The social pressure of conformity

by Jacob Appelbaum

23 May 2014. Around the age of nine, my father punished me for following other children thoughtlessly. In doing so, he introduced me to two of my favorite theater pieces, requiring me to read them as part of my punishment: "Rhinoceros" by Eugene Ionesco and "Biedermann und die Brandstifter" by Max Frisch. Both greatly influenced me about the danger of following along without making room to think for oneself, about collective madness in society, about self-certainty, about values and rights, about power and violence but most importantly about loyalty to ideas without reflecting on the larger impact of the actualities at hand.

These two plays, along with my father, set the path in my mind that resistance is important and that it must be done in service of a greater humanity. One where we may experience a world that is not guided merely by totalitarian views with blind faith in flags, leaders and their bureaucratic lackeys, or simple obedience to authority when demanded for authorities sake.

So-called legitimate targets

Theater helps society to process issues large and small – it is an important part of human culture; we find ourselves in a time of great upheaval, one where we are reevaluating time honored traditions, understanding the true limits of laws and understanding modern power dynamics as machines now broker them. We have recently learned through the courage of the whistleblower Edward Snowden that the West performs surveillance that is of an unthinkable scale. These systems are used in service of political assassination by flying robots known as Drones, quashing dissent, waging endless war where the suspects, the targeted and the dead are considered subhuman. We have learned that it is not merely a matter of terrorists but that it includes everyone, even Chancellor Angela Merkel as a so-called legitimate target. What does any of this highly technical information actually mean? How will we understand these issues in a way that relates to each person without removing the detail, the nuance and the importance that the facts convey?

JacobAppelbaum 560 WikipediaTobiasKlenzeCC-BY-SA3.0 uJacob Appelbaum © Wikipedia/Tobias Klenze/CC-BY-SA3.0

Last week, I was greatly honored by the finest journalists in Germany with the Henri Nannen prize for investigation. Our team won for our story that revealed that the NSA is not merely spying on all of Germany, Europe and most of our world but specifically on Chancellor Merkel as well. To be honored by our peers is a great feeling, a level of appreciation that we rarely feel for such contentious topics. This is especially so when it comes to international mass surveillance allegedly performed in service of keeping us safe from terrorism. Those working on these issues are regularly and personally demonized, threatened and persecuted in an attempt to silence our work.

In this circus, I played my part

However, it is not without comment that I learned that Germany's greatest press award has a contentious history. I decided to research and find out about the history of Henri Nannen. I was disturbed by what I learned. The lessons of my father's judicious use of theater to teach me serious life lessons came to the forefront. I did not think that we would win the award but I decided that I must speak to this issue if we did. The award ceremony was themed after a circus and it was intended to be comical, something to enjoy, something to make light hearted of heavy topics. Nannen's name was the main wall and it glowed several meters high for most of the performance. When I arrived on the stage with my co-authors, I felt that to read my prepared statement was an insult and that I should simply remain silent in my tuxedo. I felt the social pressure of conformity, thinking that I couldn't possibly be trapped into silence and yet, I was wrong. In this circus, I played my part. I did not reach for the microphone. Much to my own personal shame, I failed to say a single word on the stage. I felt that I had won a highly coveted award, only to lose a part of myself in the process. I collected the heavy metal statue of Henri Nannen's head and our team celebrated as only a winning team will do.

As an investigative journalist working on contentious issues, I work to shape culture by finding hard facts and interpreting them. As someone very invested in the idea of Scientific Journalism, an idea pioneered for our modern era by WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, I work to ensure that the facts are available to everyone without exception, where the reader can check the facts themselves and that we document our claims. This is an absolute rejection of propaganda. It is an acknowledgement that all simplifications of facts are versions of a larger truth, a truth best told with original documents alongside any interpretation.

Pride and shame

I feel a personal pride to be recognized by many of the great living German journalists for my work but I simultaneously feel a great shame to accept an award named after Henri Nannen.

Here are some facts that I learned about Nannen: He was in Olympia, the 1936 film about the Summer Olympics by Leni Riefenstahl.  He played a role in both parts of Olympia. He appeared in "Fest der Völker" as a speaker for the depiction of the opening of the Olympic games. He wrote adoringly of Hitler and he did so before the outbreak of the second world war.  When the war came, he went on to work in a Nazi propaganda unit in Italy; one of the original embedded journalists, we might observe. These facts read as theater but they are sadly recollections of history.

He was a "Leutnant der Reserve" at the German Luftwaffe. Early in 1944, he was sent to Italy with the Aktivpropagandazuges der Luftwaffe, Stabskompanie, AOK 10, Italienfront. There his unit was taken over by the newly established "Unternehmen Südstern"-unit of the Waffen-SS. To be quite precise, Nannen was a member of "Südstern II" which was a SS-unit which was set up on July 1st, 1944 in Florence by Hans Weidemannand subsequently moved to Bevilacqua (Verona).

