Opinion writer November 4, 2013

According to a now well-established media narrative, German outrage over National Security Agency (NSA) 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,” wroteDagmar Hovestädt, 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 Lehmingwrote 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.”

For all of Germany’s “soft power” — it is a humanely governed economic powerhouse whose approval rating in global opinion surveys easily tops that of the United States — the country remains a military and intelligence weakling. That rankles. Never mind that Germans themselves swore off hard power — because of history.

And so German politicians and media play the victimization card. “The promise ‘Never do evil again’ has evolved into a more comfortable promise: ‘Never endure evil again,’ ” Lehming wrote.

Ann Telnaes animation: James Clapper insists spying was okay. (Sarah Parnass/Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

If this implies moral equivalence between spying by a democratic United States and a Nazi Gestapo or Communist Stasi — well, so be it. Some of the NSA’s harshest German critics are members of the Left Party, successor to the Communist Party of East Germany.

Even an ostensibly detached observer, historian Josef Foschepothof Freiburg University, recasts the postwar U.S. role in Europe as “double containment . . . of the Soviet Union on the one hand and Germany on the other. And an essential element of this policy was [NSA] surveillance.”

In short, Snowden’s disclosures have tapped Germans’ deep but usually unacknowledged feelings about their rightful place in the world, which won’t easily be bottled up again.

One oft-suggested remedy — admitting Germany, at last, to the U.S.-led inner circle of nations that don’t eavesdrop on each other — might soothe feelings in German officialdom. In 2009, German intelligence was “a little grumpy” at getting less access to NSA data than France, according to one of Snowden’s documents.

But in terms of repairing the U.S. image in Germany, this gesture might be too little, too late. From a U.S. perspective, the costs could outweigh the benefits, for the same reason that it’s always risky to let more people in on a secret.

Chancellor Angela Merkel must be seething. As if she didn’t have enough trouble negotiating a new coalition governmentand dealing with the euro.

I doubt, though, that she’s wasting much energy mourning her personal privacy or U.S. double-dealing. Merkel is a sophisticated leader who knows how the diplomatic game is played.

This is her real problem: If the NSA was going to tap her phone, it could at least have had the decency — and the competency — to keep it secret.

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