CITIES NOVEMBER 27, 2013
Alongside good quiche, cool bars, and the locals’ finicky habit of rolling their own cigarettes, add to the German capital’s reputation this: It is a refuge for prominent members of the pro-transparency community best embodied by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. According to The Washington Post, such prominent activists as filmmaker Laura Poitras, WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, and hacker Jacob Appelbaum have set up shop there, feeling safer than in their homelands of Great Britain and the United States. “They have settled in a counterculture paradise,” writes the Post’s Michael Birnbaum, “home to hackers’ clubs, cheap rent and a fiercely supportive local population.” Others who fear governments’ surveillance? Advocates for greater openness? People with a penchant for Guy Fawkes masks? Let them come to Berlin.
Berlin’s past, of course, provides the irony here. It has not exactly been synonymous with “freedom from government intrusion.” Rather, first the Nazis oppressed Berliners (those Berliners who were allowed to stay in Berlin, anyway) with an unbearably heavy hand. And after World War Two, East Berlin was at the mercy of the Stasi, the secret police of the Soviet-backed East German government, even as intelligence operatives from both sides of the Cold War ran operations in the free, western half of the city.
It is Berlin’s nightmarish history that precisely makes the local mood so wary, today, of what is perceived as official encroachment upon individuals’ privacy—a mood that extends throughout Germany. Appelbaum specifically alluded to this a few months ago: “Germany has a history with these types of issues that is not forgotten, but it is in fact carried forth and remembered today,” he said.
One wants to be glad that Berlin (and Germany) is a sanctuary for people who have been subjected to inappropriate, excessive snooping by U.S. and U.K. authorities (Poitras is a great example). Still, it’s always worth it, I think, to be a little skeptical of individuals, or groups, or cities and countries whose attitudes carry a whiff of neurotic impulse and maladaptive reaction. Berlin positively reeks of it. It is one thing to celebrate Germany’s current openness, while it is another to explain it by pointing to Germany’s horrific past and then to contrast its glorious present favorably with the U.S. As Birnbaum notes, “some Stasi victims” argue that attributing Germany’s contemporary atmosphere to a positive response to a negative history “is a bit too glib, since the United States and modern-day Germany are democracies and East Germany was not.”
Meanwhile, Berlin awaits what would be its most honored citizen. “Many here hope,” Birnbaum reports, “that the city could eventually become home to Snowden himself.” Which sincerely begs the question: Why did Snowden choose to flee not to Berlin but to Hong Kong—a special administrative region of that bastion of individual rights, the People’s Republic of China? And why does he now find himself in Moscow, a city that is as much Berlin 1965 as Berlin 2013? I mean, the rent isn’t even cheap.