 A
[7]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 169 A

Exchanges of intelligence 

A letter from the Federal Republic of Germany’s embassy in Jakarta to the Federal Foreign Office in Bonn dated 12 October 1967, marked “secret“, clearly reveals the high level of anti-communist cooperation:

“re: Intelligence service’s cooperation with Indonesian military authorities By letter to BMVTG [Federal Defence Ministry] (…) military attaché approves training of Indonesian secret service officers by the BNB [Federal Intelligence Service] and cooperation, as well as exchanges of intelligence about Communism.[8]

[8]AA PA: B 130 VS-REG 903
[8]AA PA: B 130 VS-REG 903
[8]AA PA: B 130 VS-REG 903

Of course, the cooperation was not merely limited to exchanges of information. For example, on 26 October 1965, while the massacre was well underway, members of the Foreign Office staff in Bonn justified the “export of pistol grips”: “It would be indefensible for us to refuse to provide this indirect aid to the Indonesian army, which is taking up arms against the Communist Party.” They added that care should merely be taken to ensure “that the pistol grips are not labelled as German products”.[9]

But these files reveal far more than the mere sale of pistol grips. The Political Archive of the Foreign Office contains numerous documents proving exports to Indonesia of weapons and munitions “made in Germany”.A report of 28 January 1966 by Division III of the Foreign Office included an application for an export permit for delivery to the Indonesian army of “15 complete facilities for the manufacture of explosives” valued at DM 40 million. According to this document, Ferrostaal’s “complete facility“ had a “monthly capacity of almost 2,000 tonnes of explosives, powder and intermediate products, 1,100 km of fuses and 1.1 million detonators”. One of the reasons given for the application was: “It is additionally in our interest to support the army in its efforts to achieve political and economic stability. Refusing to fill orders placed by the Indonesian army would have the consequence of weakening those forces which we seek to support, thereby indirectly playing into the hands of the communist elements that still exist.”[10]

»No objection«

On 1 February 1966, Rheinstahl Hanomag submitted an application to the Federal Ministry of Defence for “Approval for the commencement of advertising activities” for armoured personnel carriers, “primarily KANONE anti-tank vehicles”[11], to which the Foreign Office responded on 8 July 1966 in a letter to the Ministry of Defence with the words “no objection”.[12]

On 30 June 1966, the Federal Ministry of Economics forwarded an application to the Foreign Office stating that the Fritz Werner company was requesting authorisation to purchase 255,800 kilogrammes of nitro-glycerine from Dynamit Nobel to be sent to Indonesia[13], to which the Foreign Office responded on 4 July: “no objection”.[14]

In an “express letter” of 27 June 1968, the Ministry of Economics asked the Foreign Office, as well as the Ministry of Defence, for authorisation to deliver 10,000 Heckler & Koch-G3 weapons to the Indonesian army. The authorisation documents arrived from the Foreign Office that very same day. Once again, “no objection”.[15]

In a letter of 12 November 1968, the Ministry of Economics asked the Foreign Office on behalf of Industriewerke Karlsruhe AG for a license to export “20,000,000 bullets, 7.62 mm, without NATO markings” to Indonesia. The Foreign Office’s response on 19 November 1968 was: “no objection”.[16]

There can be no doubt that a political intention lay behind the loans and weapons sales to Indonesia twenty years after WWII. The argument set out in the “Action Plan“ protocol of the Federal Republic of Germany’s embassy in Jakarta on 22 December 1964 read as follows: “Indonesia is either a springboard or a barrier for communism to get to Australia. It is in our national interest to protect our presence in Indonesia, and this is a natural financial sacrifice with certain limitations. Indonesia is a decisive test case”.[17]

This formed the basis for the West German Indonesia policy. Against the background of the cold war, Bonn’s relationship with the Sukarno government, which had been pursuing a non-aligned third way, had been very bumpy. But from 1 October 1965 on, following the bloody coup, Indonesia was proving itself to be a “barrier” against communism.

