Is relevant today by George Orwell 1984

Shockingly up-to-date: George Orwell's "1984" : Eerie relationship between the NSA and the "big brother"

In the eighth week after the revelations of the whistleblower Edward Snowden - or the "spying affair" as the NSA scandal is now strangely cute - the shock at the undemented snooping practices of the secret services aimed at the global civilian population gives way to a certain languor .

Between the alarmism of those who, like the former FDP interior minister Gerhart Baum, see a “world police state” approaching, and the fatalism of all those who - loosely based on Goethe's “sorcerer's apprentice” - no longer believe that anyone has the unleashed broom called Internet and his can stop evil profiteers, exhaustion seems to prevail.

Most recently, she was nourished by the news that the American House of Representatives is letting the NSA go on. A request to put shackles on the princely alimented data-gathering octopus was - barely - thrown out.

Under the vibrating surface of information and disinformation, however, it seeps deeper and deeper into the collective consciousness that knowing that everyone can be monitored every day via telephone and internet threatens to fundamentally shift the familiar value parameters. Also those for the feeling of home in a democracy as the best of all possible political worlds. Since Snowden's unexcited prophecy of a “turnkey tyranny”, the peculiarities have been increasing, as if their originators wanted to confirm Snowden's lucidity almost in a hurry. And as if there was still need for proof of the necessity of his civil courage, which he had trained in Gandhi. Civil disobedience becomes an obligation for the defector from what is arguably the strongest power apparatus in the world when the state "leaves the soil of law". Or should one say now: the states?

On an international scale, it was and remains extremely astonishing by what means America is able to hunt down its public enemy No. 1, culminating in the forced landing of the Bolivian President in Vienna at the beginning of July. Whereby Evo Morales appeared in no way banana republican, but statesmanlike alienated, and instead the Western European governments kissed about overflight rights. In terms of domestic politics, terminological oddities dominate: for example, the attempt to impose two sniffing systems with the same ambiguous name on the secret services in need of precision, and CSU Interior Minister Friedrich's invention of a “super fundamental right to security”. Chancellor Merkel, on the other hand, showed an astonishing disinterest in the details of the Prism scandal before she demonstratively relaxed on vacation.

Something is wrong not only in the state of Germany, but the worm is apparently in the whole planet. No wonder that even cool analysts resort to universal explanatory models and alternatively relate the tectonic tremors of reality to science fiction dystopias. “The new possible quantity of surveillance creates a new quality. That's wrong, that's Orwell, ”said the former BND boss Hansjörg Geiger recently.

And indeed, the metaphor of the “big brother” that George Orwell designed in his last novel “1984” is enjoying massive boom. Whereby the strangely intangible totalitarian ruler figure depicted on countless posters no longer just looks at her subjects, as the slogan in the novel suggests, but rather today it should read: Big brother listens to you, reads you, researches you - and takes action at you whenever he wants.

"Big Brother is watching you", "1984", the name Orwell itself: In public discourse, these are ciphers for the surveillance state itself. The book that the tuberculosis sufferer wrote on a Scottish Hebridean island and published in 1949, a few months before his death at the age of 46, is not widely read today. Shortly after the Snowden revelations, the title jumped to Amazon bestseller ranks, but according to information from Ullstein Verlag, it is only slightly above the solid monthly sales figures of 500 to 1000 copies.

Immediately after publication, as Wolf Lepenies pointed out in an essay on its 60th anniversary, the novel was instrumentalized as a kind of anti-communist manifesto - more precisely: as an anti-Soviet manifesto. In fact, Big Brother with “a massive black mustache and robust, appealing features” can easily be read as Stalin and the renegade Goldstein with his “white hair and a goatee” as Trotsky. So "1984" worked well as a propaganda weapon in the Cold War.

"Pravda" called Orwell an "enemy of mankind", and the CIA in return suggested translations for the Eastern bloc. How hot this material was was shown in 1978 when a young GDR theologian was sentenced to two years in prison for reading the novel and passing it on to friends.

It was just ignored at the time that his tragic hero Winston Smith, 39 years old and, as a party member in the Truth Ministry, constantly falsifying history for the archive, did not live in Moscow, but in London. And that the totalitarian state of Oceania includes almost exactly that territory that today - at least officially - does without internal spying: the USA, Canada, England and Australia.

After a nuclear war in the 1950s, there are only two superstates left in "1984" besides Oceania: Eurasia under ex-Soviet leadership and East Asia, essentially including today's China, Japan and Korea. This power trio wages limited wars around the rest of the world, primarily to acquire the cheapest labor.

The division of the earth into three spheres of influence seems, apart from the Russian-dominated rest of Europe, quite contemporary. Only when it comes to the interior view of Oceania itself does Orwell still mix the futuristic with elements that have long been out of date. Smith, who soon found his Julia in London and with her both the love and the daring to resist, lived in 1984 in a setting of post-war desolation and material hardship. It is also very old-fashioned that in Orwell's distant future, ministerial instructions will be sent by pneumatic tube. There is no remote control to regulate the tele-screens, which function in public and in private rooms like televisions and at the same time like state surveillance cameras. Quiet is only possible with a button, not switching off at all.

It may be that today's flat screen TVs do not yet have this creepy double function; they are more likely to be taken over by smartphones, which combine the consumption of publicly available messages with the continuous disclosure of private data. The only thing that proves completely retro is the fact that in it only those 15 percent of the population who serve in the party are totally monitored. The common rest, called “proles”, are sedated with alcohol, porno magazines and football and consequently remain unattended. Here the NSA is a bit further.

Orwell describes the living conditions of his hero as follows: “A party member lives from birth to death under the eyes of the Thought Police. Even if it is alone, it cannot be certain that it is really alone. Wherever it may be, whether it is sleeping or waking, working or resting, in the bathroom or in bed, it can be monitored without warning and without its knowledge. "

With this he outlines the vision of a totalitarian Atlantic West, which until recently - also because his own civil society self-image was against it - was still unimaginable. And yet it seems to be taking shape, for the time being as a democrature.

How did the network activist and Snowden confidante Jacob Appelbaum recently say at an event in Munich? “The states are making war on their citizens.” That sounds martial, possibly horror-visionary. But very realistic.

George Orwell. 1984. Translated from the English by Michael Walter. Ullstein Verlag, Berlin. 384 pages, € 9.95.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page