A worker places a handful of paper scraps on to a conveyor belt, smoothing the crumpled pieces with the tips of her fingers. Words such as “expedient”, “conspiratorial”, “relationship” and “telephonist” are visible before they disappear into the scanner. Seconds later the computer screen flashes up the message “reconstruction completed”.
A neighbouring screen displays the “reconstruction” - a typewritten East German secret police report, dated July 1980, about the relationship between a doctor of competitive sport and two of her colleagues which is deemed by the report’s author to go “beyond the normal working relationship”.
The 10 scraps making up the page have been reassembled for the first time since they were hurriedly torn up 17 years ago.
German scientists have finally got the go-ahead from the government to put their “unshredder” - said to be the world’s most sophisticated pattern- recognition machine - into use. After years of debate, £4m has been set aside by the parliament to start piecing together 600m snippets of paper, or 45m documents, which were ripped up in a secret operation by panicked Stasi officers after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The officers were ordered by the Stasi boss, Erich Mielke, to destroy the files and stuff them into sacks to be burnt. But in what proved to be a veritable comedy of errors, they had to resort to doing it manually after their shredding machines broke down under the weight of the task. Then they were unable to secure the trucks needed to transport the bags to a quarry where they were to be burnt, so they abandoned them in the basement of their headquarters in Hohenschönhausen, Berlin.
Until now the painstaking reconstruction had been carried out by 30 workers near Nuremberg. Spreading the scraps on large trestle tables and with the use of adhesive tape, tweezers and magnifying glasses, they managed to stick together 350 sackfuls since 1991. But with more than 16,000 brown sacks still to go, it was estimated that they would need another 400 to 800 years to complete the task by hand.
Instead Berlin’s Fraunhofer Institute of Production Facilities and Construction Technology has promised that its machine can do the same task in half a decade.
The reason for such expensive scientific effort is that the contents of the sacks could be of immense historical importance, throwing light on the activities of the Stasi’s 174,000 unofficial employees and the six million people they spied on.
The machine works by scanning the document fragments into a computer image file. It treats each scrap as if it is part of a huge jigsaw puzzle. The shape, colour, font, texture and thickness of the paper is then analysed so that eventually it is possible to rebuild an electronic image of the original document.
When that has been done archivists at the BStU, the federal commission for state security files, will file the documents appropriately and decide how and when they are to be made public. Demand will be high. The commission receives 8,000 requests a year to see its files.
The project has not been without its opponents. It is, after all, expected that more than a handful of reputations will be tarnished once the files are made public.
Leftwing MPs, some of whom were once members of the East German communist party, opposed the project on the grounds of cost, hoping that interest in it would go away. It is still not sure that the project’s funding is secure for more than a few years.
But Günter Bormann of the BStU. said: “The Stasi officers used their every last strength to destroy these documents in the dead of night. I don’t think they are insignificant.”
While unable yet to reveal specific details, according to the BStU, those sackfuls that have already been reconstructed manually have revealed some “highly explosive stuff”, on everything from the Stasi’s treatment of human rights organisers to its relationship to the leftwing West German terrorist group the Red Army Faction, and the identities of the Stasi’s unofficial spies.
Pressure from historians and Stasi victims’ groups helped to keep up the interest, as did a recent German feature film, The Lives of Others, released in Britain to great acclaim last month, about a Stasi officer who becomes fascinated by the couple he is eavesdropping on. The film is seeped in the gloom and widespread repression of the era.
But even if the government had stalled the project, the commercial potential of the machine would have seen it win through. The Fraunhofer scientists have already received requests to buy the so-called E-Puzzler from authorities in other former communist countries of eastern Europe, such as Latvia and Poland, as well as from Argentina and Chile, which suffered from military dictatorships.
While the scientists waited for the government’s approval, the machine was put to a wide range of uses - to help Chinese archaeologists to reconstruct smashed Terracotta Army figures, to solve a multinational tax evasion case in which copious documents were shredded in an attempt to destroy evidence, and to piece together hundreds of thousands of bank notes shredded by a mother in an attempt to block her estranged daughter from her inheritance.
“In short, it’s no longer safe to shred a document; the days of shredding machines are over,” Betram Nickolay, who has spent 10 years working on the project, claimed. “The only safe way to destroy something is by burning it.”
The Stasi employed 90,000 agents and 175,000 informants to spy on 17 million East Germans. When the Berlin Wall fell agents spent three months shredding documents. But since 1991 30 workers have pieced together an average of 10 documents a day, using tape and tweezers. Their estimated finishing date was 2395 at the earliest.
So far their work has revealed the cases of an East German bishop who spied on his flock, a West German economics professor who spied for the Stasi and a literary impresario who spied on his dissident compatriots.
The E-Puzzler machine can process 10,000 two-sided sheets an hour. Its task should be finished by 2013.
in The Guardian