German Angst vs. the Islamic State

Privacy laws are as central to German identity as beer and bratwurst. But as terror attacks mount, Germans are rethinking their relationship to Big Brother.

A participnat of a demonstration against spying activities of the US intelligence agency NSA and its German partner service BND wears a shirt reading " Mutti is watching you"  in Frankfurt am Main, central Germany, on May 30, 2015. AFP PHOTO / DPA / FRANK RUMPENHORST   GERMANY OUT        (Photo credit should read FRANK RUMPENHORST/AFP/Getty Images)
A participnat of a demonstration against spying activities of the US intelligence agency NSA and its German partner service BND wears a shirt reading " Mutti is watching you" in Frankfurt am Main, central Germany, on May 30, 2015. AFP PHOTO / DPA / FRANK RUMPENHORST GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read FRANK RUMPENHORST/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN — It’s a familiar sight this time of year: In cities across Germany, Christmas markets opened their doors last week to mark the start of the holiday season. In Gendarmenmarkt square, in the heart of Berlin, on a recent Monday evening, locals and tourists gathered under twinkling lights and thick, white canvas tents, where vendors served up roasted chestnuts and mulled wine.

Just beyond the entrance, though, stood a reminder that this year, it wasn’t business as usual. Police were carefully searching backpacks and scanning the surrounding streets. Plainclothes officers occasionally walked the neat rows of stands selling handicrafts and gingerbread.

Security has been ramped up at Christmas markets this year, and a sense of uncertainty has cast a pall over one of Germany’s most iconic yuletide traditions. Authorities, and some shoppers, are concerned these open-air public gatherings, usually held at city centers, will make an easy target for terrorists. “I can’t say I didn’t think about it at all. You do think about it,” said Anneli, who declined to give her last name, as she cupped a mug of steaming hot chocolate. “You forget about it and say it’s going to be okay. Otherwise you have to stay holed up at home and nobody wants that.”

Following the Islamist attacks on Paris, Germany has unexpectedly found itself on high alert. Germans, who have long felt insulated from the terror that has struck allies around the world, are finally wondering if they could be next.

The growing terror threat is already starting to affect policy in Berlin. Last week, the German government agreed to send noncombat troops to assist in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. But the growing fears of a strike on German soil have also revived a long-running debate over how to keep the country safe, while protecting a culture of civil liberties deeply rooted in its 20th-century history.

“We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel the day after the Paris attacks, pledging her solidarity with the French people and reinforcing the values they share. But today, even in Germany, some are wondering whether that life of freedom may come at too high a price.

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History casts a long shadow over security and intelligence in Germany. From the Gestapo to the Stasi, generations of Germans have born witness to how state security services with access to data can abuse their power. Today, the country has multiple safeguards in place to protect against an excess of government intrusion. A national data protection law, passed in 1970 (the world’s first such legislation), is still in effect; more recent laws prevent Germany’s intelligence agency, or BND, from storing communications data on a wide scale.

And Germans’ personal privacy is protected by the national constitution. Authorities are not permitted to breach mail or telecommunications, or enter a home without a court order or proof that a serious crime has been committed.

The powers of police and intelligence services are also kept strictly separate in Germany, in accordance with a doctrine called the Trennungsgebot, which dictates how the two can work together. German intelligence services are permitted to gather and evaluate information domestically, but not to make arrests. That’s in contrast to the FBI, which combines law enforcement and intelligence in one agency, and France’s counterterrorism agency, which can even initiate its own judicial proceedings.

“If (the French) want to search a home, they can. That’s unheard of in Germany after 1945, or after 1989,” said Guido Steinberg, a security and terrorism expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Germany’s safeguards have survived to the present day thanks to the country’s relative safety. Germans have felt somewhat removed from the terrorist threats facing their neighbors, because German cities, unlike New York, London, Madrid, and Paris, have yet to see a major terror attack.

Germans have also taken assurance in their government’s foreign policy. Diplomacy and dialogue have been at the core of reunified Germany’s engagement with the world — not least because military missions are highly unpopular with the public. Berlin opposed the Iraq war, refused to send forces to Libya in 2011, and had, until last week, backed away from any military involvement in Syria. Many Germans have assumed that by avoiding military conflict abroad, they will avoid retaliation at home.

It’s too soon to tell if Germans’ deep aversion to surveillance and strong security will shift in the wake of the Paris attacks. But they did set Germany on edge. And the specter of terror hit even closer to home just a few days later, when a Nov. 17 soccer match between Holland and Germany in Hannover was cancelled last-minute due to what authorities called a credible terrorist threat. No evidence of explosives was found after a thorough search, and many are questioning whether police really had a solid lead. Still, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière insisted calling off the match was unavoidable.

