Nias Island off the coast of north Sumatra is one of Indonesia’s best kept secrets. It is literally the atypical tropical island paradise, complete with hundreds of kilometres of pristine beaches, and untouched coastlines. Further inland, you’ll find misty mountains, glistening clear waterfalls and damp dark caves. But in this land of white sand, cooling blue water and tropical breezes, you’ll also find something out of the ordinary. Nias Island was once home to the Nazi Republic of Nias during World War Two.
The story begins with the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands back in Europe. Despite Dutch neutrality, by May 1940 Nazi Germany had invaded and occupied the entire country. In retaliation from June onwards, the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) colonial government promptly began rounding up thousands of German nationals and their supporters, living far and wide across what is now the Indonesian archipelago.
The roundups included German Jews, missionaries, doctors, teachers and other professionals, as well as so-called ‘Indo’ (mixed ethnicity German-Indonesian) children. Nearly two hundred of the German women internees alone, had been those who had been alleged supporters of National-Socialism. The NEI government’s aim at the end of the day, was to remove as many Germans from the Dutch colony as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The key to taking them out of the colony, was to hand them over to the British colonial government in faraway British India. The paradox being that the same approach was not being meted out to Japanese nationals living across the NEI, because Holland was not yet officially at war with Imperial Japan, and Japanese atrocities were yet to rear their ugly head.
To achieve this particular government aim, several Dutch civilian passenger vessels were engaged in ferrying the prisoners offshore. One of them was the large Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij (KPM) passenger liner, named the KPM Van Imhoff. The Van Imhoff was just one of many vessels that had been plying their trade across NEI since 1888. Not only had all KPM vessels maintained Indonesia’s interisland connections in government and private sector communications, transport and supply, they had also played pivotal roles in helping expand and maintain Dutch colonisation across the archipelago.
Irregardless of size or displacement, each boat and ship had also directly helped grow Dutch wealth through the capital, Batavia (now Jakarta). All of which meant the mainstay of NEI’s economy remained in Java, rather than in Britain’s Singapore hub. A slap in the face to the British who had been actively attempting to monopolise commercial and financial dominance in the region. Now, those same vessels who helped prop up the NEI and Dutch economies, were human transports ferrying hundreds of German-NEI prisoners to internment camps further north in Britain’s Indian colonies.
All the while the vessels were being organised, six months later in September 1940 Germany and Japan, along with Italy, had signed the Tripartite Pact in Berlin. It provided each of the signatories with mutual assistance in what was effectively, a defencive alliance. The practical application however, was fraught with complications. Not only were the Italo-German operational theatres of war thousands of kilometres away from what was Japan’s focus on the opposite side of the world, but Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had competing strategic interests. Nazi Germany was myopically focused on the northern hemisphere and Western European-related regions, but also with an eye on reclaiming its World War One colonial losses in Asia and the Pacific; Imperial Japan was more interested in peoples, places and profit across Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Disparate aims and aspirations that juxtaposed how loose the Axis Alliance actually was, especially when around the timing of the signing of the Berlin Pact, it seemed Japan had already started bombing KPM vessels transporting German nationals out of the NEI.
In Nazi Germany, much had been made of the treatment of German prisoners incarcerated in NEI camps behind Dutch barbed wire. Propaganda stories publicised the horrendous plight of German men, women and children subject, all of whom were reportedly subject to barbarous treatment at the hands of the Dutch. Stories that quickly became one of the mainstays of Nazi publicity, drumming up support for Germany not only among anti-Allied interests, but anti-Colonial ones as well. In Dutch colonial Indonesia, alike British colonial Malaya and French colonial Indo-China for example, there where many locals keen to shrug off the yoke of enforced European colonialism. For some, it was very much the old adage of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, and the Nazi’s were no friend of either the Dutch or the British, and neither did it seem were the Japanese – at least in the early years of the war that is.
