Why Germans Like Being the NSA's Victims

Once more, they're leaping at the opportunity to be the objects, rather than the subjects, of history.

It’s not a coincidence. At about the same time that Christian Ströbele, a Green party parliamentarian, was visiting Edward Snowden in Moscow, it was revealed by Professor Johannes Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Center in Berlin, that Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller, a commanding officer of Adolf Eichmann and a member of the 1942 Wannsee conference which codified the decision to carry out the Holocaust, is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin. The coincidence is worth reflecting upon. It reveals something very specific about Germany, a speciality that is perhaps not unique to it but nevertheless a highly developed practice.

This is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that slipping into the role of the victim has a long tradition in Germany. The special sensitivity, for example, that the Germans are displaying in the NSA spying affair on Angela Merkel in particular and the country generally is often explained as a direct product of the historical experience of the Germans in two dictatorships. The shadows cast by the memories of the Gestapo and Stasi, we are told, have made the Germans particularly neuralgic to the megalomaniac tendencies of the secret services—as though it wasn’t the Germans themselves who were carrying out the spying.

This, of course, is a beloved German theme ever since the end of World War II, which is to say that whenever they can Germans stylize themselves as victims rather than perpetrators, the objects rather than subjects of history. Today the rhetoric is correspondingly radical. The talk is of a “United Stasi of America,” the grasp for digital world hegemony, even of “cyber-fascism.” Then what would left-wing anti-fascism be without fascism—antifa, as it is known in Germany without the “fa”? Suddenly Edward Snowden is not merely a whistleblower—no, he is a resistance fighter following in the footsteps of Carl von Ossietzky, the publisher of the “Weltbuhne,” whom the Nazis imprisoned in a concentration camp.

In this narrative the Germans are the victims of America. The logical consequence of this “never again!” would be a critical question about the work of our own secret services. Do they hold themselves—in Pakistan or Afghanistan—to the letter of the law? Do they respect human rights, data gathering and the private sphere everywhere? This could become interesting. Out of the German “never do anything bad again” something else has evolved—a comfortable “never experience anything bad again.” This, in turn, has led to a grotesque identity change in which members of the Left party—the successor to the former East German Socialist Unity Party—is now gleefully decrying the “terrible practices of the Stasi” in order to attack the NSA even more fiercely. No doubts Erich Honecker, the old head of East Germany, who ruled it like his private fiefdom until he and his chums were toppled from power in 1989, would claim, if he were still alive, that he, too is a victim of the American intelligence services spying after the motto: this reminds me of the East German prison Bautzen. Meanwhile Heinrich Müller rests in a Jewish cemetery.

What do the real victims of the Gestapo think about the spy affair? In Israel there are warnings about European hyperventilation. There is pride in the Mossad. Everyone is hopeful that the Mossad is always clever enough to detect atomic plants in Syria and Iran and to foil the Mullahs with computer viruses.

In Germany itself Anetta Kahane, the head of the Amadeu-Antonio foundation, writes in the Judische Allgemeine, a Jewish newspaper, that many Jews are following the way Snowden is discussed with concern.: “There is a tone that is familiar from postwar history: America is an occupier about which there is no more to say. And, suddenly, the Germans are again shamefully defeated and in no way liberated. Jews have reason for concern at this tone since anti-Semitism is only a few thoughts away.”

Still, the widespread feeling of having been humiliated by Americans is understandable. Seldom before have the Germans been more drastically deprived of their innocence. “We have been unbelievably quashed” is the complaint. Thus the smug complacency that Ströbele’s meeting with Snowden—Americans number one foe!—elicited. A sense of revenge earned and a restoration of national honor. And the debate about asylum for Snowden in Germany serves above all to slap America in order to be able to look in the mirror again.

As a grand coalition develops in Germany out of cyber opponents, big data apocalyptic thinkers and annoyed national conservatives, it is Vladimir Putin who can enjoy the spectacle. His dream of dividing the West is actually becoming true.

Malte Lehming is senior editor of Der Tagesspiel, a daily newspaper in Berlin. This is a translation of a piece that ran in Der Tagesspiel on November 4.

ImageBundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1204-023 / CC-BY-SA.