Even those who are quick to recall the country’s dark history acknowledge that it may no longer retain its emotional purchase. “As a history professor, I’m part of that elite reinforcing that agenda of [having] no national security state,” Dr. Siegfried Weichlein, a professor of German history at the University of Freiburg, told me. “In every family, you’ll find memories of that—of murder, of being jailed for nothing, being thrown out of university for trumped up charges. The education system reinforces this and rightly so. On the other hand, when I look at my kids, it doesn’t really mean a thing to them.”
Both sides of this debate are keenly aware that Germany may be dismantling these checks, just as right-wing nationalism experiences a renaissance. Of course, while virtually no political pundits predict the AfD will score well enough in September to take over the government—the party continues to hover at around 15 percent in polls—with the unexpected outcomes of recent votes in Britain and America, there are no guarantees. The AfD may not seize power, but it could well earn seats in the national parliament for the first time.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump's unpredictability throws America’s intelligence sharing relationship with Germany into question. Intelligence secrets leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed a long history of collaboration between the U.S. National Security Agency and the German intelligence services, inspiring outrage in Germany over the government’s eagerness to embrace surveillance methods the country’s history seemingly warns against. The current circumstances may blunt those concerns.
For the academics and civil society activists who fear even a gradual erosion of Germany’s open society, proposals that expand the reach of the state smack of overreach. Yet Jörg Drieselmann, the managing director of the Stasi Museum, welcomes this debate. Arrested at the age of 19 by the Stasi when a colleague reported him for storing an anti-government sign at their workplace, he spent the better part of a year in prison before being expelled to West Germany. He became a political activist until the Berlin Wall fell, and was recruited to help assemble and then run the fledgling museum.
The lesson he hopes the museum imparts is, surprisingly, not to fear state security. “What I imagine is a public discussion of to what extent we are ready to diminish individual freedom in order to protect our lives,” he said. He is not sure whether the country’s well-guarded civil liberties will emerge intact from the current debate. Or if they even should.
Drieselmann sees little point in holding Germany hostage to a fear of what the security services might become under a future administration. He has faith that, under the current system, it is safe to support the government’s request for security reforms and, if they eventually become unnecessary, that there will also be an opportunity to roll them back.
“We have to accept that the good old days are gone,” Drieselmann said. “We have to take care of ourselves. It’s like walking on a blade to find a balance between security and freedom. We have to negotiate every day to what extent we accept a lack of freedom.”