Germans wonder why it took Merkel so long to get angry over NSA spying

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to tamp down anger over NSA spying this summer, only lashing out this week, when phone tapping allegations reached her own calls.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels Friday, October 25, 2013.

"If I want to know what Chancellor Merkel thinks, I give her a call." Was President Obama serious when he uttered these words only two months ago, or was there a cynical subtext? For many Germans that doesn’t matter anymore. The allegations that the US tapped Ms. Merkel’s cellphone are straining bilateral relations.

"If this turns out to be true, it’s a real scandal," says Gunther Krichbaum, a member of parliament with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party and chair of the European Affairs committee in the German parliament. “It’s a severe breach of trust.”

But it is not only Obama who looks bad in this affair. Merkel and several of her cabinet ministers spent most of this pre-election summer either trying to ignore the NSA spying story or talking it down. Merkel’s chief of staff Ronald Pofalla outraged some in August when he declared the NSA affair to be over.

Millions of German internet users, reading daily that their own communications were US intelligence targets, wanted Merkel to complain to the Americans. Instead she sent her interior minister to Washington, who on his return expressed total trust in the US and told Germans to be grateful for being protected from terrorist attacks. That same minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, is now demanding an apology from the US for snooping on Merkel. 

In a press conference at an European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday, the chancellor said she was upset not because her own phone had been bugged, but because the spying affected all German citizens. "For Merkel this is a particularly sensitive issue," says Mr. Krichbaum. "Growing up in East Germany where the Stasi secret service was omnipresent made her very perceptive about matters of privacy."

Yet, if that’s the case, many Germans wonder, why did Merkel only lash out after her own phone was bugged? Why did she put US-German relations before protecting her citizens’ civil rights?

Jochen Staadt, historian at Berlin’s Free University, argues that's due to Merkel’s habit of scientific skepticism and the belief that little of the information gathered was of use because it wasn't targeted. "She didn’t see the point of indiscriminate mass surveillance, so she decided not to make a fuss," Staadt says.

Still, many of her compatriots feel very strongly about it. The balance between the need for security and for privacy is viewed differently within German society than it is in the US or Britain. Staadt, an expert on the structure of the East German regime, puts this down to the experience of two dictatorships in recent history, the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic, under the Soviet Union.

“The experience of being exposed to a state which strives for utter control of its subjects is something Germans won’t easily forget,” says Staadt.

Consider West Germany's census of 1987. The census, the West's first since 1950, faced a widespread boycott because many saw it as an unwanted government intrusion in privacy. Or consider when Google introduced its Street View project in Germany in 2009 - Google, too, was confronted with mass protests from homeowners and tenants, citing privacy concerns. As a result, many facades in German cities will appear blurred when viewed on Google maps.

Those domestic privacy concerns are now fueling public anger at the US.

German politicians will no longer be able to ignore the problem, however. Data protection has officially become one of the issues to be fixed in the ongoing coalition negotiations for the new German government. “We will make sure that not just the privacy of the chancellor is protected in future,” said Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats, who will be junior partner in the German government if a coalition agreement is signed within the next few weeks. “We’ll ask the same for 82 million German citizens.”

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