In effect, Goebbels’ Nazi media Empire was propagating how hundreds of those incarcerated were innocent German women and children, and they were effectively Dutch colonial political prisoners. Their only alleged wartime crimes, according to the Nazi war disinformation machine, were that they were dedicated National Socialists, avid supporters of Hitler, and opposed to Dutch colonialism. In some circles, the Nazi criticism was not misplaced, because Nazi-style Fascism had been proactively encouraged and growing across the NEI, and it had also been left seemingly unchecked by major European powers including Britain, in the region. From the late 1920s onwards, Fascism in several far-flung German enclaves around the world was rapidly gaining support and the NEI was no exception. As the late 1920s high profile relocation by the the brothers Theodor and Emil Hefferich to Germany to support the Nazi movement, followed closely by 1930s high flying visits by notable pro-Nazi interests including the fervent Dutch Nazi sympathiser Anton Mussert, large swathes of various European colony’s local German expatriate populace were
In other instances, it seemed vibrant support carried over into other highly public pro-Nazi celebrations in the 1930s, including parades in Batavia for Hitler’s birthday.
There were even purportedly various local versions of the Hitler Youth Movement, mostly sprouting up across some Nazi-sympathising members of European (and reportedly mixed European-Malaya) populations cross the archipelago.
There was also the the equivalent of what might be suggested as a ‘Housewives for Hitler’ style-association, encouraging younger children to embrace the National-Socialist movement.
On top of that, as soon as war broke out, there appeared to be many younger NEI youth supporters leaving their homes and families, and all keen to head to Europe and join the Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine or Luftwaffe in order to fight against the Allies.
Moreover, when it became more widely known that a man named Adolph Hitler had resoundly, and swiftly defeated what some saw as the homelands of their Dutch colonial oppressors, local opposition to Dutch colonial rule escalated. Even the name Hitler for a short time, became a preferred baby name amongst various NEI populations at the time – which really puts into perspective the furore outside of Indonesia in recent years, of local Indonesians opening Nazi-themed cafes and Nazi-themed restaurants. A sociocultural highlighting of how perceptions of supporting Nazi Germany in Indonesia’s wartime history, appear significantly different to that from that on the other side of the world in Europe. The same, of course, might be said in reverse with Europe’s version of wartime Japan. All seemed to be boding well for the beginnings of a larger Nazi presence across the archipelago, that is until the aftermath of Nazi Germany invading the Netherlands hit the region, and the local status of German NEI interests were irrevocably changed.
And so on 18 January 1942, some NEI-based Nazi supporters now found themselves onboard the Van Imhoff sailing from Batavia bound for Sumatra, and all enroute to India and eventual incarceration under Britain administration. What happened next however caught everyone of guard, including both Allies and Axis interests alike.
After Japan’s invasion and occupation of the British Malay Peninsula from 8 December 1941 onwards, Holland had also declared war against Japan. With this in mind, it seems the Allies as well as NEI and other Dutch interests, must have thought shipping German nationals out of the region onboard NEI flagged ships, may have given the vessels some sort of de facto safe passage status. After all, Japan and Germany had signed the Berlin Pact a few years earlier, and they were for all intents and purposes, Axis Allies. Surely Japan wouldn’t intentionally destroy one another’s military let alone civilian assets anywhere on the planet?
It was a misplaced Eurocentric understanding, grounded in Eurocentric versions of conventional warfare, and Eurocentric comprehension of what alliances actually meant. To the non-Eurocentric Japanese they were more or less armed conflict engagement guidelines. In what was probably one of the earliest fractures of the Axis Alliance in Southeast Asia, and a glaring indictment of the absolute differences between European and non-European versions of warfare, Japan had already started bombing and sinking KPM vessels irregardless of whether there were German or for that matter, Italian persons onboard.
The fact that these ships in particular were fully laden with former NEI resident German populations, meant little to their Japanese attackers. This was probably because Japan, alike their Nazi counterparts in Europe, had ignored Dutch and later Portuguese neutrality – the subsequent Japanese occupation of Portuguese (East) and Dutch (West) Timor Island a case in point. KMP vessels were fair game irregardless of who or what they were carrying. So when Japanese warplanes bombed the Van Imhoff when it was roughly 180km off the west coast of northern Sumatra, and just after the day after it sailed, there was even less consideration given to the question of survivors by the Japanese. And when hundreds of predominantly German women, children and men were trying to stay alive under the hot blazing tropical sun and waters on the far western edges of the Indian Ocean, it must have been heart wrenchingly horrendous to realise that no-one was coming to rescue them.
