From Stasi to NSA… and back?

INTERVIEW. Head of the Stasi prison memorial Hubertus Knabe knows a thing or two about state surveillance. He’s suing the NSA for spying on Germans. Catch him at Lichtblick Kino on Sep 25, 8:30pm for a special screening featuring rare Stasi films.

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Head of the Stasi prison memorial Hubertus Knabe knows a thing or two about state surveillance. He’s suing the NSA for spying on Germans.

Born in the West in 1959 to GDR exiles, the historian and human rights activist Hubertus Knabe campaigned to release East German dissidents, attracting the attention of the East German secret police, the Stasi. In 1992, he was one of the first to access his personal file, where he learned that a close friend had reported him for smuggling “forbidden literature” into the GDR.

As director of the memorial in the former Stasi Hohenschönhausen prison, he has fought tirelessly against trivialisation of the crimes of the former communist state. He’s also drawn ire for his staunch criticism of the German Left Party (Die Linke) and uncompromising rejection of Ostalgie in all its forms. After information about NSA activity in Germany came to light in the Snowden files last year, he filed a criminal complaint against the United States with the German Federal Prosecutor’s office for illegally collecting and analysing the data of German citizens.

You filed a lawsuit against the NSA. Why?

The media reported that large-scale telephone and email monitoring had taken place in Germany. This is forbidden by our constitution, hence illegal – therefore I believe it is the duty of the German Federal Prosecutor to investigate. Much to my regret, they decided to start investigating only in the case of Chancellor Merkel’s phone and not in the many likely cases of other affected people. I guess that my longtime concern with surveillance and the GDR has made me especially sensitive when it comes to misuse of governmental power. The GDR was a surveillance society par excellence and this should never be allowed to exist again.

Can we compare the NSA with the Stasi? Did the Americans, thanks to the digital means at their disposal, achieve what the East Germans tried with analogue means: total surveillance of every citizen?

I see one fundamental difference between the Stasi and the NSA. The Stasi tried to subjugate the population by creating fear and through the persecution of differently minded people and people who would have liked to lead a different life to the one the government had planned out for them. The NSA, at least according to its own claims, tries to protect the population.

What about their methods?

The means of communication have changed a lot, of course. There were no mobile phones and emails in the GDR. The Stasi worked mainly with human surveillance, a huge surveillance network run by informants. There were over 180,000 informal members of the Stasi – that is the highest population/informant ratio in history.

The idea to listen in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone isn’t that new! The Stasi was already tapping the West German chancellor’s phone…

But the Stasi’s technological surveillance was actually more sophisticated than what people think. They completely monitored the phone exchange between the GDR and the FRG, for example. But also within the FRG they were tapping the chancellor’s phone and the phones of all the members of parliament, the federal president and the president of the Bundesverfassungsschutz (domestic security agency). The idea to listen in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone isn’t that new! Of course it didn’t concern that many people back then because only very few could afford a mobile phone…

Besides the chancellor’s phone – and more shocking somehow – was the impulse to ‘spy’ on normal citizens. Is that another similarity?

Well, in a constitutional state, surveillance of a citizen can only take place when he has committed a criminal act or the strong suspicion of a crime exists. Random monitoring of people is not allowed. In the GDR the enormous network of informants was there to report on people’s activities but also on their thoughts and their plans, even before they had planned anything objectionable. The good informant would be able, so to speak, to see into people’s heads. So, yes, somehow, surveillance as it is used today resembles this kind of precautionary surveillance. Everyone is being checked on to filter out who is dangerous.

Many similarities…

The philosophy is very similar. However the aim is different and it is important to emphasise this. The Stasi worked most of all with fear and everyone knew that if he or she would say the wrong thing, they would quickly end up in prison. We’re not subjected to the same amount of fear anymore, thank God. In the GDR, everyone knew that the Stasi was everywhere. If there were more than three people together, then one of them would be a spy. Therefore, people would be carefulwhat they would say in a pub, for example.We don’t have that anymore. We are also not afraid of the police anymore but feel safer when an officer is around – very different to the GDR.

Still, isn’t it shocking to know you’re under surveillance even if it is not used as an instrument of rule by fear?

Of course, the fact that such extensive surveillance took place in a democratic country like Germany came as a surprise. Until Snowden’s files, people would assume that, as the law says, no one could be monitored without a court order.It’s not easy to get a court order. Can they just spy on someone? Can they bully someone to testify? Can they tap someone’s phone or bug someone’s apartment when they entertain a suspicion? I learned that the possibilities are very restricted and that is a fundamental difference to the methods the Stasi used. It is a very secure system that keeps the police from randomly doing as they please. Unfortunately, next to these strict rules protecting civil liberties, there is a different kind of surveillance. The danger is now that the information that is not controlled in any way could be misused. Who controls the NSA and what they do with the information they gather?

Do you believe the government when they say they were unaware of the NSA activities – here, in Germany, where American intelligence has their biggest presence outside the US?

All we can say is that if the Verfassungsschutz, the BND and the Militärische Abschirmdienst (Military Counterintelligence Service) had done their job, then they would have known about it. If a foreign country is doing a huge amount of spying in Germany and the German national security services are not aware of it, it’s a confession of failure.

Or naïveté?

It reminds me a bit of the naïveté of the West Germans during the Cold War. The national security service somehow believed – and they told the public back then – that long-distance calls (from Hamburg to Munich, for example) were safe from tapping. After the Wall came down, it was disclosed that that was not the case at all and that the GDR had its monitoring station and recorded everything that went from southern Germany to northern Germany and back, as well as everything between West Germany and West Berlin. Therefore, there are only two possibilities: Either the German national security services are really lousy or they have tolerated the surveillance because they probably profited from it.

During the Cold War, the US was West Germany’s trusted ally and protector. Twenty-five years later, although now a unified, sovereign country, it seems that somehow Germany has remained America’s lapdog.

Certainly, the difference between now and then is that until 1994, Germany was de facto still under occupation, therefore the Allies had certain rights. Since 1994, Germany is sovereign. So, if there is surveillance in Germany it would have to be done by a German agency, not by a foreign power. That is the problem.

Do you think Germans might have lost their trust in the US?

Well, it is politically dangerous. Such impunity on the part of the US leads to a loss of credibility. In the long run it feeds a certain anti-Americanism that has always been present in Germany. Many feel confirmed in their belief that the US is not an example of freedom and democracy. It is very sad when the most important democracy in the world finds a projection that reads “United Stasi of America” on its embassy. That is how you can damage your own image.

Do you think that Germans are more sensitive to surveillance issues due to their recent history?

Presumably, but the outcry has been relatively modest. Even more so in East Germany. In the West, critics are louder because people can’t make the comparison. But the East Germans know it: as much as it might be working outside of the law, you don’t have to fear the NSA the way we used to fear the Stasi.

Hubertus Knabe will be at Lichtblick Kino on September 25 at 8:30pm for a special edition of Exblicks, featuring a rare screening of internal Stasi videos and a discussion.