The Banning of Ilija Trojanow


On September 30th, as he was about to fly from Brazil to Denver, Colorado, where he had been invited to attend and address a German Studies conference, the German novelist Ilija Trojanow (pronounced “llya Troyanov”) was informed that he would not be allowed to board the flight on which he was booked.

He was told, after some 45 minutes of waiting while his passport and various computer screens were examined, that his case was “special” and that no further explanation was available. To this date, none has been offered.

But the explanation was and is obvious to anyone aware of Mr. Trojanow’s recent political history, in the context of the Obama administration’s increasingly jaundiced and vehement campaign against whistleblowers and critics of its surveillance-state apparatus. Despite the President’s absurdly facile talk of “welcoming the debate” on NSA data-gobbling and Orwellian tactics, the war on internet freedom is reaching a new high point. The US government is determined to achieve full access to all digital data, and has no intention of compromising with its critics, of which internationally known intellectuals appear to represent a particularly worrisome species.

Asked how the scholars at the conference in Denver had reacted to the government’s action in blocking his entry, Trojanow said that they were “…enormously angry. A great deal of prepared work was carried out in vain. Now they want to write an open letter. It is, obviously, ironic that this should happen in connection with – of all things — an event that was intended to bring the USA and Germany together. The theme of the seminar was ‘transnationalism’”.

Less than two weeks earlier, on September 18th, an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel accompanied by the signatures of 67,000 supporters — including a number of prominent literary and legal figures – had been delivered to the Chancellery in Berlin by Trojanow’s friend and fellow novelist Juli Zeh, its initiator. One of the first signatures was Trojanow’s. The two are co-authors of the book “Angriff auf die Freiheit” (“Freedom Under Attack”), published in 2010 by DTV Deutscher Taschenbuch, the subtitle of which translates to “Security Madness, Surveillance State and the Dismantling of Civil Rights.” Three years before the Snowden revelations, Mr. Trojanow, a native Bulgarian whose family fled political persecution there in the dark ages of Eastern Bloc state repression, had become a prominent critic of policies in the West that had an all-too-familiar smell. The Snowden documents and emerging NSA scandal now brought new urgency to this work.

The German Chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union, who as opposition leader during the Social Democratic/Green Party coalition government,and later as Chancellor, had given George W. Bush uncritical support for his Iraq policies among many others, was staying true to form in the face of Snowden’s assertion that Germany’s intelligence services were deeply involved in the surveillance scandal. After weeks of evasion and “salami” tactics by which admissions regarding the Snowden charges were made piecemeal once they could no longer be denied; after a highly-publicized trip to Washington by her Interior Minister (analogous to Minister of Homeland Security in the USA), who was photographed at the table with top American intelligence officials, and returned to assure Germans that the US took the issue very seriously and had guaranteed him that no German laws were being broken; after an appearance by Merkel’s Minister of the Chancellery before a special investigative committee to which he had been summoned by an outraged opposition in the German Bundestag (an appearance generally assessed to have been characterized by flippant and insubstantial responses to penetrating questions regarding German complicity alleged by Snowden); after a press conference in which the Chancellor blithely declared that she “preferred to wait and see” what the truth about the allegations might be; and after declaring in a vaguely irritated tone in a TV debate with her Social Democratic challenger in the eminent election – on almost the same day that the letter and petition were presented in Berlin — that she “had no reason to mistrust the NSA,” Merkel was comfortably reelected on September 22nd despite the fact that more than two-thirds of Germans had been polled as being unsatisfied with the government’s response to the scandal. While the conservatives in Berlin and the Obama administration may have breathed a sigh of relief, someone in Washington was apparently not yet ready to forget about Trojanow’s work in the actions which had produced the following document (translated from the original German for Mr. Trojanow by myself):

Honored Madame Chancellor,

Since Edward Snowden made public the existence of the PRISM program, the media have turned their attention to the biggest wiretapping scandal in modern German history. We citizens have, through published reports, become aware that foreign intelligence services — even in the absence of any concrete grounds for suspicion – skim and record our telephone and electronic communications. Through the storage and evaluation of metadata, our contacts, friendships and relationships are apprehended. Our political positions, our “movement profiles” and, in fact, even our daily moods and emotional status are transparent to the security authorities. The “transparent man” has thus become reality.

We have no defenses. There is no means of redress or airing of grievances, no opportunity for access to the files. While our private lives are made transparent, the secret services assert a right to a maximum of opacity regarding their methods. In other words: we are experiencing an historic attack upon our democratic rule of law, namely, the reversal of the principle of a “presumption of innocence” into a millionfold general suspicion.

Madame Chancellor, you stated in your summer press conference that Germany is “not a surveillance state.” Since the Snowden revelations, however, we have no choice but to say: unfortunately, it is. In the same connection you summarized your approach to the investigation of the PRISM affair with the apt phrase: “I prefer to wait and see what happens.”

