Skip to main content

Germany's Stasi past looms over NSA spying furor

By Dagmar Hovestädt, special for CNN
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
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

Editor's note: Dagmar Hovestädt is the spokeswoman for the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU). She previously worked as a TV reporter and producer in Berlin and Los Angeles.

(CNN) -- 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.

Dagmar Hovestädt
Dagmar Hovestädt

MORE: Obama 'didn't know' about spying on Merkel

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.

OPINION: Merkel's anger is genuine

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.

NSA denies it told Obama about spying
Germany sending intel team to D.C.

MORE: 5 things to know about NSA spying claims

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.

OPINION: Why White House 'ignorance' doesn't cut it

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dagmar Hovestädt.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Pakistan Taliban say the school attack was revenge for the killing of children in a military offensive -- but they are being pressed by defections to ISIS.
A group that claims it hacked Sony Pictures has posted a public threat against moviegoers who see Sony's "The Interview."
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
The gunman behind the deadly siege in Sydney this week was not on a security watch list, and Australia's Prime Minister wants to know why.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 0948 GMT (1748 HKT)
Bestselling author Marjorie Liu had set her sights on being a lawyer, but realized it wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
CNN's Matthew Chance looks into an HRW report saying Russia has "legalized discrimination against LGBT people."
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 0212 GMT (1012 HKT)
The Sydney siege has brought home some troubling truths to Australians. They are not immune to what are often called "lone-wolf" terror attacks.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 0012 GMT (0812 HKT)
A social media campaign condemning Islamophobia under the hashtag #illridewithyou has taken off after Sydney hostage siege.
Bill Cosby has kept quiet as sexual assault allegations mounted against him, but his wife, Camille, finally spoke out in defense of her husband.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
China-bound AirAsia flight turns back to Bangkok after passenger throws water over crew member.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
It takes Nepalese eye doctor, Sanduk Ruit about five minutes to change someone's life.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
This epic journey crosses 13,000 kilometers, eight countries over 21 days. Find out where.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1431 GMT (2231 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT