BERLIN – German officials have been quick to ascribe the fury of their citizens over U.S. spying to their own history with the excesses of the surveillance state. But victims of the fearsome communist East German secret police say: not so fast.
Allegations that the National Security Agency (NSA) kept tabs on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone calls have threatened counterterrorism cooperation, a major trade deal and good relations between the longtime allies. Popular distrust of the United States is at a longtime high.
Officials say Germans are so sensitive about the issue because their society is still grappling with East Germany’s Orwellian spying apparatus, which was dismantled upon reunification in 1990 but whose corrosive effects continue to eat at people’s lives.
The secret police, or Stasi, roped in an estimated 190,000 part-time, secret informants and employed an additional 90,000 officers full time — in total, more than one in every 50 adult East Germans as of 1990. East Germans who dared to criticize their government — even to a spouse, a best friend or a pastor — could wind up disappearing into its penal system for years.
In East Berlin sits the former Hohenschoenhausen prison, which was reserved for East Germany’s most politically sensitive cases.
Hubertus Knabe — a West German who smuggled banned books into the East, and later discovered that he had been betrayed by a priest who had encouraged him to do so — now has a plate-glass view of the most perilous destination for victims of Stasi surveillance. He is the director of the prison museum, which is hidden away in a Berlin neighborhood whose rows of imposing apartment blocks still house many former Stasi officers.
Knabe said the consequences of the Stasi’s excesses were far more devastating than anything ever associated with the NSA. “They forget what it’s like to live in a dictatorship versus a democracy,” he said of people who say that the NSA has behaved like the Stasi.
Former inmates now lead tours of the dank, tiny cells in which they were incarcerated, and they say they sometimes run into their old tormenters on the street or at the grocery store.
Many Germans — from both sides of the German border, since East German spying reached deep into its sibling country — have thick Stasi files that they can now request to see. More painfully, they can also learn which of their friends or associates did the collecting of information in those files.
Thousands of people who were collaborators have been chased from public life. Even now, new accusations of Stasi associations can dog politicians and celebrities around Germany.
“We hear that the Stasi was some kind of dilettante agency compared to the NSA,” since the NSA is probably collecting more data overall than the East Germans did, Knabe said. “But East Germans know that the Stasi was a lot worse.”
Knabe said the East German system created a level of fear that few of his fellow citizens truly have about the American spy efforts. Nevertheless, he said, there were other similarities. He has filed a criminal complaint about the NSA spying in a German court.
“The Western system punished someone when they had committed a crime. The Eastern system punished people when they were only thinking about committing a crime,” he said. If the NSA’s material starts being used not just for counterterrorism efforts but for other kinds of pre-emptive crime-fighting, he said, “that would be a completely different type of state.”
According to an ARD-Infratest Dimap poll released Friday, just 35 percent of Germans find the U.S. government trustworthy, second only to Russia as a target of mistrust.
Many Germans want to give asylum to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the NSA files and who is now stuck in Russia without U.S. citizenship papers. Senior German officials have said that taking in Snowden would do too much damage to relations with the United States, but they are exploring whether he might testify about NSA programs from Russia.
Top German intelligence officials also traveled in recent weeks to Washington to push for a “no-spying” agreement, hoping to impose tough restrictions on the latitude given to U.S. spy agencies within Germany.
The damage could last far into the future, jeopardizing the ability of European governments to muster support for future military cooperation with the United States, said Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany’s ambassador to the United States at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Germany opposed.
“What I’m afraid will happen is that there will be a lingering sense of anti-Americanism that will be hard to manage,” Ischinger said earlier this month at a discussion organized by the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
He said that the NSA scandal is even more of a threat to the U.S.-German relationship than the 2003 dispute about the Iraq War, the most recent low point between the two countries.
“This one is, at the personal level, at the political level, a bit more difficult to overcome,” he said.
Analysts say there are other explanations as to why Germans are so upset.
“The older generation might be a little different, but I’m not sure how much of it can be explained by German history,” said Johannes Thimm, an expert on U.S.-German relations at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Some Germans may simply be humiliated that their leaders have been treated with suspicion. That comes despite the country’s efforts to be an unusually deferential and accommodating ally since immediately after World War II, Thimm said.
“The fact that we’re trying so hard to be good allies, in some sense, and then that this happens, is a complete breach of trust,” he said.
Germans also guard their personal privacy more jealously than do Americans, and the country has robust data protection and privacy laws.
Many in Germany are also deeply suspicious of the work of intelligence agencies in general, more so than many Americans. Even former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt claimed this month that he never read a report written by Germany’s foreign intelligence agency during his time in office between 1974 and 1982. And Merkel had already wanted to reach a no-spy deal with Obama long before the NSA leaks, but she had been rebuffed, adding to the sense of insult that the United States distrusted its partner, German officials say.
But for some, history still guides their reaction to the spying revelations.
Roland Brauckmann, 51, was locked away for 15 months in 1982 because he printed fliers for the Protestant church and the anti-nuclear movement. For him, the NSA memos brought back bad memories of his old typewritten Stasi files.
“Of course American services will not put us in prisons,” he said. “But the atmosphere of fear is coming again.”
He said he trusts no government with the minutiae of his daily life, because even the most harmless system could eventually be replaced by a more dangerous one.
“No one knows which kind of people will take power in the future,” he said.