Unlike the Kreigsmarine and other European navies, Japanese military fleets were not compelled to mount search and rescue operations – even for their own populations. Unlike the Japanese, Europeans did not share in the historical Samurai concept of ‘Death before Dishonour’, including capture. Not only that, there were no known Allied nor Axis rescue missions for potential survivors due to whatever reasons, and the only salvation forthcoming most survivors would know would be that which they managed themselves. Hundreds of children perished, as did their parents, grandparents, siblings and friends.
In the ensuing chaos one group managed to reach a lifeboat. Drifting for roughly four days without food, drinkable water or shelter from the harsh tropical sun, in searing, torturous conditions, sixty-seven or so bedraggled German men managed to make it to the northern part of Nias Island. Helped along no doubt, by the prevalence of anomalous pre-monsoon currents pushing them towards the Western Sumatran coastline, by the morning of 25 January 1942, the dishevelled, weakened and injured prisoners found help and salvation in the arms of the northern local population, and a local Dutch Catholic priest.
To the south however, things were very different. Here a smaller group of fourteen survivors, mostly men, including the former Java-based coconut planter Albert Vehring, and a medical doctor named Karl Heidt, found help from nearby villages. Vehring had been a ship’s engineer during World War One, and had extensive seamanship and sailing knowledge ranging from China, to New Guinea to the interisland archipelago, and had survived in open sea conditions before. Heidt was an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist and avid Nazi sympathiser based in Bandung. Although this group were found by Dutch authorities, it appeared the Dutch were less inclined to treat them as prisoners but moreso as passing tourists, spending little time in advising them to head to the capital, Gunungsitoli, on the northeastern coast.
Whether other Dutch colonial authorities knew the northern survivors were there or not remains a moot point, but things were different one both groups reached the capital. Although accounts vary, most of the survivors appeared to have been quickly rounded up and transported to a local prison, Now under watch from local non-European guards, the German group wasted little time in convincing their captors that the Dutch had been defeated by Nazi Germany, and it was Nazi Germany as the victorious power over Holland, that would be coming to release them from their yokes of colonialist oppression.
In this approach the Germans were successful, because within two months of their arrival. open armed revolt between locals and Dutch colonial authorities ensued, culminating in the routing of the Dutch administration. Shortly thereafter, all Dutch personnel, including administrators, police, priests other inhabitants, and five British soldiers were incarcerated by the Nias authorities.
By 28 March 1942, Vehring along with his compatriot survivors and the help of some local interests, proclaimed the island in the name of Adolph Hitler. The new name of this Nazi enclave was to be the Free Republic of Nias. Within days another survivor, the former merchant based in Surabaya, Ernst Leo Fischer, was made Prime Minister, and Vehring appointed as Foreign Minister. Their main focus was ostensible on defence, but administered through local policing and guard duties. Nine two-man patrols comprised of one German and one local were formed, and deployed around the island in reconnaissance style duties. Along the way various types of monies, goods, weapons and ammunition was seized, and the still transmitting local radio station occupied.
Two days later two Dutch ships with two Dutch captains arrived in the harbour. Both had been leased by the Japanese from what was now Japanese-occupied Sumatra, to transport Nias rice supplies back to the main Japanese headquarters. Shocked at being confronted by armed Germans, let alone the fact there were makeshift Nazi flags seen fluttering in the breeze on approach to Nias, the Dutch mariners and their crews were probably gobsmacked. Promptly arrested and jailed on arrival, what the Dutchmen may have been thinking seems lost in history. To the would-be Nazi state however, it probably seemed the logical thing to do. Given that there was the Berlin Pact, and that Japan was effectively an Axis Ally of Nazi Germany, and anyone Allied, of course, was the enemy. Thinking that was probably be why the survivors didn’t factor in that it had been the Japanese, and not the Allies, that had bombed them and abandoned them to the sea.