This carried so much weight in light of the economic and political, as well as military, interests involved, that it was even recorded in the minutes of the meeting between US President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Federal Chancellor Ludwig Erhard on 27 September 1966:

“On the other hand, he (Lyndon B. Johnson) stated that although communism had suffered a great loss during the time he and the Federal Chancellor were in office, this had not been sufficiently exploited: Indonesia. Here, a hundred million people had been lost to communism. If the rest of the world were to see communism is not in the advance, but rather in retreat, there would also be less pressure in Berlin. Whether or not it will now be possible to keep the communists out of Indonesia will depend on how quickly the free world acts. He said he had met with the Indonesian foreign minister, who told him that the communists have been driven out, but the economic problems are enormous. Indonesia is working on an economic plan at a fever pitch. America is providing a great deal of economic support, technical aid and delivering food. He had asked the Indonesian foreign minister who else was helping his country, and he answered: Germany, which is above all doing a great deal by supplying machines. He hopes that the Federal Chancellor will be able to support the current leaders in Indonesia with German industrialists and government aid.

The Federal Chancellor stated that it went without saying that the German stance had also changed since Sukarno is no longer the all-powerful leader of Indonesia who had not only delivered this country to communism but also left it in economic disarray. However, he believes that the groundwork has now been laid for stepping up activities.

The President said that the Federal Chancellor may be able to work together with the German export companies that had interests in Indonesia and ensure that government loans were granted to them. This would be most helpful. At the same time, it would decrease the pressure on America if Germany were to stand with America. It would then also be easier for America to have a presence in Germany since such cooperation would show that the Germans stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans in providing aid to the Third World.”[18]

The practical consequence of these words was the brutal massacre of the communists and their allies in Southeast Asia which began in Indonesia in 1965 and went on until the early 1970s.

Extensive cooperation

As a result of our research in the Political Archive of the Foreign Office, we now know that Bonn was financing trips of Indonesian army officers to Germany before and during the genocide, as well as in the period thereafter[19], bribing the ministers who represented German interests in Jakarta (by granting scholarships to their sons and letting them study in Germany)[20] and allowing the Indonesian secret service to conduct surveillance on dissidents in Germany.[21]

But that is not yet the end of the story. From the very outset of the genocide, Bonn was kept informed of all developments on virtually a daily basis, including how many people had been killed and where and when. Here are a few examples of this:

First of all, there is Meyer, the military attaché of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Jakarta, who stated in his report of 25 October 1965 entitled “The Development of the Military and Political Situation up to 25 October 1965” that the Indonesian army had initiated “salami-slicing tactics” against the Communist Party.[22] On 29 November 1965, Ambassador Werz passed the following information, among other things, on to Bonn in a three-page report entitled “Domestic Political Situation”: “According to reliable information by the army, on 21 November the PKI leader Aidit was taken prisoner by the army in Solo, in central Java, and shot the next day.”[23]

Ambassador Werz began his report of 14 December 1965 entitled “The Losses Suffered by the Indonesian People Since 1 October of this Year“[24] with the words: “The battle of the army and the Muslims against the communists outside of Jakarta continues to be waged with great persistence, in some cases even with inhuman cruelty.” He added: “Although the national news agency Antara publishes daily reports on the imprisonments and killings of rebel communists, the figures they give appear to lie well below the information we have been provided with to date. The actual death toll is well above the official statements”. Werz then provided an initial assessment of the genocide in the various parts of the country:

“East Java: approx. 50,000 dead (mostly communists); Central Java: approx. 40,000 dead (communists and non-communists); West Java (including Jakarta): approx. 10,000 dead (vast majority communists); North Sumatra: approx. 20,000 dead (vast majority communists); Aceh: approx. 3,000 dead (exclusively communists); Madura: approx. 2,000 dead (exclusively communists); Bali: approx. 3,000 dead (majority communists)”.[25]

»Completely exterminated«

The total number of murder victims given by Werz for the period between 1 October and 14 December 1965, the date on which the report was written, comes to 128,000. Thus, at the very latest by 14 December 1965, the Federal Republic of Germany had also been aware of the magnitude of the massacre of communists in Indonesia.

