Cracking Stasi Puzzles is Key to Some Germans Finding the TruthRoundup
tags: Communism, civil liberties, EAST GERMANY, Stasi, German history, GDR, Secret Police
Katja Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian and journalist, is the author of Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.
On average, it takes about nine hours to complete a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. At that rate, 600 million pieces take centuries. That is the task Germany is confronting as it launches a new attempt to piece together a dark chapter of its past.
A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, attempted to destroy the hoard of information it had collected on the country’s 16 million citizens. That effort created over 16,000 sacks of shredded paper. Now, more than three decades later, the German government is launching a new effort to restore the documents with the help of information technology.
It’s a mammoth task that remains more relevant than ever. Democracy is increasingly under pressure around the world — and Germans are being reminded of its fragility in many ways. The rise of domestic extremists on both left and right is causing widespread anxiety, while right-wing populist regimes in Hungary and Poland are undermining democratic institutions in Berlin’s own neighborhood.
Given this background, Germans have an urgent interest in achieving a full understanding of the most extensive surveillance state Europe has ever experienced. (At its peak, the Stasi boasted 91,000 full-time operatives and one informant for every 90 citizens.)
For decades, Germany has been trying to reassemble the shredded Stasi files. Archivists spread out bits of paper by hand, then match them up and glue them together. Last year, 17,215 file pages were reconstructed in this way — but that was a drop in the ocean. In the past three decades, the puzzle-solvers have processed a mere 600 sacks of paper, less than 4 percent of the total.
Germany is determined to find a better solution. The Federal Archives, the agency that looks after the Stasi files, recently announced that it’s searching for new information technology to speed up the process. The archive’s director, Michael Hollmann, said that progress on reconstructing the documents “is in the interest of the victims.”
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