US-German Relations in the Wake of NSA Surveillance of German Citizens

BERLIN – Following German media’s recent campaigning against massive USA/CIA/NSA spy activities in Berlin (and the Pentagon’s prosaic indifference) evokes what the Germans call ‘Fremdschämen’ –the feeling of shame for the embarrassment of others: What were the Germans thinking, anyway? That they were special? Equal? Bosom buddies, perhaps, on a par with the world’s sole superpower?

The Emperor Is Naked

The background story is swiftly told: After Edward Snowden, the US dissident, revealed secret documents in June 2013 about the greatest surveillance scheme in the history of mankind, it is now certain that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been authorized by the US government to spy on each and every one of us, the world’s entire population, preferably by tapping US internet monopolies disguised as public services. This didn’t bother German politicians at first, because the Republic, too, is peeping on its citizens. On the contrary, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), as Snowden’s revelation teach us, loved to collaborate with the NSA (on counter-terrorism, say), expecting a jolly exchange and the sharing of technologies and information.

But when it leaked, in October 2013, that the cell-phone of the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was wiretapped, ordinary Germans began to hoot at their leaders’ vulnerability and cartoonish naivety. The Chancellor, the Minister of Interior, and the Minister of Defense all three auditioned in America and complained, only to be put on the shelf of nice tries. Worse, the NSA rejected Ms Merkel’s subsequent request for accessing her file. Next, a carefully drafted German petition for a ‘No-Spying’ agreement (similar to the US-British one) was promptly dismissed, too, for reasons too thin to dissipate on paper. Not to put too fine a point to it, the people of Germany laughed ever so hard at their leaders’ skillful helplessness.

Public opinion can be poison to politics: Soon, citizens located NSA bases on Google map, and internet forums brimmed with ‘New World Order’ conspiracy theories. “A secret war’s going on” between Germany and the US, warns Werner Weidenfeld, a political analyst, on ARD –the public-service broadcaster. His views resonate what the center feels; that although Germany can’t wrestle the down the NSA… no one can; eventually its moral bankruptcy would be self-defeating and a devastating blow to US foreign policy. His conclusion: “Farewell, Superpower America!”

The Trash of Civilizations

Alas, so easy it is not. In scope and assertiveness unprecedented, Berlin decided to publicly smack the mighty USA in the second week of July 2014. That heavy scolding echoed in the US mainstream… although it didn’t make the desired impression, beyond the bruises, on the Obama administration. This geopolitical ruckus about a deeply offended Germany sent international journalism spinning.

The question most analysts dribbled was this: What could the Germans do about it — their humiliation? But while men of letters from Brussels, London, and Paris, to Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo and Tehran, cheered and second-guessed — not without Schadensfreude — over a possible irreparable Euro-American fall-out, the German political establishment in reality lived through a geopolitical crisis. That’s because everyone here is genuinely fearful of US retaliation.

That ‘existential angst’ must be understood in historical context: Germany, a pawn in (and, sometimes, a thug of) Washington’s mission to civilize the world, is paraded as an emasculated, subservient, and culturally domesticated subject with no nuclear or great power ambition left. As a country and as a people, Germany is the perfect justification (and inspiration to others, it is hoped) for the necessity of invasions (e. g. bombing for democracy) and subjugations as a benign means to what Francis Fukuyama once coined the ‘End of History’.

In other words, Germany (just like Japan, by the way) still is the favorite success story and poster-child for Westernization… for what could technically be achieved in, say, Iran, Russia, China, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, even South Sudan, North Korea, and the Balkans, and so on, if only the USA were completely in charge.

The US, the exceptional country, has over 900 military bases in over 80 countries. It is constantly engaging in economic-, trade-, cyber-, and propaganda warfare in order to coerce foreign nations into doing something stupid, upon which US wrath (You brought this onto yourself!) could commence: a set of drastic sledgehammer measures such as threats, belittling, sanctions, demonization, containment, and –finally- military intervention.

Cultural Imperialism

In order to please its domestic critics, the German intelligence agency quickly formed a ‘taskforce’ that would decide what to do about US espionage. Turns out, that very task force was infiltrated by a NSA mole, too. And if that wasn’t enough snafu already, days later yet another double-agent had been compromised, this time at the Ministry of Defense. Never before have hung so low the diplomatic pants. If German intelligence had but an iota of self-respect left, it would need to send a clear message cross the Atlantic.

