2009 makes Orwell′s ″1984″ look harmless, say two German authors | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 25.08.2009
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2009 makes Orwell's "1984" look harmless, say two German authors

The writers of a new German book, called "Attack on Freedom," criticize what they perceive as a culture of surveillance in Germany. On the Internet or around town, Germans give up their freedoms every day, they say.

Peering through a giant magnifying glass, a miniature man observes two even smaller people.

Big Brother is more than just a TV show in the 21st century

"The only danger which terrorism really poses is the way in which our society has reacted to it," said writer Ilija Trojanow at the official launch of his book "Attack on Freedom."

Trojanow and his co-author Juli Zeh - both well known for their successful novels - collaborated on a work of non-fiction this time. They said the work is a genuine collaboration because, rather than writing individual chapters alone, they co-wrote every single passage of the book.

Yet they claim that they hardly ever argued. Though Juli Zeh looked deep into Trojanow's eyes and admitted that they did clash occasionally, "but only because you were so lazy."

Authors Juli Zeh and Ilija Trojanow

Novelists Zeh and Trojanow collaborated closely on the book

Trojanow accepted this criticism, and blamed it on his background in Bulgaria. He said he's the first to admit his faults - including the fact that he doesn't always practice what he preaches. Trojanow may have written a book criticizing modern-day surveillance, a lack of personal privacy and individual freedom, yet he still uses his Google email account - knowing full well that the US giant stores all his details and conversations for at least one year.

This is the biggest problem nowadays, according to Trojanow and Zeh. Online data gathering, whether by the government or the private sector, is something that people blindly accept.

One passage in "Attack on Freedom" asks the readers to imagine their reaction on coming home and finding someone rooting through their computer. However, Zeh and Trojanow pointed out, most people have no problem with someone sitting at a computer far away perusing the contents of their hard drives at home - like terrorism investigators, for instance.

Even worse than terrorism

Zeh and Trojanow don't deny that terrorism is a danger, but they argue that we overreact to the threat it poses.

Their book takes readers on a tour of some every day activities that - statistically speaking - pose a far greater threat than terrorism. Among other examples, they highlight the roughly 5,000 Germans that die in road traffic accidents each year, the 15,000 Germans who die of the flu annually, and the 9,000 or so people that died of heat stroke in Germany's particularly hot summer of 2003.

The book cover of Angriff auf die Freiheit, or Attack on freedom

The book was released earlier this month

We accept these dangers, they said, "because we know that absolute safety can never be guaranteed."

The difference between these two categories of danger is that terrorism and terrorists want to be perceived as a threat.

"The core of terrorism is the message of fear it sends," said Zeh. "It only works, when many people take this message to heart."

Stronger security laws

This begs the question why politicians would take the message of terrorism so seriously.

The authors argue that terrorism has become a convenient excuse for the government to extend surveillance of its own population. Zeh and Trojanow claim that the government wants to know about its own law abiding citizens at least as much as it wants to seek for troublemakers.

However, their warnings against the German government and its ever stricter security laws overlook the fact that not every measure proposed in Berlin is put into law. Often, German courts put a stop to political proposals on the basis that they infringe on civil liberties or the German constitution. Perhaps this is why surveys show that most Germans do not feel threatened by their own government.

Nothing to hide

The writers suggest that one reason people don't worry about security checks is their conviction that they have nothing to be ashamed of, no reason to worry about the government knowing their personal secrets.

However, Ilija Trojanow believes that people's right to privacy, whether they obey the law or not, is one of the most important elements of basic liberty.

"A person who has nothing to hide, no secrets, is no longer a free person," he said.

A CCTV camera at a train station

It's ok to have something to hide, say the authors

The book harkens back to George Orwell's classic work of fiction "1984," yet Trojanow said that the methods of observation Orwell dreamed up for his dystopia are "basically harmless," when compared to today's technology. Trojanow also believes that, considering our relentless technological progress, it is crucial to act now to protect personal freedoms before they are irrevocably lost.

Just raising awareness

"Attack on Freedom" is one of many books which catalogue threats and problems in modern society without suggesting any solutions.

Trojanow, however, doesn't see this as an issue. He was always heavily influenced by 18th century political pamphlets - like those of Jonathan Swift - and said this book is meant in a similar vein: "In those [pamphlets], what mattered was using language and good arguments to highlight a problem for all to see - just to tell the readers to go and do something about it."

Juli Zeh is optimistic that readers will respond to the book. She pointed to issues like climate change - which "began as a topic that only interested a small minority of freaks" - as an example of a topic that can be catapulted into the public consciousness.

"Today we can see that [climate change] has become a major issue worldwide. My personal hope is that the same will happen with the issue of data protection and personal liberty," she said. "And - looking at certain trends - it seems there's reason to be optimistic."

The packed house at their book launch in Berlin this month could be one trend worth noticing.

Author: Peter Stuetzle (msh)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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