“The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others.”
The chief of the Stasi, Erich Mielke had one overriding ambition: “to know everything about everyone.” Even though the DDR ended a quarter of a century ago, for Mielke’s authoritarian successors the ambition never faded and with the help of war, technology and propaganda it is closer to being realised than ever before.
In November 2014, a city once divided by mistrust, and ideological prejudice, marked twenty-five years since the concrete and barbed wire were torn down. The 25 Jahre Mauerfall was a low-key anniversary without pomp or ceremony. There was just a very long line of white, helium filled balloons on poles, all the way from Bornholmer Straße to Oberbaumbrücke, where for twenty-eight years a wall had stood that separated mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, friends, lovers and relatives from one another.
You often hear it said that the Berlin wall was built by politicians. Of course that isn’t really true. Politicians didn’t build the wall. They got people to do it for them. And while those people were building it they got other people, called soldiers, to stand in front of it and shoot anybody who tried to cross the street – the same street they had always crossed, right up until that day. Half of those soldiers belonged to the National People’s Army, which in 1961 was an all-volunteer force.
Think about that. Ordinary citizens voluntarily walled themselves in, while threatening to execute any fellow citizens who didn’t want to join them. If necessary, even friends and neighbours would have to be gunned down.
Such was the control that the masters had over the minds of their servants. On the 15th August 1961, however, one nineteen-year-old border guard by the name of Conrad Schumann became a very famous exception to the rule.
“Freedom and slavery are mental states,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi. That’s what life under a British tyranny in India had taught him. “The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others.”
The young Schumann might never have read a word of Gandhi, but he didn’t need to read words like that to know the truth of them. On a street corner in Berlin, two days after the border was closed, he paced back and forth with his gun for over an hour, sucking manically on one cigarette after another, his mind racing with thoughts of freedom. He had already resolved to “no longer be a slave” and all that lay between him and that goal was a single coil of barbed wire. The moment he leapt over it into West Berlin, he freed himself and showed the way to others even before the first concrete block had been cemented in place.
Tragically, not many of those inspired ‘others’, were the ones in uniform toting the submachine guns. And so with plenty more people willing to co-operate in their own enslavement, the wall still got built.
In fact, there were really two Berlin walls, and over two hundred people were killed trying to flee across the death strip in between them. Their memory still lingers in the city along with some scattered sections of the barrier that thwarted and eventually ended their lives. On the 10th November 2014, all the balloons marking that old border of oppression were lit up and finally released from their poles to wander freely across the night sky.
And as we watched them, the leaders of the “Free World” all fell over each other to pay homage to the liberators of Berlin, holding the torch of freedom in one hand, with the fingers on the other firmly crossed behind their backs.
Considering Edward Snowden had only recently exposed these criminals for the habitual liars they are, the naked duplicity of it should have been breathtaking. But we were already so inured to the ways of professional politicians we hardly even blinked.
However, for all of their mealy mouthed platitudes, it was interesting to note that the leaders of those beacons of democracy, The United States and Britain, were not at the Balloon Event in front of the Brandenburg Gate that night. Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Wałęsa were there, but Barack Obama and David Cameron hadn’t been invited. This was widely interpreted as a blatant snub by the German Chancellor who was said to be “livid” by the extent of their shared spying activities. After all, it’s not every day you find out that the people you thought were your friends have tapped your mobile phone and have been listening in to all your calls. But worse than that, what if your friends moved in next-door and installed a listening station on the roof so they could monitor your every move? Unless your friends turn out to be control crazed sociopaths with a state of the art surveillance system, it’s unlikely to happen, but then most of us don’t have friends like the United States National Security Agency. Friends like that are different, and when the Americans moved into their new Berlin embassy, conveniently located just a few paces away from the epicenter of the German government, that’s exactly what they did. They even invited Chancellor Merkel to the house-warming party, where George Bush cut the red, white and blue ribbon before taking her up to the roof terrace with a glass of champagne to admire the view.
And what a view it was – to the west they could see for miles across the treetops of the vast Tiergarten park with the golden ‘Siegesaule’ monument towering in the middle of it, and right in front of them stood the Reichstag building with the German Chancellory just beyond it. The only thing they wouldn’t have been able to see was all the confidential business that went on inside those buildings. And that’s precisely what the listening station was for. While Bush smirked and his ambassador made diplomatic small talk, Angela Merkel might well have been standing right next to it, but because the radio-transparent screens were painted to look like all the surrounding masonry, she wouldn’t have noticed a thing.
If you’d spent the first thirty-five years of your life in a police state you might have a bit of a problem with spies, so as a child of the East it was understandable that Merkel appeared genuinely upset about all this when it came out.
“Spying between friends is just not done,” she said at the time. There was just one problem with that statement: it is done and has been done for decades, and not just by the United States. Even with twenty-eight years of Stasi spying still fresh in the memory, Germany does it too.
