NSA humbling of Germany has historical precedent

Germany's exposure to the NSA's prying eyes is a blunt reminder of the country's past aggression and eventual defeat

Share
Related Topics

According to a now well-established media narrative, German outrage over National Security Agency spying has historical roots. Today's uproar reflects yesterday's bitter experience of domestic surveillance under Nazi and, more recently, East German Communist rule, we are told.

“But it is precisely because of the Stasi's hunger for information and its abuse of East Germany's citizens that we are today so sensitive about modern day surveillance. It is not just about a wiretapped phone — it is a reminder of the fragility of free societies,” wrote Dagmar Hovestadt, spokeswoman for an agency that preserves the Stasi archives in Berlin.

This narrative is true, up to a point: even a country without Germany's past might be upset to learn the NSA was tapping the phone of its elected leader.

But understanding the furor in Germany requires digging deeper into history, including the part when Germans were not victims but aggressors.

Why was Germany kept out of the deal under which the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not eavesdrop on one another and cooperate fully in signals intelligence? Well, the origins of that decision lie in World War II, when Washington and London agreed to share their secret codes and work together to break the codes of enemy Germany. The NSA is the lineal descendant of the Anglo-American signals intelligence organizations that helped defeat Hitler.

After the war, the NSA's target was the Soviet Union, as Germany lay prostrate and occupied, a divided non-factor in global politics.

Even after West Germany's economic recovery and its rise to NATO membership, the United States and Britain excluded it from the “SIGINT” inner circle. The potential benefits of including the Bonn government were outweighed by the risks of Soviet and East German infiltration. West German governments gave the NSA access to U.S.-occupied German territory, anyway.

Now, after decades of close military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, unified Germany still gets less access to NSA intelligence than do Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway, the Guardian and the New York Times reported Sunday, citing leaked NSA documents from Edward Snowden.

In short, Germany's exposure to the NSA's prying eyes is also a blunt reminder of its past aggression, defeat and humiliation and the price Germans still pay for all that, long after their country has cleaned up its national act.

As journalist Malte Lehming wrote in Der Tagesspiegel: “The widespread feeling of being humiliated by the Americans is understandable. Seldom before have the Germans had their noses rubbed so severely in their own helplessness, defenselessness, cluelessness and carelessness.”

For all of Germany's “soft power” — it is a humanely governed economic powerhouse whose approval rating in global opinion surveys easily tops that of the United States — the country remains a military and intelligence weakling. That rankles. Never mind that Germans themselves swore off hard power — because of history.

And so German politicians and media play the victimization card. “The promise 'Never do evil again' has evolved into a more comfortable promise: 'Never endure evil again,' ” Lehming wrote.

If this implies moral equivalence between spying by a democratic United States and a Nazi Gestapo or Communist Stasi — well, so be it. Some of the NSA's harshest German critics are members of the Left Party, successor to the Communist Party of East Germany.

Even an ostensibly detached observer, historian Josef Foschepoth of Freiburg University, recasts the postwar US role in Europe as “double containment . . . of the Soviet Union on the one hand and Germany on the other. And an essential element of this policy was [NSA] surveillance.”

In short, Snowden's disclosures have tapped Germans' deep but usually unacknowledged feelings about their rightful place in the world, which won't easily be bottled up again.

One oft-suggested remedy — admitting Germany, at last, to the US-led inner circle of nations that don't eavesdrop on each other — might soothe feelings in German officialdom. In 2009, German intelligence was “a little grumpy” at getting less access to NSA data than France, according to one of Snowden's documents.

But in terms of repairing the US image in Germany, this gesture might be too little, too late. From a US perspective, the costs could outweigh the benefits, for the same reason that it's always risky to let more people in on a secret.

Chancellor Angela Merkel must be seething. As if she didn't have enough trouble negotiating a new coalition government and dealing with the euro.

I doubt, though, that she's wasting much energy mourning her personal privacy or U.S. double-dealing. Merkel is a sophisticated leader who knows how the diplomatic game is played.

This is her real problem: if the NSA was going to tap her phone, it could at least have had the decency — and the competency — to keep it secret.

Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.

Copyright Washington Post 2013.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot