WASHINGTON – 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.
“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.
Even a country without Germany’s past might be upset to learn the NSA was tapping the phone of its elected leader.
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?
The origins of that decision lie in World War II, when Washington and London agreed to 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 nonfactor in global politics.
Even after West Germany’s economic recovery and its rise to NATO membership, the U.S. and Britain excluded it from the “SIGINT” 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 U.S., unified Germany still gets less access to NSA intelligence than do Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway, the Guardian and The New York Times have reported, citing leaked NSA documents from Edward Snowden.
In short, Germany’s exposure to the NSA’s prying eyes is a blunt reminder of its past aggression and humiliation long after the country has cleaned up its act. As journalist Malte Lehming wrote in Der Tagesspiegel: “Seldom before have the Germans had their noses rubbed so severely in their own helplessness, defenselessness, cluelessness.”
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 U.S. — 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 U.S. and a Nazi Gestapo or Communist Stasi — so be it. Some of the NSA’s harshest German critics are members of the Left Party, successor to the East German Communist Party.
Even an ostensibly detached observer, historian Josef Foschepoth of Freiburg University, recasts the postwar U.S. role in Europe as “double containment” — of the Soviet Union and Germany.
One oft-suggested remedy — admitting Germany, at last, to the U.S.-led inner circle of nations that don’t eavesdrop on each other — might soothe feelings in German officialdom. According to one of Snowden’s documents, in 2009, German intelligence was “a little grumpy” at getting less access to NSA data than France.
But in terms of repairing the U.S. image in Germany, this gesture might be too little, too late. From a U.S. perspective, the costs could outweigh the benefits, for the same reason that it’s always risky to let more people in on a secret.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.