The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The global cult of Edward Snowden keeps growing

A street sign in the Neustadt district of Dresden, Germany, reads Edward Snowden Square. (Arno Burgi/EPA)

DRESDEN, Germany -- When tourist Lars Lewandowski passed Edward Snowden Square in the eastern German city of Dresden on Tuesday afternoon, it took him a few moments to realize there was something special about the name. German street or square names usually honor only long-dead figures.

But Snowden, the former U.S. government contractor who leaked sensitive information on the National Security Agency two years ago, is very much alive, even though U.S. authorities saw the need to offer assurances that they would not seek the death penalty for him if he ever returned home.

On Sunday, German activists inaugurated the square to honor the whistleblower who has been celebrated as a hero by some and denounced as a criminal by others.

"I think it's a good idea, although I'd say that more such initiatives are needed to really recognize Snowden's courage," Lewandowski said, reflecting a sentiment shared by many other passersby.

"I think Snowden would deserve even a more impressive monument," one woman said. She did not want her name published, a not-uncommon request in privacy-obsessed Germany, where citizens frequently enforce their privacy rights in courts and have pressured Internet companies to protect their data.

The renaming of the square in Dresden's Neustadt district is not the first mark of respect accorded the controversial American, and it is unlikely to be the last. However, Edward Snowden Square is distinct from previous gestures because it's probably there to stay. Its renaming was not officially approved by the city, but authorities have announced they will not take the sign down because it was legally put up on the property of a privately owned arcade.

"Our message is that citizens should follow their consciences and not simply obey rules," Markwart Faussner, the owner of the arcade and the square, told The Washington Post. Faussner, who is a real estate businessman and certainly does not fit the stereotype of a typical leftist activist, had previously discussed the initiative with Snowden's German lawyer, who approved the idea.

In other parts of the world, commemorations of Snowden's actions have often been swiftly quashed by authorities. In New York City's Fort Greene Park, a statue of him was quickly covered up and later dismantled after activists set it up in April. When a German university wanted to award Snowden an honorary doctorate, the German federal government stepped in and prohibited the public institution from pursuing its plan.

In contrast to the United States, where authorities have urged Snowden to return home and face trial, Germany -- one of the United States' biggest allies -- has been a notable source of support for him. Many Germans are skeptical of the the work of intelligence services in general, and U.S. agencies in particular.

"Much of this can be explained historically," Faussner said. "Germans have experienced observation throughout the 20th century. After the Nazi era, the Stasi intelligence service in the former East Germany monitored most of the country's citizens. When the Berlin Wall fell, East Germans suddenly found out from official government files that their friends or even family members had spied on them for years or decades. Hence, there is still a deeply rooted suspicion of state authorities in Germany."

As WorldViews reported earlier, Germans were outraged when they discovered through documents leaked by Snowden that the NSA had spied on German telecommunications data two years ago. The usually calm Chancellor Angela Merkel angrily rejected American explanations and forced the CIA station chief in Berlin to leave the country after further allegations were made public. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble went even further, saying publicly that he wanted to cry over "such stupidity."

Two years after Snowden's documents first made headlines, the furor is still a front-page topic in Germany. Last week, a survey found that 24 percent of all Germans were still "very concerned" about the NSA spying on them and that 32 percent were "slightly concerned." Still, a large majority of Germans now say that they do not expect to be negatively affected by U.S. spying.

Faussner, the property owner, is nevertheless convinced that Snowden will not be forgotten. "Actually, the contrary is happening," he said. "Every day, his revelations gain significance, as more and more people become aware of the Internet's security flaws."