For most Germans over 50 years old — and that includes most of today’s decision-makers — the word “spying” has a quite specific historic meaning. It conjures up images of the Cold War: pictures of John Le Carré-like exchanges on Glienecke Bridge; memories of “Romeo” spies seducing defense department secretaries in Bonn; and the traumatic downfall of German Chancellor Willy Brandt when it turned out that one of his personal assistants was an East German spy. Spying is thus invariably linked to the past confrontation with the Soviet Union and pre-unification East Germany.
It is quite ironic that the spying affair souring the mood between the United States and Germany in recent weeks started with German secret service suspicions that they had found first one Russian spy, and then another among its ranks. But, as the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung reports, a closer investigation revealed that both are now suspected of having worked as double agents for the United States.
There is a palpable sense of betrayal in Germany over this, across the political spectrum, with calls for retaliatory action ranging from the opposition ex-communist “Left Party” to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing Christian Democrats. To many, it feels as if post-war German democracy’s nurturing elder brother, the United States, turned out to be Big Brother (and, to add insult to injury, seems to think that there’s nothing wrong with being Big Brother). To understand German reactions, one needs to understand both why the surveillance of Merkel’s cellphone was so sensitive, and why the German understanding of privacy is so different from that in the United States.
In October 2013 newspapers began to report that Merkel’s cellphone (which, as countless photos testify, she uses constantly in the line of duty, for both texting and talking) had been tapped by the U.S. government. These reports were rejected by President Barack Obama. His assurances, however, “that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel” raised more suspicion than they calmed, since they artfully avoided saying whether the United States had tapped Merkel’s phone in the past.
Many Germans had seen Obama in almost messianic terms after the disappointing relationship with President George W. Bush. Obama had come to Berlin during his first election campaign in 2008, doubtless to invoke echoes at home of JFK’s celebrated visit of 1963. Some 200.000 Berliners came to watch his performance at the Victory Column, and they cheered him again in June 2013, when — in the sweltering heat of a June afternoon at the Brandenburg Gate — he decided to take off his jacket because one “can be a little bit more informal among friends.” This past infatuation makes the present disappointment all the deeper.
Germans care deeply about privacy rights, which they call “data protection.” One reason surely is that they experienced two totalitarian dictatorships over the course of the 20th century, both of which greatly abused privacy.
In 1970, the Land (German state) of Hesse passed the world’s first data protection act; in 1977, a respective law was passed on the West-German federal level, and the office of a powerful data protection officer set up. A stream of annual reports by data protection officers on both the state and the federal level have kept the issue on the political agenda ever since.
In 1983, a planned national census was stopped after widespread protests and an appeal to boycott it, because the German constitutional court declared the law authorizing it unconstitutional. In that decision, the court ruled that the West-German Basic Law contained a comprehensive “right to informational self-determination” which has been the cornerstone of privacy protection in Germany ever since.
In debates about data protection on the European Union level and in international negotiations, German governments have always argued in favor of a high level of data protection, although not always successfully. Most Germans have been suspicious of how the United States ratcheted up security legislation after 9/11 without seeming to care much about the protection of privacy and civil rights, especially the rights of foreigners.
Some U.S. commenters see these worries as excessive. But these worries, together with growing pacifism and some latent anti-Americanism among Germans, have put a lot of pressure on Chancellor Merkel (even from within her own party) to send a strong signal to Washington — especially as no gesture of regret was forthcoming from the U.S. administration. Asking the CIA station chief in Berlin to leave the country was a symbolic gesture to alleviate that pressure. Most Germans fail to understand why their country should be the subject of rather clumsy U.S. intelligence operations when a number of “Anglosphere” countries enjoy “no spy agreements.”
That ex-NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is widely regarded as a hero in Germany hasn’t helped further America’s cause. And the cooling off in esteem is already visible: a recent Pew Global Research report saw appreciation of the United States as a home of individual liberties sink more severely in Germany than in any other big Western countries — falling twice as much as in France, UK or Spain and three times as much as in Italy.