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Recalling monsters of the past, Germans find US spying repugnant

Commentary: Germans speak vehemently of disappointment with President Barack Obama.
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German newspapers with front page photos referring to the NSA eavesdropping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone scandal on October 25, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/AFP/Getty Images)

BERCHTESGARDEN, Germany — The summer crowds are mostly gone from the shores of the Konigssee now. A few strollers still enjoy the unusually warm autumn weather, and some still board the little lake steamers to visit where the kings of Bavaria once had their hunting lodge.

You can buy a variety of newspapers along with your post cards at the kiosks, but the lead stories are all the same: The story of how the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been listening in on European telephone calls, including the German chancellor’s.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has long been a whipping boy in Europe, but the NSA used to be so secret that wags said the initials stood for No Such Agency. Now, however, America’s eavesdropping has become the talk of Europe.

Europeans, and especially the Germans, still have a high regard for President Barack Obama. His speech in Berlin five years ago was a spectacular success, mostly because Obama was running for president in opposition to the Iraq war. Europe gave him a Nobel Peace Prize before he had a chance to earn it.

I have always found Germans in general to be more pro-American than other nationalities, perhaps because they were on the front lines of the Cold War, and, at least among West Germans, there was a profound gratitude that they were not under Russia’s yoke in the East.

So it surprised me when old friends who grew up with memories of American fairness during the post-war occupation should speak with such vehemence and disappointment about my president. Europe had so welcomed Obama when he first burst onto the scene so full of hope, promising to restore the tattered alliances that the administration of George W. Bush had torn asunder. How, my friends asked, could Obama now be so callus, trampling on civil liberties at home and abroad?

Overlooking this tranquil lake, high on the mountain, is the site of Hitler’s Bavarian eyrie, his favorite home. You can put a coin in a big pair of binoculars and peer up at the heights.

The father of one of my companions had been in the German resistance against Hitler and was brutally hanged after the July 20 plot to kill Hitler failed in 1944. My friend knew quite well how his country had once tried to control every aspect of civilian life.

And when East Germany was torn away from the West, an even more pervasive surveillance state was put in place by the dreaded Ministry for State Security, the “Stasi.” In East Germany, society closely resembled the Orwellian world of “1984,” so vividly portrayed in the film “The Lives of Others,” which we had all seen.

Of course, my companions knew that modern countries all spy on each other all the time. We agreed that all European countries would do the same as the NSA was doing if they had the technology.

I told them how former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had told me when he was Director of Central Intelligence that France was one of the major offenders when it came to spying on the United States. But even so, there are monsters lurking in the German past that make NSA-type of spying especially repugnant. Had Angela Merkel, an East German herself, thought that the telephone taps would end once the Berlin Wall came down?

It all seems so unnecessary. As Obama himself said, if he needed to know something from Merkel, all he had to do was call her. But in the age of wars on terrorism, the surveillance state has grown expeditiously. Spy cameras are everywhere in the streets, and when I transmit this opinion piece to GlobalPost there is every chance I will get an ad on my computer asking if I want to buy something relevant to this story.

President Obama famously said of the NSA that what they are able to do "is not necessarily what they should be doing.” And therein lies the danger. When the technology is there, the temptation to use it proves irresistible, especially if it can be done so easily. It is becoming clear that any oversight of the surveillance state is woefully lacking.

Americans have little experience with the state listening in and trying to control even their thinking, but my German friends have plenty. And they don’t like it.

H.D.S. Greenway has been a journalist for more than 50 years. He retired from the Boston Globe after a distinguished career, most recently as its editorial page editor.

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