How Germans are reconstructing Stasi files from millions of fragments

Barbara Pönisch spends most of her days at work doing puzzles -- piecing together a mountain of documents torn up by the hated East German Stasi secret police.

How Germans are reconstructing Stasi files from millions of fragments
Shredded Stasi files at the Stasi Archive in Berlin. Photo: DPA

The former bookbinder is one in a team of 10 people painstakingly reconstructing surveillance reports, private letters or policy papers that the Stasi accumulated and desperately tried to destroy as the communist regime came crashing down 30 years ago.

When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, the secret police began shredding their files.

READ ALSO: Why Germany will never forget the Stasi era of mass surveillance

The machines broke down under the strain, so they were forced to tear up the documents by hand to then pulp or burn the scraps.

But “citizen committees” stormed the Stasi's offices — including its East Berlin headquarters — on January 15, 1990, seizing millions of files along with 16,000 bags of torn up documents to preserve them for the future.

Stasi files being electronically constructed at the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin. Photo: DPA

The East Berlin-based Ministry of State Security, known as the Stasi, had been one of the world's most effective instruments for state repression during its nearly 40 years of existence.

It employed more than 270,000 people — many of them informants seeded throughout the population — during the Cold War, making East German society the most intensely monitored in the Eastern bloc.

Three decades on, its secrets are still being revealed as Pönisch and her colleagues at the BStU federal office for Stasi records reconstruct the ripped up papers.

“I enjoy doing puzzles and the search, that's a little like detective work,” said Pönisch, herself an east German, with a smile.

More crucially, she said, “it is gratifying to be able to put together these things that were once torn up 30 years ago… because I know that this material will then be looked at by an archivist and make a contribution towards our coming to terms with the past.”

'Huge responsibility'

Thousands of spies were unmasked as the Stasi files became available to the public in the years following German reunification in 1990.

Many East Germans learned that their friends and even family members had been keeping tabs on them as “unofficial collaborators” of the Stasi.

What Pönisch describes as her “small contribution to coming to terms with the past” is therefore in fact a Herculean task with an impact on the real lives of thousands if not millions of people.

Among personal items that she had pieced together is a letter written by a mother pleading with the Stasi to free her son.

“That was from a few years back and really touched me,” she said.

Carefully aligning two scraps of papers, holding each side down with paper weights before firmly sticking them together, Pönisch underlined that the key to her job is not only patience, but more importantly, recognition of the “huge responsibility” it carries.

Technology overwhelmed

Since manual reconstruction of the ripped up papers began in 1995, some 500 bags of fragments — equivalent to more than 1.5 million pages — have been pieced together.

Bombshells turned up by the archivists as they reconstruct the documents include papers proving the state-sponsored doping of East German athletes or papers about extreme left Red Army Faction militant Silke Maier-Witt, who went underground in the GDR.

Many more may lay hidden for years, as on average, it takes each puzzler 18 months to completely reconstruct each sack of shreds, said Andreas Loder, who leads the manual reconstruction team.

Files at the Berlin Office of the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Files (BStU). Photo: DPA

With each bag containing fragments making up as many as 3,500 pages, it means there remain up to 600 million fragments to be pieced into some 55 million pages.

Hopes had been raised in 2013, when technology was deployed to help in the

But the so-called e-Puzzler developed by research institute Fraunhofer IPK proved helpless in the face of hundreds of thousands of fragments. Eventually, only 23 bags or around 91,000 pages were put together.

A new machine is being designed and archivists hope it will be deployed in the coming years.

'Claim their rights'

For now, it is back to human labour.

Ute Michalsky, who oversees the reconstruction work, admits that she cannot say if there will come a day when all the fragments will be pieced together.

But she stressed the importance of pushing ahead with the work, noting that the priority will be to put together documents that carry personal significance.

READ ALSO: Stasi documents trove released online

“The bags in which documents with information about people who the Stasi kept tabs on” are first on the list, she said.

