The German question
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, citing leaked NSA documents from Edward Snowden.
In short, Germany's exposure to the NSA's prying eyes also is 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.
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 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 U.S.-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 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.
Chancellor Angela Merkel must be seething. As if she didn't have enough trouble negotiating a new coalition government and dealing with the euro.
Charles Lane, former editor of The Atlantic, is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.
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