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Privacy

NSA snooping scandal stirs up dark memories in Germany

The American data snooping scandal has been a hot topic in Germany of late. Even though Germans haven't taken to the streets, they are outraged about the findings as they remind many of their country's dark past.

The German government wanted to get its hand on as much data as possible, but citizens insisted on privacy. People from different social backgrounds took to the streets to voice their anger and refused to share their data - and that was back in 1983, when the government wanted to take stock and carry out a census. All German adults were supposed to respond to questionnaires detailing their living situation, marital and employment status.

But disclosing this sort of personal information is not even worth mentioning compared to the recent revelations of Edward Snowden. If the statements of the former NSA contractor turn out to be true, authorities are able to find out more by tapping phone calls and emails than what would have ever been possible with simple surveys. And the US intelligence agency doesn't only target Americans when snooping around - it also listens in on Germany and other EU countries. 

Merkel should put her foot down, say Germans

According to a recent poll, four out of five respondents in Germany say that Chancellor Angela Merkel shouldn't continue to accept this kind of behavior from the US.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama raise their glasses in a toast (photo: REUTERS/Michael Sohn/Pool)

Many Germans say Merkel should finally have a word with the US

But mass protests like the demonstrations in 1983 are probably not going to happen. "Times have changed," said Ulrich Sittermann, who trains teachers at the University of Bremen. In the 1980s, Sittermann was among those who organized protests against the census.

"[The initiatives] were an element of a new social movement," Sittermann told DW. "There was the anti-nuclear movement, there was the new, upcoming women's movement. And this atmosphere of renewal fueled the anti-census movement as well."

Nowadays, only a few people would demonstrate against the violation of privacy by online surveillance, Sittermann said, because Germans have gotten much too comfortable with communication channels such as email and Facebook to see the dangerous side. That's problematic, said Sittermann, because Germany could become a "dictatorship of surveillance" if no one steps up to oppose surveillance measures.

Another form of protest

Protesters at an anti-nuclear demonstration (photo: Mario Vedder/dapd)

The anti-census movement and anti-nuclear protests saw people head to the streets

Even though most Germans don't organize protest marches, they have found other ways to voice their outrage over US wiretapping. They express their anger about the spying revelations and their admiration for Snowden in online forums, on Facebook and in letters to the editor in German newspapers.

Anna von Münchhausen, responsible for the op-ed pages of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, said most readers had responded with "Yes" to an editorial question of whether they would hide Snowden. "Some of their reactions say: Edward Snowden put his life on the line. We all should take him in," said Münchhausen.

Other readers are reminded of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) where the Stasi, the GDR's secret police, and its omnipresent spies were snooping around in people's lives.

"I remember dark times of the GDR, a country that had failed because of its own incompetence. (…) I used to be spied on as well, and today it's probably the same again, just much more professional, much more perfect," a reader wrote to the newspaper. 

Stasi spying material (photo: Thomas Lehmann +++(c) dpa - Report)

The US snooping scandal brings back memories of Germany's past

'It's about freedom'

Münchhausen thinks this analogy and another part of German history - memories of a Nazi Germany - stirs up people's emotions. That's probably why most Germans are more appalled about revelations than most Americans.

"We are affected on another level of fear and concern, because we have experienced a fascist state that systematically spied on its citizens and put them under surveillance. Thousands of people have suffered from that," she said.

Americans, on the other hand, have had their own defining cultural moments. "In general, since 9/11, the topic of fighting terrorism has been pushed forward to that extent that the end justifies the means," said Nico Lumma, the co-chair of the D64 Center for Digital Progress. The social media expert says that German online comments of the past weeks have not been very sympathetic to that reason.

"People are annoyed by the scope of surveillance measures. I think most of them have had a secret premonition, yet they expect the German government to tell the Americans that they can't go on like that," said Lumma. "The common theme is not, 'It's about data protection,' but 'It's about freedom.'"

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