But we do not wish to wait. It is increasingly difficult to avoid the impression that this behavior by the American and British intelligence services is tacitly accepted by the German government. For that reason we ask you: is it politically desirable that the NSA conducts surveillance of German citizens in a manner that is forbidden to the German authorities by the constitution and the German Federal Constitutional (Supreme) Court? Do the German intelligence services profit from information received from the US authorities, and is that the reason for your hesitant reaction? How can it be justified that the BND (“Bundesnachrichtendienst”, federal intelligence authority) and the Verfassungsschutz (“Constitutional Protection”, federal domestic intelligence agency) deploy the NSA spy-program XKeyScore, for which there is no legal basis, in the surveillance of search engines? Is the German Federal Government in the process of taking a detour around the rule of law, instead of defending it?

We call upon you to tell the people of this nation the full truth about the electronic spying. And we want to know what the federal government proposes to do against it. You are charged by the constitution with protecting Germany’s citizens from harm. Madame Chancellor, what is your strategy?

/ Juli Zeh / Ilija Trojanow / Carolin Emcke / Friedrich von Borries /Moritz Rinke / Eva Menasse / Tanja Dückers / Norbert Niemann / Sherko Fatah / Angelina Maccarone / Michael Kumpfmüller / Tilman Spengler / Steffen Kopetzky / Sten Nadolny / Markus Orths / Sasa Stanisic / Micha Brumlik / Josef Haslinger / Simon Urban / Kristof Magnusson / Andres Veiel / Feridun Zaimoglu / Ingo Schulze / Falk Richter / Hilal Sezgin / Georg Oswald

(Translation from the German original: Gregory Barrett)

Trojanow was awarded the 2006 Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair for his adventure novel “Der Weltensammler” (“The Collector of Worlds”). He delivered the laudatory speech for the Nobel Prizewinner Herta Müller at the ceremony marking her acceptance of the Franz Werfel Human Rights Prize. In Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, he had been a guest writer at the invitation of the Goethe Institute. On October 5th he was to speak at the conference of the German Studies Association in Denver about his most recent novel “EisTau” (“Ice Thaw”). Ms. Zeh is best known to the German-speaking public as the author of several novels including “Adler und Engel” (“Eagles and Angels”), which has been translated into 31 languages, and “Nullzeit” (“Zero Hour” or “Out of Time”), but also holds impressive law degrees and has worked at the United Nations. The forum afforded the two highly-respected intellectuals in various media, from the powerful news magazine “Der Spiegel,” to the national public radio network Deutschlandradio, to popular national television talk shows may well be making the Merkel government nervous about the possibility that the surveillance issue — which had appeared to be fading in the public consciousness as the Chancellor and her allies had hoped — could still catch fire with the help of the continued revelations being parceled out by Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and a growing network. Such coverage has given the German writers’ campaign a visibility seldom granted to the usual suspects on the German left.

Appeals to the German government for mediation and clarity following the US refusal to allow Mr. Trojanow’s entry into the land of the free have, predictably, been without success at this writing. The novelist himself immediately applied for a new US visa and is determined to elicit a clear statement about the grounds for the ban.

Meanwhile, Trojanow and Zeh are working on a new international appeal, with which they hope to generate broad-based resistance to the massive destruction of civil- and privacy rights worldwide represented by the NSA’s new technological might. There are links already in place to the London-based group “Index on Censorship” and many other groups including Amnesty International, Liberty, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Russian PEN Center. The German writer-activists hope to bring more Americans into their network as well. The signs may be auspicious, too, for legislative activity at the European level: in late September a 36-page report prepared for the European Union stated that “…Prism seems to have allowed an unprecedented scale and depth in intelligence gathering, which goes beyond counter-terrorism and beyond espionage activities carried out by liberal regimes in the past. This may lead towards an illegal form of total information awareness where data of millions of people are subject to collection and manipulation by the NSA.” It went on to point out that “…there are no privacy rights for non-Americans under Prism and related programmes” and that the US probably places “no limitations on exploiting or intruding a non-US person’s privacy.” However, those of us who have watched for many years as the European Parliament and EU Commission have taken one principled position after another against US policies, only to buckle later under pressure, are under no illusion that things will be much different this time. The stark contrast between the Merkel government’s initial protestations of concern over PRISM and other NSA programs for public consumption, and its subsequent low-to-no profile on the issue, demonstrates that below the surface, the European interest in maintaining its often obsequious posture as regards its mighty ally will once again trump other concerns in the absence of a public outcry. Ilija Trojanow and his partners, however, hope to keep the urgency of the issue alive in the international political and literary spheres.

“It is more than ironic that an author who for years has been speaking out about the dangers of surveillance and the secret state within the state should be denied entry into the ‘land of the brave and the free,’ ” writes Trojanow. “No more than a minor, individual case, to be sure: but it’s indicative of the consequences of a disastrous development and it reveals the naivety of the attitude of many citizens who comfort themselves with the mantra, ‘But it’s got nothing to do with me’. That might still be the case – however, the net is tightening. For these citizens the secret services are still just a rumor, but in the not-so-distant future the knock on the door will be very real indeed.”

Gregory Barrett is a translator and musician living in Germany.

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