Perhaps it was inevitable that Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency monitoring of Europe would prompt some people to liken the U.S. government to the Stasi, Communist East Germany's notorious secret police.
Markus Ferber, a German politician aligned with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative government, blasted "American-style Stasi methods." Der Spiegel warned of "Obama's soft totalitarianism."
Last week, pranksters armed with a long-range projector beamed "United Stasi of America" in giant letters across the U.S. Embassy's facade in Berlin.
Fortunately for two important causes - transatlantic relations and sensible political discourse - Merkel has challenged this spurious equivalency.
"For me, there is absolutely no comparison," she said in an interview with the weekly Die Zeit.
"They are two completely different things, and such comparisons only tend to minimize what the Stasi imposed on the people of East Germany. The work of intelligence services in democratic states was always indispensable for the security of citizens, and will be in the future."
As Germany's first chancellor from the east, Merkel spoke with special authority. It's important, though, to understand specifically why she is right.
The methods of surveillance and intelligence gathering - bribery, blackmail, wiretapping, infiltration and the rest - are not normal tools of democratic governance.
To the contrary: There is a basic tension, or trade-off, between democracy and secrecy, and it's absurd to deny it.
Yet it is equally absurd to suggest, as Jakob Augstein did in Der Spiegel, that "no matter in what system or to what purpose: A monitored human being is not a free human being."
The political goals and institutional context of a given state's intelligence-gathering make all the difference.
In East Germany, the purpose of surveillance was to protect an unelected party that exercised a monopoly of political and economic power on behalf of a foreign military occupier, the Soviet Union.
The Communist Party's ideology politicized every aspect of life, rendering the pettiest deviations, in word or deed, threatening - and thus subject to secret official scrutiny.
Unchecked by any law, Stasi spying evolved into an end in itself. East Germany really was a "surveillance state."
Despite much rhetoric from Snowden's camp, the United States does not fit that admittedly vague description:
No party holds or plausibly aspires to a monopoly on power in this country, with its centuries-old constitutional separation of powers, two-party system, free press, private sector and robust civil society.