On 17 December 1965, Rolf Otto Laar, the State Secretary of the Foreign Office, recorded the visit to Bonn of one of the generals responsible for the coup, Achmed Sukendro, in a letter entitled “Situation in Indonesia“, which not only cited Werz’s figures but also contained the following sentence: “In Aceh and Madura, the Communist Party has been completely exterminated to its very roots.”[26]

[26]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 172 
[26]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 172 

As shown, this did not prevent the Federal Republic of Germany from cooperating extensively with the Indonesian regime. On the contrary, the murderous anti-communist politics around Suharto were the very reason for the cooperation between Bonn and Jakarta.

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[1]Cf. Florian Tömmel: Bonn, Jakarta und der Kalte Krieg. Die Außenpolitik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland gegenüber Indonesien von 1952 bis 1973 [Bonn, Jakarta and the Cold War. The Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1952 to 1973], Berlin/Boston 2018, p. 242, note 605

[2]Nonetheless, in their responses to written questions in parliament, the governments of the Federal Republic of Germany have always insisted that they were not aware of the situation in Indonesia between 1965 and 1970 and the term “genocide” was explicitly never used. The most recent example of this was the Federal Government’s response to 19 questions that were raised by Andrej Hunko, Jan van Aken and Sevim Dağdelen of the parliamentary faction Die Linke on 27 May 2014. Cf. Deutscher Bundestag, 18. Wahlperiode [German Federal Parliament, 18th legislative period], printed matter 18/1554, 2014.

[3]AA PA B 37 REF. IB5 173  

[5]AA PA B 37 REF. IB5 173  

[6]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 104 

[7]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 169 A 

[8]AA PA: B 130 VS-REG 903 

[9]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 122 

[10]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 122. This application was rejected In light of the confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia, which had declared its independence in 1963. They did not wish to upset Malaysian’s protector state, Great Britain, but added: “We would recommend that you revisit this matter in around two months” in a letter from Bonn dated 22 February 1966, AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 122

[11]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 122   

[12]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 122    

[13]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 122 

[14]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 122. The letter of approval states, “a rejection would strain German-Indonesian relations and, in practice, only favour the subversive forces”.

[15]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4  

[16]AA PA: B 57 REF. 405/IIIA4 122 

[17]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 171 B 

[18]Talk between Federal Chancellor Erhard and President Johnson in Washington, 27 September 1966, in: Akten zur Auswärtigen Politik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Files on the Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany), published on behalf of the Foreign Office by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute for Contemporary History), Munich 1997, Doc. 302, p. 301 f. 

[19]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 176, Telegramm from Ambassador Luitpold Werz to the Ministry of Defence, 2 March 1965

[20]AA PA: B 130 VS-REG 2586 A. On  21 April 1966, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Jakarta sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in Bonn requesting a scholarship for the son of the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Adam Malik, and stating “If we promised Malik scholarship for his son in 1965 when he was defending in Cabinet, we must fulfil that wish a fortiori after his ascension to key positions in the government.”  

[21]AA PA: B 130 VS-REG 2586  

[22]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 170 

[23]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 170 

[24]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 170, The Ambassador’s report also contains information such as the following: “According to the US Embassy, the number of persons killed in Java comes to 100,000. (…) Ansor [leader of the Muslim youth organisation] gave a talk in which he said that the number in East Java was 70,000. (…) According to reliable sources, 2,000 communists were killed in North Sumatra alone. (…) A local newspaper in Bali reports that 1,506 people were killed in Negara. (…) 2,000 of the communists imprisoned in Jakarta were killed“.


[26]AA PA: B 37 REF. IB5 172