ACCORDING to a now well-established media narrative, German outrage over National Security Agency spying has historical roots.
Today's uproar reflects yesterday's bitter experience of domestic surveillance under Nazi and, more recently, East German Communist rule, we are told.
"But it is precisely because of the Stasi's hunger for information and its abuse of East Germany's citizens that we are today so sensitive about modern day surveillance. It is not just about a wiretapped phone — it is a reminder of the fragility of free societies," wrote Dagmar Hovestadt, spokeswoman for an agency that preserves the Stasi archives in Berlin.
This narrative is true, up to a point: Even a country without Germany's past might be upset to learn the NSA was tapping the phone of its elected leader.
But understanding the furor in Germany requires digging deeper into history, including the part when Germans were not victims but aggressors.
Why was Germany kept out of the deal under which the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not eavesdrop on one another and cooperate fully in signals intelligence?
Well, the origins of that decision lie in World War II, when Washington and London agreed to share their secret codes and work together to break the codes of enemy Germany. The NSA is the lineal descendant of the Anglo-American signals intelligence organizations that helped defeat Hitler.
After the war, the NSA's target was the Soviet Union, as Germany lay prostrate and occupied, a divided non-factor in global politics.
Even after West Germany's economic recovery and its rise to NATO membership, the United States and Britain excluded it from the "SIGINT" inner circle. The potential benefits of including the Bonn government were outweighed by the risks of Soviet and East German infiltration. West German governments gave the NSA access to U.S.-occupied German territory, anyway.
Now, after decades of close military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, unified Germany still gets less access to NSA intelligence than do Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway, the Guardian and The New York Times reported Sunday, citing leaked NSA documents from Edward Snowden.
In short, Germany's exposure to the NSA's prying eyes is also a blunt reminder of its past aggression, defeat and humiliation and the price Germans still pay for all that, long after their country has cleaned up its national act.
As journalist Malte Lehming wrote in Der Tagesspiegel: "The widespread feeling of being humiliated by the Americans is understandable. Seldom before have the Germans had their noses rubbed so severely in their own helplessness, defenselessness, cluelessness and carelessness."