As many Germans as heard Obama speak turned out at quickly arranged protests, including one by self-proclaimed tech nerds near the historic Checkpoint Charlie, where U.S. soldiers welcomed visitors from the communist sector of Berlin for four decades with a sign, You are entering the American sector. One demonstrator added this coda: Your privacy ends here.
The center-left newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung took Obama to task over the surveillance issue. Governments do not have the right to conceal broad lines of policy, the newspaper wrote. President Obama is operating according to an odd maxim: I am doing a lot of the same things that George W. Bush did, but you can trust me because I am the one doing it. Not even Obama is deserving of that much trust."
Everyone knows that gathering so much information is bullshit, said Reinhard Weisshuhn, a political activist and foreign policy adviser. Its a total breach of trust by the government. This is how a society destroys itself.
For 15 years, the Stasi tracked Weisshuhns every move and conversation. His Stasi file, which he, like many other Stasi targets, reviewed after the Berlin Wall collapsed, ran to 9,000 pages. He was shocked, and hes quick to stress that the United States shouldnt be compared to the totalitarian East German state.
But that doesnt mean the president gets a free pass, he said. The United States is an open society. This is a problem that must be honestly addressed and fixed.
Weisshuhn shares a common German perception on the scandal: Snowden, whos been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking news of the domestic spying, isnt the bad guy.
"In our case, we thought we were being paranoid until we saw what theyd gathered and realized wed been naive," Weisshuhn said. "Here, its not the whistle-blower who is wrong, its the gathering of information."
Germans, especially those raised in the east, are unconvinced by arguments that the sweeping collection of information is used only to track terrorists. The assertions by U.S. officials that unspecified attacks have been thwarted dont persuade them, either. They havent forgotten the fear of living under a government that used vague threats to justify blanket spying. In East Germany, the threats came under the banner of disloyalty to socialist ideals. In the United States, the monitoring programs come under the banner of anti-terrorism.
Dagmar Hovestaedt is the spokeswoman for the German Stasi Records Agency, which showed 88,000 people last year what the Stasi had gathered on them. She said the U.S. should consider doing the same.
This is a study on how to deal with the information the NSA is now gathering, she said of her archive. To say that the NSA is the equivalent of the Stasi is too simplistic, but the people who are spied on do have a right to know what was learned about their lives, what they had hoped to keep private that was not. Transparency is essential.
Still, she noted that Stasi victims have a large advantage in finding out what was studied.
Its easy to make information available when it was gathered by a state that no longer exists, she said.
Stefan Wolle is the curator for Berlins East German Museum, which focuses in part on the actions of and reactions to the Stasi. What becomes clear when studying the information the organization gathered is the banality of evil: Simple pieces of everyday life are given much greater importance than they deserve when a secret organization makes the effort to gather the information.
When the wall fell, I wanted to see what the Stasi had on me, on the world I knew, he said. A large part of what I found was nothing more than office gossip, the sort of thing people used to say around the water cooler about affairs and gripes, the sort of things that people today put in emails or texts to each other.
The lesson, he added, is that when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.