Edward Snowden’s revelations about the foreign and domestic surveillance practices of the National Security Agency have inspired a great deal of anger around the world, but nowhere has the fury been stronger than in Germany. “Goodbye, Friends!” read the front page of Die Zeit last November, when it was disclosed that the NSA had monitored one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phones. Der Spiegel, which breathlessly published a report last fall alleging the U.S. embassy in Berlin was a “nest of espionage,” has warned of an “ice age” in German-American relations. “If this happened during the administration of George W. Bush, we could at least think, ‘It’s just Bush. . . . There is a better America,’ ” a writer for the magazine ruefully concluded. “Now we know: There is only one America.”
That “one America” is, in the eyes of many Germans, a “false friend.” This is how German political magazine Focus described erstwhile “citizen of the world” Barack Obama, once celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Germans when he visited Berlin in 2008. The exposé about Merkel’s phone, as well as earlier reports detailing NSA collection of telephonic metadata from German citizens, has stoked feelings of betrayal. When allegations arose in early February that the NSA had also eavesdropped on Gerhard Schröder in the run-up to the Iraq war, which he vocally opposed, the former Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor expressed the dejected feelings of many of his countrymen: “At the time, I wouldn’t have thought that the American services were eavesdropping on me, but now it doesn’t surprise me.” A recent poll finds that 57 percent of Germans describe relations with the United States as positive, down from a high of 92 percent less than two years ago. Not since Schröder decided to use Iraq as a wedge issue in the 2002 federal election have German-American relations been so rocky.
The discord is more than rhetorical. Germany’s federal public prosecutor Harald Range is considering an investigation into American espionage, and even figures within Merkel’s relatively pro-American Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have been making noises about bringing legal action against Washington. “It seems quite clear to me that the law was violated on German soil,” thundered Clemens Binninger, the CDU chairman of the Bundestag committee overseeing intelligence. The response is partly driven by domestic politics, namely, the agitating of Germany’s post-Communist left, which has always been suspicious of America and now smells blood. Gregor Gysi, the parliamentary leader of the radical Left party, decries the CDU-SPD coalition as a cabal of “yes-men.” “The fact that the German government and the federal prosecutor [aren’t] acting shows that their fear of the U.S. government is greater than their respect for our legal system,” he says. Earlier this month, the Chaos Computer Club, a hackers’ collective, joined an obscure outfit called the International League for Human Rights in filing a criminal complaint against the German government, accusing it of collaborating with the NSA to spy on unsuspecting German citizens.
The NSA scandal has pushed Merkel’s government into an unfortunate balancing act. Pained though she might have been to discover that the NSA was snooping on her personal phone, she is hesitant to fan the flames of anti-Americanism, as her predecessor did a decade ago. Yet, at the same time, it is politically tenuous for a German leader to tell a whipped-up electorate that they are overreacting. Last August, then-interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich attempted to push back against some of the more overwrought claims about NSA surveillance. Not unlike many Americans, Germans had come to believe that the NSA was monitoring the contents of their every email, text message, and phone call, as opposed to analyzing metadata and zeroing in on potential terrorism threats. “If you are implying that people all across Germany are being spied on, I can tell you that this isn’t the case,” Friedrich told Der Spiegel. “The datasets that the Americans allegedly ‘siphoned off’ consist of connection data from crisis zones, specifically from Afghanistan. These are not telephone calls in Germany, but calls outside Germany, in which, for example, planned attacks on soldiers are being discussed. I think preventing these acts of terror was the right thing to do.” Friedrich went on to say that Germany is not a “central surveillance target” of the NSA, a false impression that the myopic German press had fed. “Even if the NSA were to stop taking an interest in the Internet, there are other states that do so, and, to be sure, in a far more brazen way,” the new interior minister, Thomas de Mazière, recently pointed out, countering the line that it is America, and only America, which is spying on Germans.