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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Why is Berlin so outraged over spy claims? Because they evoke nightmarish memories in Germany

The 'Big Brother State' is a sensitive issue in Germany

The allegation that the US allegedly spies on the EU and its member states - and the related allegations that the UK also tapped German calls and internet traffic - has caused a huge scandal and plenty of anxiety in Germany.

More than in any other country, as details of US whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks become public, German politicians are lining up to condemn America for treating Germany like a "third-tier partner" (apparently Germany was spied on quite a lot), while press headlines are bristling at the indignity of it all.

This has pitted the "Anglo-Saxon" world against the, in this case, Berlin-led continental block in a most unfortunate way. As we pointed out yesterday - even before Hollande made it 'official' - this incident is now putting a dark cloud over the fledling EU-US free trade talks.

But beyond the spectacular headlines what, exactly, lies behind the deep-felt German unease about the entire episode? Well, it's a fascinating study into national sensitivities - and incidentally an illustration of just how difficult it is to move towards a common justice system in Europe.

Germany suffers from a lingering memory of the 'Big Brother State' in two of its nastiest forms:  under the Nazis and the former East Germany (GDR). Any hint at massive data collection or snooping always evokes a sharp backlash in Germany.

The systematic collection of data by the state, as witnessed under the Nazis in the 1930s-1940s, was not only used to identify and systematically exterminate groups such as the Jews or Gypsies, but also to keep others in check by infiltrating every aspect of life.

And the surveillance and collection of data was even more intrusive in the GDR. By time the Berlin Wall came down, the Stasi had some 91,000 full-time staff, in addition to a huge network of informants who provided information on their friends, colleagues and families.

The suggestion, then, that the Obama administration is amassing swathes of  personal data indiscriminately makes Germans extremely nervous. (And these fears won’t have been soothed by the comments from Wolfgang Schmidt, a former Stasi honcho who said the magnitude of the purported US surveillance would have been “ a dream come true” for the Stasi.)

Symptomatically, Germany still hasn't implemented the EU's Data Retention Directive due to concerns over privacy and arbitrary data collection (there's also a constitutional discussion involved - despite the fact that one part of the Directive was supposed to be implemented in 2007, the other in 2009.)  This has lead to the European Commission taking Germany to court.

Germans are reserved, coalition-building and and tempered in international affairs (too tempered some would say), but given the country's recent history, this is one area global partners should tread carefully around if they want to keep Berlin happy.

5 comments:

andreasmoser said...

Are you implying that non-Germans don't mind being snooped on?

Anonymous said...

Robo25
Very strange to see how the Anglo-Saxon press became very quiet no reports, no comments. It looks very much as if there is a concerted Anglo Saxon approach press and intelligence community hand in hand.

For me the trust in these systems as well in transatlantic cooperation has fraded away.

Anonymous said...

The Bundesnachrichtendienst has 6000 staff a declared budget ( excluding BfV and MAD ) OF €500 Millions , ministerial oversight and a huge new facility in Berlin. They clearly live up to their name.

Edward Spalton said...

The BND were also largely responsible for the destabilisation of Yugoslavia over many years, finally pouring in funds, arms and technical assistance to the separatists in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Luke said...

Nobody likes less being snooped on than the germans. That's a fact. However they still make their own share of spying. What really surprises me is the fact that everyone was so surprised. Come on! Hollywood has been telling you that they do it constantly for years. And all it took was ONE pissed off employee to expose the whole shebang. In fact they are hearing you right now. Just do not say anything compromising over the phone or on emails. Sad but true!