A protester in Berlin on Nov. 18 holds a placard calling for Germany to give political asylum to Edward Snowden. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

During the Cold War, Berlin was one of the most spy-ridden cities in the world. Now it’s the place where people go to escape government surveillance.

An international cadre of privacy advocates is settling in Germany’s once-divided capital, saying they feel safer here than they do in the United States or Britain, where authorities have vowed to prosecute leakers of official secrets.

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was one of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s main conduits of leaked data, lives
here now. So does Jacob Appelbaum, a former spokesman for WikiLeaks. They were joined this month by Sarah Harrison, a top WikiLeaks activist who stayed at Snowden’s side for months in Moscow and now says she fears being harassed by the government if she returns to her native Britain.

In Berlin, they have settled in a counterculture paradise, home to hackers’ clubs, cheap rent and a fiercely supportive local population that in 2011 gave more than 10 percent of the seats in its regional parliament to the Pirate Party, a political organization that seeks to preserve Internet and information freedoms.

It is an ironic twist for a ­sometimes-bleak city that was once better known as a backdrop to John le Carré novels. The American listening post atop Teufelsberg hill, once the most important U.S. vantage point from West Berlin into Iron Curtain communications, now stands abandoned, fabric from its torn radar domes flapping in the wind. The spy swaps that once made Glienicke Bridge world-famous have receded into memory.

Now, many here hope that the city could eventually become home to Snowden himself, who has a one-year visa in Russia but met with German lawmaker Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow this month about the possibility of assisting a German investigation into the alleged U.S. monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.

“The whole vibe of Berlin is open to these kinds of developments,” said Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German technology and privacy advocate who was a spokesman for WikiLeaks before he split with the organization in 2010. “We are an economically successful country. But Berlin is an alternative center. And the intersection of those two things makes it a very good place” to push for privacy and against surveillance.

Harrison is living in hiding.

“[I]n the few days I have spent in Germany,” she said in a statement this month, “it is heartening to see the people joining together and calling for their government to do what must be done — to investigate NSA spying revelations, and to offer Edward Snowden asylum.”

She planned to stay in Germany, she said, because “our lawyers have advised me that it is not safe to return home” to Britain.

For privacy advocates who have resettled in Berlin permanently, the more the merrier.

“It’s a rather inviting social climate right now,” said Diani Barreto, an American who has lived in Berlin since shortly after the wall fell in 1989 and works as an anti-surveillance advocate and artist. “Why be completely paranoid, go mad, have your house surveilled? There’s a reason people are coming here.”

A rare privacy haven

For many of the privacy advocate expatriates, Britain and the United States don’t feel very comfortable anymore. Former Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who has asked to be known as Chelsea, was sentenced to 35 years in prison this year after releasing a trove of State Department cables to WikiLeaks in 2010. Snowden is under indictment in the United States on charges of espionage. David Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has reported on many of the Snowden leaks in the Guardian newspaper, was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport in August under terrorism-related statutes. And New York Times journalist James Risen is risking jail by refusing to testify in the trial of a former CIA official who is accused of leaking information.

The uproar within Germany about the U.S. surveillance allegations has been the strongest of any American ally. Top German officials have flown to Washington to push for new restrictions on U.S. spy activity in their country. Major German telecommunications companies have announced efforts to build a new Internet infrastructure that would keep domestic Internet traffic firmly within national borders, thus ensuring, they say, that German national privacy law would be respected.

And the leakers themselves have been hailed as heroes and offered at least some official
protection. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said in an interview last month that U.S. authorities had asked her to sign an agreement to extradite Snowden to the United States should he step foot on German soil. She refused, she said.

“Germany has a history with these types of issues that is not forgotten, but it is in fact carried forth and remembered today,” Appelbaum said in August during a ceremony in Berlin at which Snowden was awarded a whistleblower prize.

Historical consciousness

Privacy advocates say Germany is particularly sensitive to privacy concerns because of its 20th-century history of being watched over — first by the Nazis, then in Communist East Germany by the secret police known as the Stasi. Some Stasi victims say that explanation is a bit too glib, because the United States and modern-day Germany are democracies and East Germany was not.

Among hackers, the city is world-renowned. Groups here such as the Chaos Computer Club provide homes to technology geeks who like to do everything from crack the new iPhone’s ­fingerprint sensor to design ways to stay hidden on the Internet.

Businesses have started to take note, which means that the new transplants might find plenty of opportunities to earn paychecks. GSMK, a secure-cellphone company, is headquartered in Berlin and says that it is receiving more than five times the usual amount of inquiries about its products.

“It’s of utmost importance that our customers can trust that the parts that we build are actually trustworthy, and Germany is a good place to do so,” GSMK chief executive Bjoern Rupp said. “German law really makes sure that you can build strong crypto products.” He wouldn’t locate his company any other place, he said.

In 1990, “after reunification, the city had to reinvent itself. It was a question of survival,” he said. “And ever since then, it has been characterized by dynamism that I don’t think you’d find in any other European capital.”