Danke Kamera! How Germany Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Video Surveillance

On October 27 at a subway station in the Berlin hipster neighborhood of Neukölln, a group of young men walked aggressively past a young woman slowly making her way down the stairs to the platform. One of the men walked up behind her and violently kicked the unsuspecting woman in the back causing her to fall brutally down the stairs, breaking her arm. The whole incident might have been relegated to a vicious but minor example of urban delinquency had it not been captured on surveillance video. Within days, everybody in Berlin—in Germany—had seen the clip.  The images sent shockwaves through the city and unleashed a city-wide manhunt for the delinquent, later identified as a Bulgarian worker.

On Christmas Eve, seven young men—later identified as six Syrians and one Libyan—boarded a subway laughing and joking. The men, who had attempted to set a homeless man on fire just moments prior, were caught under the watchful eye of the train’s video surveillance camera. Images from the camera blanketed German media and the Internet, leading the suspects to turn themselves in.

Together the two incidents have helped to spark a new-found love affair with video surveillance. “Danke Kamera!” read the cover of one Berlin-based tabloid. Support for increased video surveillance in public places shot up to 60 percent of Germans.  The frenzy even made the “fake news” circuit, inspiring a fake video in which a pickpocket is caught in the act, realizes he is being videoed, and begins gesticulating wildly for mercy before laying the bank customer’s wallet beside him. The video went viral. Within hours of its release, the video—later identified as the work of Internet prankster, Halid Arsajev—had been viewed over 21 million times.

They also tapped into the deeper anxiety around Germany’s vulnerabilities against the continuing refugee crisis, terrorism, and national identity just as the country heads into election season.  The episodes bookended Germany’s largest ISIS attack in which lack of video surveillance has been blamed for the terror suspect Anis Amri’s escape and subsequent delay in his capture. Breitscheidplatz was not under CCTV’s watchful eye when a truck driven by Amri cut a swath of carnage through its Christmas Market on December 21.

Kamerakultur 2017

Together the incidents have primed the pump for a new surveillance debate in Germany. Within 24 hours of the Berlin attack, the Merkel government dispatched a series of new measures to allow enhanced video surveillance.  The decision—which had languished in the review since it was initially drafted following a spate of summer attacks—included increased video surveillance for Christmas markets, convention centers, and stadiums; easier camera deployment in trains, buses, and ships; greater use of facial recognition technology; and more police bodycams at special events.

It’s not as easy as it seems. Germany’s federal system has led to a surveillance patchwork with differences between federal policing, Länder, and municipalities.  The federal police are responsible for security at airports (1,730 cameras nation-wide) and train stations (6,400 cameras nation-wide).  Other public spaces are governed by a mix of federal, state, and local law with a heavy role for Germany’s powerful Land-level Data Protection Authorities (DPAs).

The civil libertarian bias at Germany’s DPAs has not only led to clashes with the German interior ministry and counterterrorism officials, but also in struggles between the EU and U.S.  The DPAs have strong backers, including a large majority of the Green party, privacy hawks, and much of Germany’s hacker community like the powerful Chaos Computer Club (CCC). Surveillance is an issue that can also ignite the German street.

Berlin, itself, is a symbol of Germany’s past reluctance to embrace surveillance culture. Berlin currently has 14,765 surveillance cameras compared to over 422,000 in London (Germany-wide the number is around 100,000; in the UK it’s between 4 and 5.9 million). Berlin’s left coalition government has put the brakes on broad deployment.  Another issue is retention. German federal police are allowed to hold video evidence for just 30 days.  In Berlin, the length is just two days.

Germany’s new-found embrace of video surveillance also comes against the backdrop of a continuously fraught intelligence environment in the EU.  And just one day prior to the Berlin attack, the European Court of Justice—using many of the legal principles rooted in German law—invalidated the British and Swedish Internet and telecom surveillance laws calling for more stringent guidelines for retaining data.

Toward A Calvinist Homeland Security?

Support for video surveillance, particularly after Breitscheidplatz, is in some ways symbolic of broader rethink of the counterterrorism and intelligence culture that has been a mainstay of German national security since the end of the Cold War.  Merkel’s New Year message dealt almost exclusively with the issue. “The hardest test is without a doubt Islamic terrorism that has us, Germans, in its sights,” she said.

Interior minister Thomas de Maizière followed on. In a page-long piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he called for the centralization of law enforcement agencies from the Land to the federal level and strengthening the hand of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) and Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), which together operate as Germany’s FBI.  But he went further—calling for more power for the federal government to expedite repatriation for rejected refugee applicants; incorporating the repatriation issue into all aspects of Germany’s bilateral relationships with countries like Tunisia, Mali, and Afghanistan; expanding the right of law enforcement to detain those whose deportation is imminent; calling for a coordinating organization for all national states of emergencies from terrorism to natural disasters; strengthening the Cyber Defense Center with an arsenal including offensive capabilities; and promoting protected zones for refugees outside of Europe. “We are used to a normalcy sheltered from catastrophes…but times are changing.” In the sprawling philosophical prose, de Maizière returns again and again to almost Lutheran values—sobriety, moderation, civic responsibility, order, and even national pride.

In some places, the text is downright Calvinist (de Maizière, himself is a descendent of Huguenots, French Calvinist refugees who sought protection in Germany). And therein lies the rub. The domestic surveillance, community policing, and efficiency impulse that was long a mainstay of German security has a dark side perfected in Germany’s two twentieth century authoritarian states. Following the horrors of the Gestapo, post-1945 West Germany moved to keep domestic surveillance and policing power defuse, decentralized, and legally constrained.  East Germany did not, instead erecting a brutal panopticon under the Stasi.

Those memories run deep. But Merkel’s CDU sees broad changes necessary from both a security and political standpoint. And if the video surveillance discussion is any indicator, there is a sense that a large portion of the German population is ready to play a more significant role to protect the country against terrorism.


Tyson Barker is a Senior Research Fellow at the Brandenburgisches Institut für Gesellschaft und Sicherheit gGmbH (BIGS).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.