Nannen did not automatically become a member of the SS and a photo of a 1944 Christmas party shows him still in Luftwaffe uniform; officially he stayed "Leutnant der Reserve" of the German Luftwaffe. The facts are unambiguous: he was a propagandist of the Waffen SS-unit "Südstern."

Not just a Mitläufer but a Mitgestalter

After the war, Henri Nannen was later involved in attempting to present the Hitler Diaries to the public as a fact. Thanks to a recent publication in Die Zeit's dossier we know that he was involved in key meetings regarding the decision to publish the Hitler Diaries. It is often forgotten that the Hitler Diaries were actually a whitewash of Adolf Hitler, it presented him as being against Kristallnacht, of wanting peace with England and opposing the Holocaust. Absolute lies and obviously so.

Nannen bears a responsibility for attempts at whitewashing one of the greatest fascist mass murders in history. He does not represent the ideals of journalism to which we should aspire with these actions. This is not to condemn him for the whole of his life – rather – we should ensure that we do not forget the specifics or worse: that we might honor those specifics as if they were something completely different. He was not just a Mitläufer but clearly and directly a Mitgestalter.

HenriNannenPreis 560 uAppelbaum (with sculpture) at the award ceremony of the Henri Nannen Preis, on 16 May 2014.

My father urged me to remember that the goal of the Nazis was to ensure that I did not exist. To that end, he was steadfast in believing that I should never hide my Jewish heritage, even if it earned me a beating or worse. Even if I was to grow up to be an Atheist, as I am. Even if I were to write this from Berlin, myself, as I do today.

I will melt the sculpture

As a person of Jewish American descent to accept the head of someone who fought in the war as a Nazi, I felt it must be under different circumstances: only when we take the head ourselves and never to honor the name of someone carrying such a history regardless of petty details. Nonetheless, it is not a matter of my family but as a matter important to all families, regardless of origin: none of us are of a holy bloodline and we should not honor the notion that any of us are superior to each other by race or faith or any such fascist nonsense notion. It is for that reason, I will work with a local metal worker in Berlin to melt the sculpture and recast it into a fitting head, a head that represents our most important figure in investigative journalism: the anonymous source. I do not reject the jury's decision, I reject carrying the name and presenting the head of a man who fought as a propagandist for the fascist Nazis. I do not reject the peers who honor me, I reject being party to the co-option of the name of Egon Erwin Kisch, an important anti-fascist who wrote in exile then, as I do today, as a mere sub-prize of the Henri Nannen awards. It is for that reason that I will donate any prize money should it still come to two anti-fascist groups (Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes – Bund der Antifaschistinnen und Antifaschisten and secondly, das Antifaschistische Pressearchiv und Bildungszentrum Berlin) who carry on the struggle to this day.

It is theater that helped me to understand why I must write this today and without it, I might have stayed silent. I refuse that path on this issue because of the importance of the theater that my father impressed on me. My father who as an author, a playwright and a director shaped my moral character and communicated those values through theater.

It is through culture – with music, painting, photography, writing, dance, programming, costuming, film, and theater, amongst many other arts that we explore and seek to understand. It is in our culture that we seek settle these conflicts, it is through technology and law that we will seek to cement the results as new societal norms. We would be best advised to remember lessons from the past and to honor those who strive to help us understand the world of today. This is part of how we'll build a more just future.

Save a young man's life

Given its history of fascism and mass surveillance, Germany has a moral authority that may be used to save a young man's life: the life of Edward Snowden. Germany should not follow other countries thoughtlessly; it has the option to walk an important path, even if it does so alone.

It is time to bring him safely to Germany to speak to the German Parliamentary Inquiry about the largest surveillance scandal in history, one that encompasses many nations including my own and continues to this day. It is time for the German Parliament to not be intimidated by my government with vague legal or economic threats.  I join with many others and I call upon Germany to grant asylum and safe passage to Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden is a witness to crimes committed against all of us. Let the resulting drama unfold on the world stage for the benefit of all of humanity, beyond nations and beyond personal interests: Asylum for Edward Snowden to begin the process of creating justice for everyone, here in Germany and abroad.

Deutsche Übersetzung hier.

All English texts on are listed here.


Jacob Appelbaum, born 1983, is a hacker, internet activist and investigative journalist. He is a confidant of the whistleblower Edward Snowden and works to appraise and spread the data Snowden got from the archives of the NSA. Due to the danger of being prosecuted for this in his homecountry, the USA, Appelbaum lives in exile in Berlin. This speech was held on occasion of the opening of the theatre festival "Theater der Welt" in Mannheim on 23 May 2014.


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