Willi Kuhlmann remembers the day the Berlin Wall was erected on Aug. 13, 1961, and how the system of spying on East German citizens by secret police known as the Stasi intensified.
His experience as a border guard along the Wall that divided Germany’s capital city for 28 years makes him mistrustful of the data-gathering carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency, revealed in a series of disclosures to publications including Germany’s Der Spiegel by fugitive Edward Snowden in recent weeks.
Kuhlmann, a 77-year-old retired forester, is among ordinary Germans who draw parallels between the NSA’s activities and the surveillance carried out by the Stasi. One in two of the country’s citizens regard Snowden as a hero, according to a June 29 survey of 504 people by Emnid for Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
“You don’t spy like that on your friends,” said Kuhlmann in a telephone interview.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government has rejected the leaker’s application for asylum to Germany, spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama over the phone last week after Der Spiegel reported that the NSA spied on German citizens and European diplomats. Germany was the top destination among European countries for the intelligence gathering, with about 500 million phone calls, e-mails and SMS being monitored and recorded by the NSA every month, the magazine said.
Snowden, who has been offered legal and logistical support by anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks as he faced U.S. requests for extradition in Hong Kong and Russia, also said NSA officials were “in bed together with the Germans.” According to Der Spiegel, the NSA has a partnership with Germany’s foreign intelligence service, or BND, with the Americans providing “analysis tools” for the BND to use as it monitors streams of data passing through Germany.
Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich will fly to the U.S. today to join high-level talks about Snowden’s revelations as European Union and U.S. officials seek to clarify the allegations. Friedrich is scheduled to meet Attorney General Eric Holder and presidential adviser Lisa Monaco tomorrow in Washington.
“There’s nothing wrong about telling the truth,” said Janina Cieply, 22, an anthropology student at Berlin’s Free University. “It looks like the NSA picked up where the Stasi left off. Of course this is a delicate topic in Germany, and rightfully so. It’s the government’s duty to protect the people from such attacks.”
While some Germans voice their support for Snowden, people around the world are less willing to offer financial backing to WikiLeaks and causes such as Snowden’s. Donations to the Wau Holland Foundation, the Hamburg-based main financing channel for WikiLeaks, remained well below levels seen in 2010, when the group published diplomatic and military documents obtained by U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning.
Mindful of state surveillance by the Stasi under communism and the Gestapo under the Nazis, Germans are more sensitive than people in other nations to the powers of surveillance by government agencies.
Communist East Germany’s Staatssicherheit, or Stasi secret police, was the regime’s enforcer whose motto was “Shield and Sword of the Party.” The Stasi had 93,000 full-time agents and at least 189,000 part-time informers in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell before the 1990 German reunification, Joerg Drieselmann, director of Berlin’s Stasi Museum, said in a phone interview. East Germany had a population of about 16.4 million in 1989.
“The Stasi is the ultimate expression of spying in Germany’s collective memory,” he said.
Drieselmann said 120 kilometers (75 miles) of Stasi files still exist and that this is thought to be 65 percent to 70 percent of the total files before the Stasi’s frantic shredding and burning of its archives shortly before the communist state’s collapse.
“We still can’t compare the Stasi with the NSA,” he said. “I certainly don’t want to even try to compare them as institutions but let’s be clear: the NSA has gathered vastly more information than the Stasi ever did.”
In an interview with Die Zeit newspaper published yesterday, Merkel said she rejects any parallel between the Stasi and espionage practices of democratic states.
The Stasi legacy still resonates and was dramatized in a film “The Lives of Others,” about an agent spying on a writer and his lover, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007.
Germany has a long tradition of data protection laws dating back to the 1970s. The state of Hesse introduced the first data protection law worldwide in 1970, according the Hesse State Commissioner for Data Protection website.
In 1983, the country’s top court said Germany’s constitution grants individuals a right to “informational self-determination.” A system “in which citizens can no longer know who knows what and when and on which occasion about them,” is incompatible with the constitution, the judges ruled. As a result, data can’t be collected without authorization under a law that determines and limits the scope and purpose.
Stasi and Nazi abuses which were followed by this legal framework lead many Germans to react strongly to data security violations.
“I think it’s a catastrophe that this is possible in this supposed free world,” said Josef Geuecke, 50, a farmer. “We have to try to stop this at all levels. We’ve become very sensitive after 1945, but that’s our duty.”
Yet Jan Techau, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Brussels office, said the German government is unlikely to heed the call of some members of the public and politicians in Berlin to trim back data exchanges with the U.S.
“German intelligence would lose access to American intelligence which has been useful in the past,” Techau said in a phone interview. “It would catapult Germany outside of America’s privileged inner circle. Sure, there’s a certain amount of hysteria and over-reaction in Germany but you can’t just dismiss this because there is a breach of trust.”
German industry, reliant for its exports on a technological edge over products made in lower-cost countries, is concerned the snooping may damage its competitiveness.
“Berlin should invest heavily in cyberdefense and anti-espionage activities, give more resources to its intelligence agencies and join in the game of hardball,” Markus Kerber, the Federation of German Industry’s director general, wrote in an opinion piece in the Financial Times. “In a world of realpolitik, only the strong are taken seriously.”
The U.S. Patriot Act allows authorities to demand punctual access to information from U.S. companies. Reports leaked by Snowden said the NSA has been able to access servers of Google Inc., Facebook Inc., Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others at any time since 2007. Other leaks pointed to the U.K.’s GCHQ tapping into and analyzing data from fiber-optic cables carrying Internet traffic, as well the U.S. bugging EU offices in Washington.
“When someone tells the truth like that, our government should protect him,” said Norbert Mayer, a 66-year-old retiree from Frankfurt. “But we’re clearly governed from Brussels and Washington. And it seems like even Merkel has no choice but to give in to Obama.”
Kuhlmann, the former Berlin Wall border guard, said intelligence gathering today in democracies takes place under totally different -- and much higher -- standards than what he knew in the East Bloc under communism.
“Spies exist in every nation and today we need to keep close watch on terrorists and organized crime,” he said. “But we learned in East Germany that spying must be controlled and in this case it doesn’t seem like it was.”