Not a bad wake-up call. But it is darkest midnight. To anyone who lived in Germany during the last thirty years, it became apparent that this nation has turned into a satellite state with tinsel culture. German philosophy, German science, and German literature are all dead. Its archaic Humboldt’sche education system and those Magisters, Diplomas, and Doktorats went broke; now German universities imitate Anglo-Saxon-style credits and Bachelor (BA), Master (MA), and PhD degrees. Cinemas exclusively run Hollywood movies. The Germans are slaves to US propaganda: their news services copy/translate about 90% from Anglophone sources; the younger generations watch Lost, Game of Thrones, Homeland, or Breaking Bad –US television series. Teenagers play X-Box, adore US celebrities, and buy Apple computers or iphones. Office workers sip Starbucks coffee, type on Dell computers, use Microsoft Office software, and in their breaks eat at McDonalds, Pizza Hut, or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Germans are completely dependent of the internet –which (let’s be honest) basically consists of US companies dressed as public services such as Google, Yahoo, Youtube, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Wikipedia, Huffington Post, Ebay, Amazon and hundreds more.

German companies, if they are smart, don’t want to have anything to do with the provincial German ways; they’d rather present themselves as “international,” meaning American -because that’s where all the theories come from, including the rules of global business, financial structures, and monetary regulations, letting alone ethics, language, and corporate culture.

From an historical point of view, Germans are well known to assimilate happily into American culture and apply for US citizenship; yet no American, if he or she understands their country’s status in the world, would readily volunteer to become German.

The English language, meanwhile, has become so dominant in business, politics, entertainment, culture, arts, education, sciences, and the internet, that growing up as a German, in a pure German-language environment, wasting years on mastering the difficult grammar that leads to nowhere.

In fact, the German language has become a serious handicap –hence the German elites sending their offspring abroad: to schools and universities in the US or UK. And if they don’t, they have to master English anyway –only later, harder, and more costly. To prevent the exodus of German education, universities are forced to do two things: a) they must offer degrees for free (no study fees), and b) they must offer English as the language of academic instruction (and if it was only to attract foreign students, who would otherwise pass on Germany and migrate into the Anglophone world). When Germans venture abroad, walking the streets of Shanghai, Bangkok, or New Delhi, they will always first be addressed as Americans. And in a way, they are; they are “Western people,” which, really, is just a polite way of saying they are Accessory Americans.

How Could It Come to This?

If nations have a metaphorical ‘life’, there are some which ruined their youth and adulthood; they can’t be leaders anymore (while others did just fine). Modern Germany, founded in 1871, is such a troubled nation. It came late to the Industrialization; late to the Enlightenment (it has its own, limited version: Aufklärung); to Democracy; too late to Feminism; it was –frankly speaking- a terrible colonial power; it never got the hang of multiculturalism; and it notoriously started both World Wars. When Anglophone intellectuals think of the Germans, they are probably envisioning Dr. Faustus (who sold his soul to the Devil), Dr. Frankenstein (crazy scientists), the Jews and the Nazis, Panzer, Blitzkrieg, and Storm troopers eating bratwurst. Many German loanwords in English have negative connotations, such as dreck, kaput, Anschluss, Gestapo, flak, and Führer.

Consequently, whenever the Germans flex their muscles in this 21st Century, their criminal past catches up with them: all those war-crimes, atrocities, the final solution, the holocaust. Without supervision, and letting them known that they are supervised (!), the Germans would immediately fall back to racist antics, nationalism, and cultural intolerance.

During the period of de-Nazification, German history books were revised and approved by US administrators. Tens of thousands of violent newspeak had to be removed and eradicated from the German language, terms like Aryan, Lebensraum, Mischlinge, and judenrein. Patriotism was stomped. At least three generations of Germans, all deemed Nazi, had to be shamed and dishonored –unprecedented in the history of the world. Despite horrible massacres and crimes against humanity of their own, neither the Americans, nor the British, the Turks, the Slavs, the Arabs, the Persians, not even the Japanese have ever cut off their ancestors or shown similar disloyalty to their fathers and grandfathers. The Germans broke with their criminal family (civilization), abdicated the Germanic tradition (culture), and, naturally, finished and now soulless, readily volunteered for adoption. Germany thus became a “Western nation.”

