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Germany's Stasi past looms over NSA spying furor

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Story highlights

  • Hovestädt: Germans see surveillance differently than U.S. due to Stasi
  • Stasi were East Germany's secret police during Cold War era of Communist one party rule
  • Hovestädt: Germans have seen danger of condoning unchecked state power

Germans may be full of indignation at the alleged tapping of Angela Merkel's phone by the U.S National Security Agency -- but the outrage is more than the disappointment of being betrayed by a friend, for the shadows of Germany's past are never far away.

Not 25 years ago, Chancellor Merkel was a young scientist behind the Iron Curtain. She grew up a pastor's daughter which, under one party Communist rule in East Germany, put her on the fringes of society. People who moved in religious circles were considered problematic because they often did not conform to the party line. And those who didn't follow party rules came under scrutiny, had their choices of a career and a life limited, and sooner or later became a case for the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany.

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Dagmar Hovestädt

It was the Stasi, the "shield and sword" of the Communist party, that was charged with ensuring the power of the party. And it did that mostly by monitoring of people and their behavior. Because even in a regime as repressive as East Germany, people wanted to express who they really were. Many found the courage to follow their hearts and thus became a danger to the existing power structure. That is why the Stasi became an all-encompassing entity in East Germany. It had to have its eyes and ears everywhere possible to make sure "enemies" of the party were uncovered early and disrupted in their activity.

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In the fall of 1989, shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi had 91,000 staffers and some 173,000 unofficial collaborators, according to their own files. Many more contributed through official functions to the information gathering of the secret police on co-workers, fellow students, neighbors, visitors, even friends and sometimes family.

Any and all technical means, including phone tapping, were used by the Stasi to gather information. Many thousands of people landed in jail for their desire to travel freely, to express their opinions openly and to vote for candidates they wanted -- to exercise their human rights, in essence.

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When finally people gathered the courage to stand up against the repression of the Communist party, one of the accomplishments of the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 was the opening of the Stasi archive. People demanded the accessibility of these files to reclaim their stolen lives, to make public and transparent the secret system that had kept them under control for so long.

Over the past 20 years Germany through the Stasi archives has examined the exact mechanisms of control through the secret police to better understand their vast network of information gathering and its consequences on the lives of many people. This has been a constant part of public debate in Germany. In its course the Stasi became synonymous for blanket surveillance and for uncontrolled access of a state into its own citizens' lives.

So when the Chancellor's phone is bugged, Germans don't have the bliss of ignorance as Americans might have. Germans can't convince themselves that surveillance might serve a higher purpose, or that it's acceptable because it's happening to everyone else in the world. Unlike the Americans we have experienced the dangers of a nation that condones unchecked state power. We've seen the results when a state does not respect laws and its citizens' right to privacy and human rights.

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Granted, it is not as simple as "the NSA = the Stasi." We have thoroughly studied the mechanisms of dictatorship so we can sharpen our senses for democracy. What is different today? Phone tapping as a source of information gathering is an intelligence tool regardless of the regime using it. Discussing it in public and demanding stricter rules for its implementation is something that was not possible for four decades in East Germany. It is something we do today, knowing full well the dangers to democracy if we don't.

The vast ocean of digital information that each and every one of us contributes to as a consequence of modern life has created a new reality. It has created never before imagined opportunities for businesses, for personal connectivity, for politics, and for intelligence gathering. And it also makes one wonder what the Stasi would have done with a vast information hub like Facebook that would have let it pry into many, many lives and gather personal information beyond its wildest dreams.

But it is precisely because of the Stasi's hunger for information and its abuse of East Germany's citizens that we are today so sensitive about modern day surveillance. It is not just about a wiretapped phone -- it is a reminder of the fragility of free societies.