European Affairs

Perspectives: Fallout from NSA Revelations—A View from Berlin     Print Email
By Markus Ziener, Berlin writer and former Handelsblatt Correspondent in Washington, DC

zienermarkusWhen it comes to the United States, Germans easily get emotional. Why? For Germans the United States is so much more than just another political ally. It was the US that reached out to the Germans after the morally devastating World War II; it was the US that opened up the world for so many German exchange students, scholars, businessmen, travelers in the years that followed. And it was US leadership that in 1989 supported a divided Germany in its craving to be reunited again – while other so-called friends at that crucial political juncture were hesitant or outright hostile to the prospect of having a single German state in their neighborhood. That is – by the way – why Germans hold former President George H. W. Bush to this very day in high esteem.

Whether all the American help Germans received was given out of genuine friendship or whether it was simply the result of strategic calculus in the era of Cold War never really bothered Germans. Germans were impressed by the action, and less by the reasoning behind it. Take the Berlin airlift of 1948/1949. Take JFK's reassuring speech in West-Berlin in 1963. For Germans it was clear: This is friendship. Why else should the great US help war torn Germany? The Americans could have turned Germany into an agricultural state as initially advocated  in 1945 by  US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Instead the US gave billions to revive the economy. All this came with a relaxed American attitude that was balm on the souls of humans trained to live under a dictatorship or Prussian semi-military rule most of the past seven decades or so. Americans, no doubt – they were the good guys.

Call it naiveté, provincialism or the simple desire to be back in grace: Germans thought they were having a love affair with America. Although Germans were never entirely sure that the Americans did love them back all the time, without flirting with others here and there. As soon as there was a tiny reason for doubt, German politicians would travel to Washington in order to get reassurances that the love relationship continued.  

By and large this narrative was true most of the time since 1945. It had its crises – Vietnam, Iraq, the Presidency of George W. Bush. But it not only always recovered. It even reached new heights with the ascent of Barack Obama. With Obama in the White House, Germans finally and with good conscience could again display their love and affection for America.

But then the NSA scandal broke. And everything changed.

Yes, it's maybe OK to monitor the Internet. Yes, it's difficult to rein in secret services. Yes, Mohammed Atta built his terrorist network from Hamburg.

But is it OK to tap the cell phone of the German chancellor? Is it OK to bug the phones of the EU representation in Washington DC? Is it OK to build a spy's nest on top of the US embassy in the heart of Berlin to listen in on myriad confidential conversations?

All that in order to prevent terrorist attacks?

Without the love affair, the disillusionment that followed might have been more subdued. The public furor might have been more short-lived. And the reaction of politicians might have been more sober. But whether one likes this or not: Germans feel betrayed, cheated on, deeply insulted by an unfaithful lover. The generation that grew up while listening to the AFN, falling in love with US soldiers, and becoming huge fans of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen is the generation currently in charge of German politics. They still think all this is a bad dream.

Yes, Germans are sentimental. They are not grown-up yet. And they are ambivalent when it comes to taking over international responsibilities in the field of security. But they loved America. And now it will take a while until they digest the fact that the object of their love has dissolved in air. To come to terms with the fact that they are not treated any better than, say, France. Or China. Or even Russia. For the US, Germany is a country you can spy on like on almost any other country. With no caveats and no bad conscience. As long as it helps US interests. In politics there are no friends, only interests – one saying goes. The former US Ambassador John Kornblum made that exactly clear a couple of weeks ago when he appeared on a German TV talk show. We are partners, not friends, he told a perplexed audience. Deep in their hearts Germans were aware of that truth - but they just didn't want to believe it, at least not with regard to America. Now they learn it the hard way.

In the end it will help Germans come of age. This is more than overdue. In Berlin, transatlantic Realpolitik has finally arrived.