BOB GARFIELD: East Germany’s Communist-era secret police, known as the Stasi, meticulously compiled and stored moment-by-moment accounts of people’s lives – millions of people’s lives. It was a lot of paper.
But just before the Stasi was disbanded in 1989, it tried to destroy much of what it had created. Turns out it’s hard to get rid of so voluminous a paper trail. It overwhelmed the shredders, forcing Stasi agents to rip single pieces of paper, millions and millions of them, by hand.
Now the German government is trying to put those hand-torn pieces back together, creating a giant jigsaw puzzle of life under a totalitarian state. Reporter Andrew Curry wrote about the efforts to assemble the puzzle in February’s Wired Magazine. He says the Stasi’s massive information-gathering effort was accomplished through bugging homes, tapping phones and recruiting an army of spies, professional and amateur. ANDREW CURRY: Hundreds of thousands of snitches who reported on their families, their coworkers, their friends in exchange for favors and promotions or just permission to travel abroad. They estimated that at the end of the regime there were almost 160 shelf miles of paper.
Their central card catalog had 5.1 million names in it and there were several hundred more specialized card catalogs. The files on people sometimes reached into dozens of binders.
It’s interesting, because you never really know how the information will be used until it’s used. But if you let slip to your coworker that you had a thing for redheads, they would then know what kind of woman to have sit next to you at the bar the next night to maybe squeeze a little bit more information out of you. BOB GARFIELD: So even as the Wall was being torn down, stone by stone, brick by brick, Stasi employees were busy trying to destroy this vast archive. Why didn't they just burn the stuff? ANDREW CURRY: Well, I think if they could have set it on fire, they would have. The people of East Germany, who had been suppressed under this system for so long, were suddenly keeping a very close eye on the people who had been watching them for so long. And when a couple of regional offices did try and burn the stuff, citizens’ groups spontaneously organized to go in and seize the archives for themselves to prevent any further destruction. BOB GARFIELD: But eventually, of course, Stasi was driven entirely out of business and all of these shreds were in the hands of the people of Eastern Germany. Now there is this attempt to assemble them. It’s an extraordinary task. How is it being accomplished? ANDREW CURRY: If you think about a puzzle of the ocean, a human would look at that and sort all the blue pieces to one side, all the sand-colored pieces to another side so that you have less to work with. And the computer, when it looks at these fragments of paper, is doing much the same thing. It’s, say, sorting all the white pieces of paper off to one side and then white pieces of paper with typewriting on them and the white pieces of paper with typewriting and handwriting. And then it goes through and tries to fit together the edges.
The other challenge they have is inventing scanners essentially from scratch that can process these fragments at a speed that makes it worth it. BOB GARFIELD: For those who have gotten a look at the kind of dossiers that were kept on them, I guess it’s chilling in the first instance just to see the most routine aspects of your life laid out. But I imagine the most horrifying thing is to find out who betrayed you. ANDREW CURRY: Mm-hmm. BOB GARFIELD: Is that what drives this enterprise, the desire to know in whom you placed false trust? ANDREW CURRY: I think to a certain extent. It’s a million-and-a-half people who have gone in and requested their files. And it’s partly a catharsis. I mean, I think people who lived through this may have always wondered if that guy down the hall was really talking about them to the Stasi or if their coworker was really an informant.
And sometimes it’s a healing process. You know, you find out that it was somebody completely different or somebody you didn't expect. And sometimes, I think, it’s really difficult for people to find out that people they thought they trusted and thought they knew were not being honest. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Andrew. Thank you very much. ANDREW CURRY: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Curry is a journalist based in Berlin. His piece on the Stasi Archive appeared in the February issue of Wired magazine.