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Germany

New Software to Unravel Stasi Puzzle

Researchers at Berlin's prestigious Frauenhofer Institute are programming software that will piece together documents destroyed by East German secret police workers as the sun set on the communist era.

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The orderly habits of communist bureaucrats have made it easier for new technology to uncover secrets they sought to destroy.

Everyone knows that if you really want no-one to discover your secrets, the trick is to completely destroy all the evidence.

But this concept appears to have been lost on the workers at East Germany's secret police agency, the Stasi, during the waning days of the communist country.

During the last days of East Germany, workers at the agency's Magdeburg office, following the orders of Stasi chief Erich Mielke, attempted to destroy the thousands of Stasi files. But instead of shredding the sensitive documents -- which covered decades of the agency's spying on East German citizens -- as one might have expected, they very neatly and orderly ripped them into quarters and packed them into around 16,000 brown paper sacks.

Painstakingly reconstructing history

Over the past eight years, teams of workers in state of Bavaria have undertaken the painstaking task of reconstructing the papers by hand. They’ve already reconstructed 300 sacks worth of documents. But with over 15,700 left to go, it would take about 450 years to complete the job with their primitive methods.

Enter the geeks.

Experts at the Berlin-based Frauenhofer Institute of Production Facilities and Construction Technology (IPK) are now developing new software which will make the process of reconstructing the important historical documents far easier.

Computer-aided jigsaw puzzle

According to reports, the software works rather like someone putting together a jigsaw puzzle. After the scraps of the documents -- which vary in sensitivity from spy's accounts of the activities of Western leaders to normal everyday lives of GDR citizens -- are scanned into the computer, the program searches other scanned remnants to find and fit together matching pieces.

The IPK had been given the task of developing the software by the federal government's Birthler Authority, the agency charged with maintaining the vast Stasi archive, which is a constant source of controversy for a recently reunified country still licking its wounds after more than 40 years of the Cold War. Though IPK has been banned by the government from speaking publicly about the classified project, it did announce this week that it plans to have a new, refined version of the program completed by this autumn.

And if all goes well, the Birthler Authority and the IPK hope to have fitted all the pieces of their enormous puzzle back together -- providing an archival treasure trove for historians and academics who want to research a difficult part of German history.

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