The latest edition the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, which lists Germany as one of the “crusader” nations allied against the Islamic State, is a chilling reminder of de Maizière’s repeated warning that Germany is in the “crosshairs of international terrorism.” German authorities have started emphasizing the threat from homegrown Islamist extremism, which is historically seen as a smaller problem here than in Britain or France. According to the Federal Criminal Police Office, or BKA, around one thousand Germans are considered part of the Islamist terror scene, and 420 are believed to be a risk to national security. More than 700 have gone to fight on the frontlines of Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq, compared to more than 1,500 from France.

At home, fear and uncertainty are now on the rise. A poll conducted a few days after the Paris attacks revealed that some 60 percent are worried Germany will be attacked. And a survey conducted by the market research group infratest dimap last month showed 91 percent of Germans are on board with additional security measures, ranging from increased police presence to identity checks. For a country usually wary of such measures, those numbers are striking.

The government has already reevaluated its foreign policy. Last week, Berlin announced plans to send reconnaissance jets, a navy frigate, and up to 1,200 military service personnel to support French troops in Syria. Parliament granted its approval on Friday. The focus will be on logistics and reconnaissance — more symbolic than game-changing. But some analysts warn the risk of taking fire (and having to return fire) in Syria is high.

As for domestic security measures, BKA has built specialized anti-terror commando teams — with beefed-up equipment, including armored cars and longer-range weapons — in the aftermath of the January attacks in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Now, German authorities are going further. Police presence has been heightened at train stations and airports, as well as soccer stadiums and public spaces. Officers are being equipped with protective vests and more visible weapons.

“The police that you see will look different than they usually do; their equipment will be different,” said German Justice Minister Heiko Maas on a nationally televised talk show on Nov. 14. Controls at the German-French border and security on plane and train transport between the two countries have also been tightened.

Some members of Germany’s conservative parties would like to go further still. Alongside pushing for a cap on the number of refugees allowed to enter the country, lawmakers from the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is part of the ruling coalition in German parliament, have also urged granting authorities more power to collect and hold onto telecommunications data. Parliament already passed a law in early November allowing service providers to retain telecommunications data for ten weeks.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a member of Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU party (a sister party of the CSU), sparked controversy by proposing the military — strictly reserved for missions abroad — be deployed to provide security at home, too. (His suggestion was quickly batted down by various lawmakers and officials.)

Alexander Dix, the Berlin commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, a state-appointed independent body that oversees compliance with data protection laws, has repeatedly warned against letting fear chip away at hard-fought liberties.

“Civil liberties are an achievement,” he said in an interview. “They’ve not only been adopted for times where we live in security but they’ve also been formulated for times of crisis.”

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Post-war Germany has been tested on the question of freedom vs. security before. In the 1970s, the Red Army Faction (RAF) or Baader-Meinhof gang shook West Germany to its core, carrying out a series of high-profile bombings, kidnappings, and political assassinations. At the time, Germany came down on the side of security: The radical leftist group’s reign of terror inspired federal authorities to employ a new form of data surveillance called Rasterfahndung — a system of searching through public and private databases to identify patterns and generate leads.

It later became part of Germany’s post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts, too. But it didn’t turn up many leads, and the system has since been hampered by legal and data privacy complaints in court.

Following the Paris attacks, other countries across Europe have moved to institute tighter security measures: In France, President François Hollande outlined a series of new measures granting French authorities even greater powers to crack down hard on terrorism. Some politicians in the UK have called for fast-tracking new surveillance laws, while in Belgium, Prime Minister Charles Michel has pledged a security crackdown.

Germany has so far resisted any major new measures, opting instead to focus on improving intelligence-sharing with European allies. Better coordination of information that’s already been gathered with European partners seems to have gained broad consensus across party lines, as a demonstrative way for Germany to take action without actually making further infringements on civil liberties.

But there are no guarantees the compromise Merkel has struck will prove sustainable. The heightened debate over civil liberties has presented another challenge for the chancellor, at a time when she’s looking uncharacteristically mortal. Her open border policy on asylum seekers has generated backlash at home, especially within her own party, and tight-roping the line between additional security measures and traditional privacy safeguards may be the biggest test she has yet faced as chancellor.

“The work of our intelligence services as well as the work of our partner agencies must without a doubt constantly honor the balance between security and freedom,” Merkel said in a speech to parliament on Jan. 15, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. “But the sharing of information also beyond our borders is and remains without a doubt absolutely essential to our security.”

But Burkhard Lischka, the home affairs spokesman for Germany’s Social Democrats, warned in an email against the danger of going one step too far.

“The last thing we need right now is a significant curtailment of freedom and civil liberties in favor of a supposedly higher level of security,” he said. “Then the terrorists would have already achieved one of their goals.”

Sumi Somaskanda is a freelance journalist living and working in Berlin.