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Germany to Stop Monitoring Scientology

Troubling policy departure is a misguided response to NSA spying revelations

James Kirchick
December 05, 2013
Flags of European nations taking part in the Euro 2008 European Football Championship are fixed on the Church of Scientology in Berlin on June 18, 2008. (BARBARA SAX/AFP/Getty Images)
Flags of European nations taking part in the Euro 2008 European Football Championship are fixed on the Church of Scientology in Berlin on June 18, 2008. (BARBARA SAX/AFP/Getty Images)

Germany’s years-long battle against the Church of Scientology may soon be coming to an end.

Last week, Der Spiegel reported that the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV)—Germany’s FBI—is dropping its official “monitoring” of the organization. Since the late 1990s, the BfV and a number of provincial-level bureaus have tracked the group for what they describe as its “totalitarian” aims, rejection of “the democratic system” and a “long-term goal” seeking “a social order in which it is the sole authority.”

The BfV, as I reported for Tablet last year, long grouped Scientology with “right-wing extremism,” “left-wing extremism,” and “Islamism” as threats to the country’s constitutional order. Though this story may register as a minor blip in the news cycle, it reflects a troubling policy departure as well as an unhealthy obsession with the revelations involving the National Security Agency’s overseas espionage.

According to a letter to regional BfV offices, the German government said it will “reduce to a minimum” its monitoring of Scientology, seemingly in response to public outrage over the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about American spying in Germany, and will devote more resources to counterintelligence. A spokeswoman for the BfV told the Associated Press that the monitoring of Scientology is being reviewed “as part of a process of prioritization.”

The reassessment comes on the heels of criticism that the BfV was caught unawares of American espionage in Germany, which included the monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. While that particular encroachment was indefensible (leading to an apology from President Obama himself), American intelligence operations in Germany have been vital in helping that country thwart domestic terrorism plots, as well as the disclosure of a prominent Russian spy-ring last year.

Yet for many Germans, it is America whose activities now need monitoring. Much of the German reaction to American spying has been frankly hysterical, with prominent German figures and publications calling for a full-scale reassessment of the country’s decades-long transatlantic alliance with the United States; some have even demanded that Berlin offer Snowden asylum. This overwrought response appears to be fueling the German government’s decision to replace Scientology with the United States as a target of surveillance.

Whether it’s a knee-jerk reaction to American spying or a reassessment of Scientology itself, the decision to drastically reduce the legal surveillance of the group is misplaced. The Germans, given their history, far better understand the true nature and threat of Scientology than do Americans, who view it largely as a harmless, if bizarre, celebrity fad. “In the eyes of most Germans,” I wrote last year, “Scientology is nothing more than a cult with authoritarian designs on the country’s hard-won pluralistic democracy.”

Perversely, Scientology has used the Germans’ fascist history against them. Last month, in the course of a defamation lawsuit against Bauer Media, the German publishing conglomerate that owns Life & Style and In Touch magazines, Bert Fields, lawyer for Scientologist Tom Cruise, attempted to raise the company’s historic ties to Nazism. This was an echo of an earlier campaign launched by Fields in the 1990s, when he published a full-page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune explicitly likening the German government’s policy towards Scientologists with Nazi-era persecution of Jews.

It would be a true schade were Germany, out of some misplaced sense of anti-Americanism, to let what’s been called “the thriving cult of greed and power” get off so easily.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.