“For many affected people, such things are still very important for rehabilitation… so we're not looking particularly for controversial documents or explosive finds.

“For us it's more important to help victims of the dictatorship claim their right” to know what the secret police knew about them.

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‘Wall of Shame’: How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago

In the early hours of Sunday, August 13th, 1961, communist East Germany's authorities began building the Berlin Wall, cutting the city in two and plugging the last remaining gap in the Iron Curtain.

'Wall of Shame': How the Berlin Wall went up 60 years ago
A cyclist passes the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Straße in Berlin. The wall was erected 60 years ago on August 13th, 1961. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Rumours that the border between East and West Berlin was about to be closed had been swirling for 48 hours.

On Friday, the parliament or People’s Chamber of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) had given the green light to take any measures necessary to halt the exodus of its population westwards.

READ ALSO: What it was like voting as an American in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell

Over the preceding 12 years, more than three million citizens had fled the strict regime, opting for the freedom and prosperity offered by West Germany.

News flashes

At 4:01 am on that Sunday, a top-priority AFP flash dated Berlin hit the wire: “The army and Volkspolizei are massing at the edge of the Eastern and Western sectors of Berlin to block passage.”

In a second flash, the story was firmed up. “Berlin’s metropolitan trains have for the past two hours not been going from one sector to the other.”

Then one flash after another fell:
– 4:28 am:  “The GDR’s Council of Ministers has decided to put in place at its borders, even at those with the western sector of Berlin, the checks usual at borders of a sovereign state.”

– 4:36 am: “An order from the East German interior ministry forbids the country’s inhabitants to go to East Berlin if they do not work there.”

– 4:50 am: “Inhabitants of East Berlin are forbidden to work in West Berlin, according to a decision by the East Berlin city authorities.”

Barbed wire and guns

In the very early morning, AFP’s correspondent at the scene described the situation on the ground.

“Barbed wire fences and defensive spikes have been put in place overnight to hermetically seal the border between East Berlin and West Berlin.

READ ALSO: What happened during Germany’s ‘catastrophic winter’ of 78/79?

“The road is practically cut off for refugees.

“Most of the crossing points between the two sides of the city have been cut off since sunrise and are heavily guarded by the police patrolling with machine guns on their shoulders.

“Only 13 border crossings remain open between the two Berlins, controlled by numerous reinforced units of armed police.

A sign on the wall next to Brandenburg Gate reads: “The wall is coming down – not in 30, 50 or 100 years.” This photo was taken a year before the wall fell. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Dramatic escape

“Germans from East Berlin can no longer go to the West without a special pass, the controls are excessively strict.

“As the net falls over the communist part of the city, a young Berliner from the East manages against all odds to ram with his car the barbed wire separating the two sectors of the city.

“Seeing the young man arriving at high speed in a Volkswagen, the police were too taken off guard to be able to stop the car, which carried the barbed wire placed across the street right to the French sector,” AFP wrote.

‘Death strip”

Little by little, the kilometres of barbed wire will give way to a 43-kilometre-long (27-mile-long) concrete wall cutting the city in two from north to south.

Another outer wall, 112 kilometres (70 miles) long, cuts off the enclave of West Berlin and its two million inhabitants from the GDR.

Constantly upgraded over its 28 years of existence, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the wall is made up of slabs of reinforced concrete, 3.60 metres (12 feet) high, crowned with a cylinder without a grip making it almost impossible to climb.

The remainder is made of metal wire.

Along the eastern side of what is widely called the “wall of shame” stands a “no man’s land”, 300 metres (990 feet) deep in places.

Border soldiers from the DDR look over the wall in May 28th, 1988. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

At the foot of the wall a “death strip” made up of carefully raked ground to make it possible to spot footprints, is equipped with installations that set off automatic gunfire and mines.

However hermetic this formidable “anti-fascist protection rampart”, as it was officially known, would be, it would not prevent the escape of nearly 5,000 people until it fell on November 9th, 1989. Around 100 fugitives lost their lives trying to cross over.