The occupying forces (USA, United Kingdom, France) supervised the German Basic Law, the ‘Grundgesetz’, in order to ensure liberal democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. In academia, the process of total Westernization was most severe: The Germans witnessed the collapse of all Deutsche Wissenschaften: not only did over one million intellectuals migrate to the United States (taking their disciplines with them), but orphaned German technologies and theories were quickly picked up by more resourceful Anglo-Saxon scholars and translated into English. German literature today is only as good as some Anglophone critic endorsed it. The remains… the unprocessed German knowledge… a useless crapulence. The Germans lost their ‘Deutungshoheit’ –the sovereignty over the definition of (their own) thought. Only if the US discovers it does German knowledge exist.

In contrast, the history of the USA was a single coherent success story. Every German kid wanted to be American, because –as school indoctrination ensued- German past was shameful until, luckily, the Americans came to liberate Europe. That said, Germans are all still trapped in “being Germans,” are they not, with the consequence that when they grew up, their cognitive predicament develop into a cultural psychosis: nasty emotional swings between two extremes: a massive inferiority complex towards everything American, and an ugly demeanor of superiority toward other cultures.

Under US global leadership the Germans were allowed to rebuild their Länder (with generous US loans) but forbidden to centralize its power (Germany is a Republic and Federation of 16 states, with 16 governments; Berlin one of its poorest in GDP per capita); and just like the Soviet Union created East Germany in its own image, so did the United States a fantastic job in transforming West Germany into a backyard for US capitalists, military deployments, and outlet for the American Dream. The proud Germans, who once defeated the Romans, and who repelled the Napoleonic forces, and who once even build a German Empire of their own, were now officially “relieved” from the heavy burden of continuing History (with a capital ‘H’). To carve out for them a meaningful existence they were encouraged to (or driven into) craftsmanship: assembling automobiles, washing-machines, and words like Elementarfunktionszusammenhänge.

Germany didn’t seriously crash with US interest (not even during the Iraq war) after its occupation in 1948 because it profited from comet-trailing US imperialism into all corners of the world (mostly via UN and NATO) –but terms and conditions applied: Berlin had to prostitute itself to Empire.

The Media War

It is evident that few in the Obama administration thought that an effeminate and dependent Berlin would dare to speak up internationally. It’s like reporting domestic abuse –which always shames the victim most. In contempt, Washington had the Germans run against the wall. A speaker of the White House, Josh Earnest, denied any comments on the US double agents, and so did the CIA and NSA. He insisted, however, that the issue of spying on 82 million Germans should be “resolved through private channels,” not the media. You can’t get more Orwellian than that, no?

“The Americans do whatever pleases them at their own sweet will, from open affront against the United Nations to snubbing its closest allies. There will be clash.” –Nicolas Richter, Sueddeutsche

“The US will continue to spy” warns Karsten Voigt, a top expert on US-German relations and former government official. In a desperate move, on July 10, the Bundeskanzleramt decided to act instead and politely “asked” the CIA chief diplomat in Berlin “to leave” the country. “How cute” commented Kai Biermann in Die Zeit, suggesting that there are hundreds of infiltrators, and many more to follow:

“[The NSA] is a ‘mafia with a legal department’. It is not interested in laws and basic rights. It has no ethics and no moral qualms, but only one aim: To know everything.”

One wonders whether Berlin has thought about the diplomatic repercussions. It has little influence in the world, no real friends, and not a single efficient global propaganda tool, while the Anglophone clique “owns” the planetary opinion machinery. If there is a geopolitical problem, no one in Asia, Africa, South America, or Australia is reading German articles (Berlin’s side of the story); while a single anti-German opinion piece in, say, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, or even the (US-British) The Economist writers could ruin Germany’s reputation any time (and, boy, do they know this!): play European countries against each other, punish German banks and companies, sabotage German activities in China, and end the careers of ambitious German politicians overnight. So far that machinery idles.