Four months before a parliamentary investigation into spying by the US intelligence agency was launched, it had already been revealed that Germany’s own foreign intelligence service, the BND, had used a spying program kindly provided by their American counterparts. In secret documents from the US intelligence service, the BND head, Gerhard Schindler is highly commended for his “eagerness and desire” to set about relaxing German privacy laws and enabling much greater “intelligence sharing.”
Angela Merkel had remained stubbornly tight-lipped about all that, but on finding out that her own phone had been tapped, she quickly changed her tone. When the outraged Chancellor told President Obama that it was “completely unacceptable,” one reporter noted, “it’s the first time Merkel is showing some proper passion.”
Perhaps she didn’t know what was going on in her own Chancellery. Certainly the Bundestag seemed unaware of the skeletons in the cupboard, and hyped along with a lot of high minded talk from politicians about calling Edward Snowden as a witness, the parliamentary investigation pushed ahead.
But Snowden was a man in demand. As time went on, the confidential documents he had leaked were turning up as much evidence against the German government as for it.
In February 2013, Europe’s largest association of hackers, The Chaos Computer Club, filed a criminal complaint against the German government, accusing the secret service and the Chancellor herself of “cooperating with the electronic surveillance of German citizens by the NSA and GCHQ.” They too called for Edward Snowden to testify as a witness.
In June 2014, it was reported in Der Spiegel that German-American cooperation in matters of espionage and data gathering was “much more intense than previously thought.” In one document from the Snowden archive, the German agency is revealed to have provided the NSA “unconventional special access” to fibre-optic cables, and in response, the Americans praise their German colleagues for giving the NSA “unique accesses in high interest target areas.”
A year later, Der Spiegel, which by then had become the go-to magazine for scoops on snoops, landed the fatal blow. Germany’s foreign intelligence service, it claimed, had systematically spied on friends and allies all over the world. Interior ministries of EU member states had been targeted along with foreign embassies and consulates inside Germany, including the United States, Britain, France Sweden, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland.
Not all of Der Spiegel’s information came from Snowden, though, and whoever its other sources were, they went unnamed. They were as invisible as the wind that got knocked out of Angela Merkel’s sails: little more than a month later, the parliamentary committee dropped its investigation into the alleged tapping of the Chancellor’s phone, citing lack of evidence, and blaming the NSA for not giving them any.
“Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too,” said a spokesman for the French government when the scandal first erupted in 2013, “Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States,” and after a brief pause he added, “which makes us jealous.”
So let us indeed be honest. The kinds of people who spy on their friends have no qualms at all about spying on strangers – strangers, for example, like those inspired ‘others’ who got a foolish notion of freedom into their heads and resolved to escape their oppressors. Or the kind of strangers inspired to seek the truth about their governments and the autocrats who run them.
These kinds of strangers are a threat to democracy. For the protection of all, they must be watched. And there we were on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, celebrating the end of tyranny.
At the very same time, ‘Citizenfour,’ the documentary about Edward Snowden was showing in independent cinemas all over Berlin. In his review of the film for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “Fundamentally, privacy is being abolished. Not eroded, not diminished, not encroached upon, but abolished. And being constructed in its place is a colossal digital new Stasi, driven by a creepy intoxication with what is now technically possible”
What technology makes possible are the wildest dreams of those who wish to control us. They’ve barely got started yet and we’re already dependant on it like morphine addicted lab rats.
This makes information gathering extremely easy. The Stasi needed bugs and wiretaps and a squad of goons with cameras in their shoes to be able to spy on the minutiae of their citizens’ social activities, private lives and sexual habits. The new digital Stasi can get all of that just by clicking a mouse. In the old days they had to recruit whole armies of record keepers to build profiles on people and draw up maps of their daily movements. Now they’ve got a volunteer army of Tweeters and Facebookers to do it all for them. It’s an ingenious system. And what they can’t already get legally, they soon will by deploying the most reliable tool in the box: propaganda.
The day after the Paris attacks last month, President Hollande announced to the world that France was “at war.”
It was French values that were under attack by the terrorists, he declared as he ritually waved that trusty banner of double standards, Freedom and Universal Rights. He looked so stiff in his grey suit you could almost see the rods operating him. But there was no mention in the script of the French business deals that armed the terrorists in the first place. “French rocket launchers for France’s enemies” doesn’t work too well as a propaganda slogan. Just one week later, The European Commission called for the creation of a “European Intelligence Agency,” thus firing the starting pistol in the race toward a fear cowed society, stripped of all its privacy.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Brussels, one of the suspects was on the loose and the whole city went into lock-down.
Soldiers patrolled the streets, armed police patrolled the metro, schools were closed and terrified people stayed at home. “It’s like we are in a war,” a local school teacher told a reporter, “It’s not a good thing for the children, for the teachers, for everybody.” She had a good point. The ranks of rifle wielding Belgian police looked pretty intimidating in their black balaclavas. For a frightened child who didn’t know the difference, they might have looked a bit like terrorists.
But to anyone living in Watertown, Massachusetts following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Brussels police force would have looked like an amateur dramatics club.
