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Reconstructing History

dw staff / DPA (tt)
May 9, 2007

A project using computers to reconstruct ripped-up files kept by former East Germany's Stasi secret police began on Wednesday, raising hopes that more communist misdeeds will be brought to light.

The reconstruction of Stasi files resembles a giant jigsaw puzzleImage: AP

The pilot project, backed by 6.3 million euros ($8.6 million) in federal funds, will demonstrate whether it is feasible for the Berlin-based Fraunhofer Institute for Production Machinery and Building Technology to use digital brute force to decipher 16,000 sacks of shredded papers that were left behind by former East Germany's powerful secret police.

Jan Schneider, 36, the Fraunhofer engineer heading the project, said the scraps will be placed on a conveyer belt leading to digital scanners which would obtain images of both sides of the paper. The software will identify the paper color, typefaces, any rubber stamps and the outlines of the tears. Just like a jigsaw solver, as soon as it discovers edges that match, it will link up the images.

"It's very exciting to decode Stasi papers," Schneider said. "You have the feeling you are making history."

The job was made easier by the way the Stasi officers had manually torn up the papers after their office shredders had broken down. When a table would get filled with torn pieces, they were all shoved into one bag before the next lot was torn. As a result, each sack contains almost a complete set of papers, with practically no mixing of documents between the bags.

Before the collapse

Studentenkorrespondentin Arden Pennell Stasi Bilder
East Germany was a police stateImage: Arden Pennell

As communism collapsed in 1989, the Ministry for State Security burned and shredded files and tore others up by hand. The burning and shredding cannot be undone, but the new authorities retrieved the scraps that were semi-intact and only jumbled.

Berlin vowed to put the scraps, which are mostly postcard sized, back into the correct order to be read. The job fell to 15 workers sitting in an office near Nürnberg who have managed to work through 323 sacks since 1995. With nearly 16,000 more sacks to go, it would take over 400 years to complete the job manually.

In 2003, the government said it could not afford 50 million euros to computerize the task, so legislators have approved a more modest pilot project. Each scrap will be scanned and a computer will try to match images by shape, jigsaw style, to others from the same sack.

Germany has already opened many undamaged Stasi files to historians and to former Stasi victims, helping them to identify informers in a society that was ruled by the fear of denunciation, but there are big gaps in the archives.

Staff working for the custodian of the files, former East German democracy activist Marianne Birthler, say the funding means 400 more sacks can be processed in the next two years, more than the number reconstituted so far by human intelligence.

New insights expected

Studentenkorrespondentin Arden Pennell Stasi Bilder
Stasi archives were already used to expose former spiesImage: Arden Pennell

Birthler aide Günter Bormann said the bags to be scanned and re- assembled appeared to contain files in active use in 1988 and 1989 as the communist system teetered on the brink of collapse. None are thought to relate to East German espionage abroad: that department's files were almost completely destroyed.

It is not clear yet what will happen after the pilot project is completed.

Undamaged Stasi files have already helped to expose many of the turncoats who tried to bury their past when communism fell. Former Stasi officers are barred as security risks from many German public offices.

A legislator, Klaus-Peter Willsch, said the documents might help undercover more Stasi informers so they can be punished. He believes all 16,000 sacks could be reconstructed for less than 30 million euros (40 million dollars).

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