Know Your Place

The strange sense of entitlement Berlin draws from its unequal bond with Washington is ridiculous, exceedingly looking like an unrequited love story. While Berlin feels duped, used, and alienated, Washington, meanwhile, demonstrates –for the whole world to see- who is in control in that relationship: vague responsibilities, disrespectful delays, calculating deferrals and deceit. Germany has nothing to offer to the current US-Anglo-Saxon world order that hasn’t already been taken, except humility and meek compliance.

Sascha Lobo, Germany’s foremost blogger and internet activist, in an entry for Der Spiegel, called the NSA arrogant and “radically incompetent.” Robert Leicht, a political analyst, in an editorial for Die Zeit , blasted the US administration as “condescending” and “geriatric,” calling on Berlin to drop its sentiments and emotionalism: “Jetzt hilft nur noch Nüchternheit.”

“We have no choice but to expel certain people,” laments Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s Interior minister: “No more, Mr. Chief Spy!” Meanwhile, the German business community exploited the situation with serious allegations of its own about US “shadowy” business practices and “foul play:” Ulrich Grillo, president of Bundesverbands der Deutschen Industrie (BDI), accuses his Atlantic partners of well… of doing whatever they want to do, ganging up with US lawyers and threatening EU banks, dictating to Europe with whom it mustn’t do business, distorting the markets, profiteering from unfair competitive advantages (like buying stuff in Europe with untaxed dollars). All this should come to no surprise, though. America controls the international currency and seniors all major global institutions like the UN, NATO, IMF, etc., engages in war of terror against foreign nations, torture of its enemies, and spying on each and everyone –friends or foe.

Precisely because all those reasons stated, for Germany to quit the political, economic, and military strategic partnership with the US is unthinkable. To whom could it turn to? Russia is too weak and too poor, and besides: it cannot be trusted (as the current crisis in the Ukraine demonstrates). China is too communist and too Chinese. France is not a pal, but a competitor. Britain is America’s right hand. No, there is no doubt that the Germans will prefer to stay exactly where they are –firmly committed to the Western cause.

Constrained like this, Germany finds itself confronted with the ideology of US Imperialism, a deadly downward spiral of dehumanizing policies to keep any country down permanently. In this respect, the NSA is far worse than the Nazi Gestapo because it’s a foreign agency. Hence Berlin’s relentless efforts to create a more German European Union as a counter-weight to US global despotism. And because that is so, the NSA wants to track Berlin’s every move. It’s a vicious circle.

Who would have thought, a hundred years ago, that Europe, of all places, could become the subject of a foreign colonial power itself? The US spies on all Europeans because it can. (Germany would do the same, if it could.) Have you ever argued with a bully? It leads to more bullying. Washington has now more reason than ever to dislike the plotting Germans.

Business As Usual

Some say that German most recent fit of cockiness was a spontaneous side effect of its national soccer team’s reaching for the Soccer World Cup 2014: Anti-Americanism as a flight of fancy; a spark of self-confidence, translating into national hubris. “You may have our data, but we control the ball!” read a viral Twitter message during the USA-Germany soccer match. Indeed, during the last week of the Soccer World Cup in Brazil, all over Germany, politicians, journalists, and activists demanded from Angela Merkel to step up for her people, 82 million of them, against the arrogance of NSA-America. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s Minister of Finance, called Washington’s total lack of remorse an act of “stupidity.” The Bundeskanzleramt has instructed German officials to limit exchange of electronic information with the US to a minimum, and to go back to typewriters, if necessary. Ms Merkel, being known as a US pleaser, visibly exhausted from a tussle that could sabotage her legacy, said she hoped that “German action would persuade the United States not to spy on partners.” A strong kick looks different, of course, but at least all eyes are on the ball.

Soon, the soccer after-party and media shindigs will be over, and Berlin gets sober again. German politicians from left and right are trenching in for a US revenge. It won’t be pretty. Ask any senior official or diplomat from Vietnam, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, China, or any place really, what happened when their governments tackled US interests: economic penalties, political manipulations, and personal defamations.

Thorsten J. Pattberg (PhD, Peking University), is a German writer, scholar, and cultural critic. He is the author of The East-West-Dichotomy, Shengren, and the forthcoming Knowledge is a Polyglot. He is currently a Research Fellow at The University of Tokyo. Read other articles by Thorsten, or visit Thorsten's website.