The Department for Homeland Security has been arming itself to the teeth for over a decade since 9/11, investing unimaginable amounts of money in refining the look of an armour-plated battalion of warrior cops. So when the storm troopers rolled into Watertown in their terror-black Mine Resistant Ambush Protected tanks, it was an awe-inspiring sight straight out of Hollywood’s top draw. For two days, the entire city of Boston was locked down in a state of undeclared martial law, while nine thousand military police and their sniffer dogs went round searching every house without a warrant, backed up by multiple bomb squads and dozens of SWAT teams. Public transport was shut down, banks were closed, and all sporting events were cancelled.
The previous weekend in Chicago, there had been four murders out of a total of twenty-six during the whole of April, which was a quiet month compared to August, when fifty-two people were killed. At no point were DHS troops sent in to deal with any of those incidents, let alone nine thousand of them, which had the bewildered locals in Watertown asking the obvious question: “All this just for one nineteen year old student?”
Indeed, some observers thought it looked like they were practicing for something.
Which may not be such a long stretch of the imagination. Military types do like to play war games. Any excuse will do, and in light of the DHS spending figures, they must be looking for some pretty big ones. In the space of one year, they bought more than seven thousand automatic assault weapons, twenty-seven MRAP tanks and a whole fleet of drones equipped with facial recognition technology. That’s on top of the 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition, which is twenty three times more than the 70 million rounds fired off for every year of the Iraq war. Even Fox news raised an eyebrow at that statistic. Fox’s military analyst, Captain Chuck Nash was incredulous:
“These are instruments of war. Department of Homeland Security? Who are we gonna fight a war against?”
Some people would say that question has already been answered. People like the protestors who gathered at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009 to oppose, among other things, giving away hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to bailout the crooks and thieves of Wall Street.
This was the first time a bulletproof, landmine-proof MRAP – built for war and so heavy that seventy percent of the world’s bridges would collapse under its weight – had been deployed against civilians.
None of the protestors had thought to bring along any bullets or landmines, though, so for a while the MRAP didn’t have a lot to do except flash its lights and look menacing. But as it transpired, the DHS had another toy they wanted to try out – a flat, square black thing on the roof called a Long Range Acoustic Device that emits an ultra shrill sound several decibels higher than the normal human pain threshold. It was designed to ward off pirate boats and terrorists a quarter of a mile away, not placard waving demonstrators within spitting distance, so when they turned it on, the noise was literally deafening. People covered their ears and retreated in shock, their eardrums and bodies screaming with pain, while the black ranks of robo-cops advanced behind their riot shields, hurling tear gas and stun grenades at them.
Pittsburgh’s Police Bureau chief was quite satisfied with the role his demented sonic cannon had played in protecting the politicians from the public. “It served its purpose well,” he said. Since that first success, the same weapons of war have been turned on civilians in Oakland, New York, Chicago and Baltimore, to put down protests about bankers, NATO and police brutality. Is it any wonder then that growing numbers of Americans believe they are seeing a totalitarian system being unveiled before their eyes?
Everybody now is a potential terrorist. You might be living next door to one. Be afraid. But don’t worry. Your government will protect you from evil strangers. They have the technology. Yes, they have the technology “to know everything about everyone,” and day-by-day they will help you to wall yourselves in.
In Britain, as I write this, Members of Parliament have voted for air strikes on Syria, cheered along by their pliant friends in the media. And hot on the heels of the bombs, the Investigatory Powers Act (more accurately known as “The Snoopers’ Charter”) will be rushed into law, handing the security services even more powers to bug, hack and steal.
Seen from Berlin, these things are particularly repugnant. For anyone who lived under tyranny in the DDR, the memory is still acutely felt. And for anyone who didn’t, there are reminders everywhere of what happens to a society built on propaganda and fear. Despite what we now know, Berlin today still looks and feels like one of the freest cities in the world. The reason for that is simple. It’s because half of it used to be a prison. Because of its dark history, you can think of Berlin as a kind of freedom barometer. Suspicion of authority is deeply ingrained and public opposition to all forms of official intrusion is unusually proactive. Unlike Britain – currently the most spied on “democracy” in Europe – there are hardly any CCTV cameras in the city, except in U-Bahns and government buildings. But the modern day Stasi has been exposed in Berlin and with Germany now playing its own part in a cooked up war against an enemy of our own creation, it would be wise not to take anything for granted. If – or when – spy cameras start reappearing around this city, especially in the former East, it will be a sure sign that we are all in deep trouble.
The hidden manipulators of power have learned from history. And they are very focussed on their task.
They know the wall doesn’t need to be a physical one. As Gandhi said, “Freedom and slavery are mental states”
As governments gain ever more powers to snoop, and the people feel ever more powerless to stop them, a weary sense of resignation sets in. We grow accustomed to the idea that nothing is actually private anymore – that privacy itself is an outmoded concept – and that the best we can do is try not to appear suspicious by doing anything that might incriminate ourselves. When we accept this, like the citizen builders of the Berlin Wall and the citizen soldiers that guarded it, we voluntarily build our own prison.
“But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose, they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning.”
– George Orwell, 1984