Saturday, August 24, 2013

How's Uncle Adolf? Surveillance Then And Now

'It was Rudolf Diels who first conveyed to Martha the unfunny reality of Germany's emerging culture of surveillance.  One day he invited her to his office and with evident pride showed her an array of equipment used for recording telephone conversations.  He led her to believe that eavesdropping apparatus had indeed been installed in the chancery of the U.S. embassy and in her home."
Martha, an attractive 20 something, is the daughter of the US Ambassador to Germany, appointed by FDR in 1933.  She has a lot of suitors from all different political shadings, including Diels, head of the Gestapo.
"Prevailing wisdom held that Nazi agents hid their microphones in telephones to pick up conversations in the surrounding rooms.  Late one night, Diels seemed to confirm this.  Martha and he had gone dancing.  Afterward, upon arrival at her house, Diels accompanied her upstairs to the library for a drink.  He was uneasy and wanted to talk.  Martha grabbed a large pillow, then walked across the room toward her father's desk.  Diels, perplexed, asked what she was doing.  She told him she planned to put the pillow over the telephone.  Diels nodded slowly, she recalled, and 'a sinister smile crossed his lips.'"** 
Author Erik Larson, in his non-fiction In The Garden Of The Beasts,  goes on to talk about the insidious effects of a government listening in to its people's phones.  And we can extend that to emails and video cameras all over I'm sure.
"She told her father about it the next day.  The news surprised him.  Though he accepted the fact of intercepted mail, tapped telephones and telegraph lines, and the likelihood of eavesdropping at the chancery, he never would have imagined a government so brazen as to place microphones in a diplomat's private residence.  .  .

"As time passed the Dodds found themselves confronting an amorphous anxiety that infiltrated their days and gradually altered the way they led their lives.  The change came about slowly, arriving like a pale mist that slipped into every crevice.  It was something everyone who lived in Berlin seemed to experience.  You began to think differently about whom you met for lunch and for that matter what café or restaurant you chose, because rumors circulated about which establishments were favorite targets of Gestapo agents - the bar at the Adlon, for example.  You lingered at street corners a beat or two longer to see if the faces you saw at the last corner had now turned up at this one.  In the most casual of circumstances you spoke carefully and paid attention to those around you in a way you never had before.  Berliners came to practice what became known as "the German glance" - der deutsche Blick - a quick look in all directions when encountering a friend or acquaintance on the street.  .  .

"After vacations and weekends away, the family's return was always darkened by the likelihood that in their absence new devices had been installed, old ones refreshed. 'There is no way on earth one can describe in the coldness of words on paper what this espionage can do to the human being,' Martha wrote.  It suppressed routine discourse - 'the family's conferences and freedom of speech and action were so circumscribed we lost even the faintest resemblance to a normal American family.  Whenever we wanted to talk we had to look around corners and behind doors, watch for the telephone and speak in whispers."  The strain of all this took a toll on Martha's mother.  'As time went on, and the horror increased,' Martha wrote, 'her courtesy and graciousness towards the Nazi officials she was forced to meet, entertain, and sit beside, became so intense a burden she could scarcely bear it.'" [pp, 224-226]
 The book's kept my close attention.  There's lots that's applicable today.  While we're still a distance from experiencing the fear described here, it's a slow process as security agencies slowly access more personal information about people.  And then when an administration willing to exploit it comes into office, any one who disagrees with the leaders has to be concerned.

Larson cites a joke that was common:
"One man telephones another and in the course of their conversation happens to ask, 'How is Uncle Adolf?'  Soon afterward the secret police appear at his door and insist that he prove that he really does have an Uncle Adolf and that the question was not in fact a coded reference to Hitler."
This sort of thing does happen in the US today if you are involved with Muslim organizations.  The ACLU's Blog of Rights has the story of a twenty year old American born Muslim working for a Muslim charity.  Here's a part of the story:
In March 2012, a man named Shamiur Rahman messaged me on Facebook. I didn't know at the time that he was working as a police informant. Rahman told me he was trying to become a better practicing Muslim, and that he wanted to get involved with FSNYC. He asked me whether there were "any events or anything" he could attend soon. We had several friends in common, and I was happy to help him in his quest for religious self-improvement, so I introduced him to my friends in FSNYC. He started to attend all our meetings and became a part of my circle of friends. On several occasions, I invited him to my family's house, where he met my parents and ate with our family. Once, he spent the night in my family's home.
Rahman would ask everyone he met for their phone number, often within minutes of meeting them. He also often tried to take photos with or of people he met through me.
The next month, two friends separately told me that they had heard that NYPD informants had infiltrated FSNYC. I was advised to step down to avoid being targeted, but I decided not to step down because I knew that I had not done anything wrong. Still, I stopped publicizing FSNYC's activities and following up on many matters regarding the organization.
When I told other FSNYC members about the NYPD informant, one board member decided to be less active in the organization, and several members told me that they would stop their activities with our group largely because of their fear of being spied on by police informants. In June 2012, FSNYC stopped functioning. [for the whole story click here.]

 Perhaps there's extra poignancy for me.  My father had three or four older aunts who ran a boarding house in Berlin.  They and my father's half brother, also in Berlin, were all eventually taken to concentration camps.  I have letters from them downstairs that my father had kept, from before they disappeared. 

But Janet Maslin, the NY Times reviewer of In the Garden of Beasts  also found it compelling.  It's non-fiction based on diaries kept by Ambassador Dodd (an unlikely appointment, he was a history professor in Chicago, but had done his undergraduate work in Leipzig, Germany years before), Martha's papers and books, and hundreds of other sources.

**Of course, there are other interpretations possible here.  Larson cites Martha's book here for this, and she's interpreting his smile as sinister.  Perhaps he was pleased to encourage her belief that he was tapping this phone.  We always have to be careful not to turn possibilities we encounter into facts.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.