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Germany

Piecing Together East German History

Digital software could speed up the work of reconstructing shredded East German secret police files. If lawmakers fund the project, Germans could resolve unanswered questions within five rather than hundreds of years.

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New software could possibly piece together 600 million scraps in five years

West Berlin journalist Holger Kulick often visited the east of the divided city in the 1980s. After East and West Germany were finally reunified, he got the reconstructed dossier compiled on him by East Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Stasi, and found out that writer Sascha Anderson, a close friend in East Berlin, had spied on him.

"It was painful to read in the reconstituted files that he'd obviously passed on what I'd told him in confidence. That an art professor in Dresden was planning a project, and was looking for works by his former students who had left for the West, so that he could put them on exhibition. And look here, the Stasi had the information the very next day," Kulick told DW-TV.

The majority of the files recovered after demonstrators stormed the Stasi's buildings in early 1990 had already been shredded.

"We're dealing with very special inventory here," said Günter Bormann, a spokesman for the federal Stasi files agency. "These are files that were torn up manually, by hand, in the final weeks of the intelligence service. So we may conclude that we're dealing with fairly important documents."

Stasi Museum in Berlin

Stasi staffers started shredding files when they saw the GDR's downfall looming

Since 1995, the Stasi files agency has delivered sacks full of the scraps of paper to a small outpost in Zirndorf, Bavaria. The staff there spends their days putting the pieces together. In 11 years, they've dealt with the contents of around 300 sacks.


Ten pages a day

"With one man reconstructing 10 pages a day and a sack holding about 2,500, you can see how long it will take us before we have dealt with all the sacks still stored in Magdeburg. There's plenty to do," said spokesman Gerd Pfeiffer.

There are about 600 million paper scraps in more than 16,000 sacks in storage in Magdeburg packed with details of German history. Reconstruction at the present rate will take hundreds of years. So Wolfgang Thierse, vice president of the Bundestag, has called on parliament to agree to fund a pilot project to computerize reconstruction -- despite Germany's tight budget position.

"The most important principle we anchored into law was making this past accessible -- to make this legacy available to the victims, researchers and the German public," said Thierse. "And the consequence of that decision is that we are obliged to digitally reconstruct these torn-up files."

Researchers at Berlin's Fraunhofer Institute have been testing digital reconstruction for years. Scraps of paper are scanned into a computer and, using recognition criteria like shape, color and typographical details, they are sorted and aligned using special software. It only takes a few seconds to recreate a page. Experts estimate it would take around five years to reconstruct all the Stasi files. The pilot project would cost about 6 million euros ($7 million).


Interest from abroad

Police and tax authorities have shown interest in the process, both in Germany and abroad.

Stasi Unterlagen als Puzzle Rekonstruktion

The Stasi sorted the scraps into bags according to room and desk, which makes reconstruction easier

"Many people are already coming here from abroad, from former communist countries, and also from other former dictatorships: Spain, Argentina, South Africa," Thierse said.
"They want to see how the Germans do it, how they deal with their history. How do they make it possible for people who were victims of dictatorships to understand their own biography? How can justice be restored to the victims of dictatorship?"

Journalist Kulick was one of the first in Germany to see his Stasi file, painstakingly restored by hand. Without these documents, he would probably never have found out the extent to which his former friend Sascha Anderson had spied on him.

"If it hadn't been for these master puzzle-solvers, Sascha Anderson would probably still be an unsolved mystery, and no one would know exactly what he's really done," said Kulick.

There's a good chance the Bundestag will agree to fund the computer project. And not too soon, since the history-laden contents of the sacks are in danger of deteriorating over time.





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