Whether that factored in to what happened next is unknown, but it seems to have fuelled impressions within the tiny Nazi enclave, that the Japanese were unaware of their presence on Nias. Even though one of the survivors possibly named Johannes Grasshoff, an experienced seagoing ship’s steward, had been trying to make contact with the Japanese via radio communications, the language barrier was proving problematic. According to some survivor accounts, it was only when Grasshoff purportedly played a German military song, that the Japanese were alerted to their presence – although the fact that any Japanese radio operator could tell the difference between that, and a routine German song is anybody’s guess.
It was in trying to contact the Japanese, that sealed the Nias state’s fate. It more or less came to fruition after they began transporting Dutch and British citizens off of Nias, and with the aim of placing them into Japanese internment on Sumatra. The other cultural short-sightedness, was how the Nias government thought the Japanese viewed them as equal partners. Despite their standing to attention and providing the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute with great gusto when the Japanese arrived, the Japanese did not respond to the display the way Fischer and the others had hoped. At no time did the bemused Japanese recognise the Germans as equals, but as nothing more than yet another bunch of problematic Europeans that needed to be rounded up and dealt with.
By 22 April 1942, Japan occupied the southern half of the island. Two days later after they arrival at the capital, Fischer, Vehring and all the others found themselves in confrontation with their supposed Japanese Allies. In just over three weeks of increasing Japanese visits, and despite the Nias Nazi State attempting to embrace what they believed were their Japanese counterparts, not even holding over-the-top commemorative events on Japanese arrivals with triple banzais, or nazi salutes could do the trick. By late April, the entire Nias Nazi State, including its founding governing members, along with every other European found on the island – bar the German medical doctor Dr Heidt – found themselves bound for Sumatra.
It was clear that the group had seriously underestimated Japan’s strategic version of Southeast Asia, especially given it was not one in which any European – Axis Allied, German or otherwise – was to be included. The other sticking point perhaps too well known to the motley group of civilians, was that at least since WW1, the NEI had been more or less acting as a free haven for German maritime including submarine, as well as Luftwaffe activities. Although Vehring had been one of many who had been part of Germany’s regional supply lines, including food supply for German ship and submarine crews in Southeast Asia, perhaps he thought somewhere over the horizon, the Kriegsmarine would be looking for them. Perhaps they all thought that with the ongoing might of Nazi successes across Europe, the remote backwater of the NEI would be nothing short of a pushover. The numerically and technologically superior Imperial Japanese warfighting machine was proving otherwise. It mattered little to Japan under it’s ‘Asia for Asians’ mandate (aside from the Chinese), because being an Axis Ally, Nazi, non-Nazi or ethnically German or otherwise, meant little to them, because Germans were also Europeans.
The other irony being that if the Nias Nazi State had kept to itself, and continued recruiting locals along the way with its own ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, it may have been better suited to withstand the Japanese onslaught. Nias was a tiny, insignificant dot on the map, holding neither strategic or tactical importance. As it was, and despite being probably the shortest Nazi state every formed and destroyed in history, they probably had no idea about Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Scheme, or their ‘Asians for Asia’ mandate across the region, until they figured out that they, alike everyone else who was not Japanese let alone Asian, were nothing more than part of the European flotsam and jetsam of Japan’s strategic aims.
Oktorino, Nino. Nazi di Indonesia Sabuah Sejarah Yang Terlupakan (Nazis in Indonesia A Forgotten History) Jakarta: Penerbit PT Elex Media Komputindo, 2015.
Steenbrink, Karel. ‘The poor legacy of Sumatra’. In Catholics in Indonesia, 1808-1942, 232 (2007): 325-354, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004254022_010 (accessed May 3, 2021).
Stokes, Lawrence D. ‘Anton Mussert and the NSB. : 1931–45’. In History, 56, no. 188 (1971): 387-407, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24407506 (accessed May 3, 2021).
‘Timeline’. In Van Imhoff.info the weight of memories. http://vanimhoff.info/timeline.php?scale=n (accessed May 1, 2021).
Van Dijk, Kees. The Netherlands Indies and the Great War, 1914-1918, Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Volume: 254, 2007, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctvbqs2v4 (accessed May 3, 2021).