A Cold War Chill

Angela Merkel: Her mobile phone is her instrument of power

Having grown up in Berlin in the 1980s, I have a particular, perhaps slightly twisted relationship with spies and spying. Although we lived in one of the spacious, airy apartments characteristic of our shabbily bourgeois neighbourhood in West Berlin, our freedom of movement was somewhat limited. Sunday walks were confined to parks, the countryside was a six-hour drive away in West Germany, and school trips went only as far as the leafy suburbs.

One of my favourite things to do at the weekend was to go to Glienicker Brücke, a bridge over the Wannsee, a lake which connected West Berlin with Potsdam in the GDR — well, in theory at least. It was called the spy’s bridge: in colder times of the Cold War, it had been the site of famous prisoner exchanges. The last, involving the Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, took place in 1986. In my seven-year-old mind I imagined grim-faced men in trench coats carrying grey suitcases full of information from my city to the other side, in return for a bearded Russian (he had to have a beard). Of course, I never saw anyone. 

Isn’t it an ironic twist of fate that a new spying plot seems to be unfolding in my city of origin — in a new disguise, yet still surrounding an important historical landmark? The US embassy, from which Angela Merkel’s phone had apparently been hacked by the National Security Agency for more than a decade, is a prime site, in the middle of Germany’s political heart: it towers over Pariser Platz, standing right next to the Brandenburg Gate, a few steps away from the Reichstag and the Chancellery.

 It is here that coalition deals are hammered out (this time it has taken two months), laws are enacted, and where Barack Obama took off his jacket when he spoke last summer in the boiling heat. Perhaps tellingly, the embassy itself looks more like a fortress built in a New Jersey suburb than the old pre-war Blücher Palace, worthy of a prince or an ambassador. Its function is security rather than grandeur, or so the architecture suggests. 

As anyone who has attempted to make small talk at a German party will know, Germans are notoriously pernickety about giving away personal information. Their head of government is no exception — hardly anything is as sensitive a subject to Merkel as the surveillance of her mobile phone. It is her instrument of power. What does it mean, then, when this tool of democracy is subverted by our most important ally? 

Allies aren’t always friends, was the conclusion that was quickly drawn. The Americans argued that without spying the US wouldn’t be able to carry out its role in the world — snooping around in other countries’ affairs is just normal international politics, as Merkel should know only too well. But why America, the country that led Germany out of its postwar misery and helped to get rid of a regime in East Germany that regarded spying as an acceptable means of controlling its people? There was an alienating element in this crisis of confidence, a Cold War chill in the autumn air.  

At the same time, however, Germany is experiencing a heated debate about the transparency of information and data collection. Now that companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook publish transparency reports, the number of customer data requests a government files each year has been made public. A recent report suggests that, despite the Germans being fearful of government intrusion into people’s private lives, their government made more than twice as many requests for customer data collected by the search engine Yahoo as the UK, second only to the US. Is Merkel thus being somewhat two-faced? 

The leaked NSA files do not indicate clearly what form of surveillance has taken place — her conversations only or her movements too? In any case, anyone who has to go through this mass of data should probably be pitied. With a chancellor who is famously plain in her tastes, very little in the way of extravagance and kinkiness is to be expected. The records might well have been the most boring exhanges imaginable-Merkel is hardly a JFK or a Bill Clinton. 

Adding insult to injury, the affair turns out to be even more frustrating on a different level: Germany, as one commentator suggested, simply doesn’t have the technical know-how to find out how the spying was done. 

Technology was once the basis for post-war Germany’s proudest boast: “export world champions”. Now not only does China seem better at it, but the Americans are in a different league. What’s next? If the Americans invent something as good as bratwurst, Germany might as well become the 51st state.

Perhaps our notoriously metaphysical brand of philosophy will at last come into its own, helping us to find our way through this moral maze where everyone can spy on    everyone else, yet still be called a friend. 

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