Putting together the history of Stasi espionage
Researchers undertake the colossal task of recreating millions of torn documents that the East German secret police hoped to destroy.
The researchers first cut the bags lengthwise, being careful not to disturb the torn tangle of paper inside. Then, they loosely scan the bags, removing leftover food, trash, or anything else mixed up during the chaotic rush to destroy the evidence.
They are working to put together, piece by piece, some 40 to 55 million pieces of paper that were torn and stuffed into bags by the East German secret police in the last days of the German Democratic Republic.
When pro-democracy protesters stormed the secret police compound in 1989 and 1990, they found agents at work inside, shredding, reducing and tearing documents by hand. The Ministry of State Security, known as the Stasi, was desperately trying to destroy surveillance records it had collected over four decades of spying on its own citizens.
Much of the material was unrecoverable, burnt or shredded into small pieces. But some bags contained clumsily torn files that were meant to be destroyed later. The militants of East Germany succeeded in stopping their destruction.
For the next 30 years, so-called “puzzlers” worked to piece together the torn documents by hand, painstakingly sorting and sorting pieces of paper by color and handwriting, before gluing them back together and submitting them to the archives. . For most of that time, they were employees of a dedicated Stasi archives agency, formed in 1991, although the files had recently passed under the authority of the German Federal Archives.
Historian Timothy Garton Ash has described the process as an exercise in “extraordinary, but some would say a little crazy” perfectionism. Some 500 bags have already been reconstituted, there are still 15,500 to go.
The central tenet of the archives is “to help people understand how the Stasi interfered in their lives,” said Dagmar HovestÃ¤dt, communications and research officer for the Stasi Archives. Since 1992, researchers have offered former citizens of East Germany the opportunity to consult their personal Stasi files, a complicated rite of passage that often reveals that family members, friends or neighbors had reported their activities at the Stasi. Now, many victims of Stasi surveillance are nearing the end of their lives, and puzzles are rushing to give them the chance to see all the reconstructed documents before they die.
Siad Akkam, a student who sometimes takes care of the desk where people request a file, said their ambivalence is often clear: âYou see they are a little uncertain and insecure. Should I do it? Do i know? Many of the people who collect a claim form are children or grandchildren of victims, hoping to convince their loved ones to find out the truth.
A rotating team of around eight works in the building that once housed the Stasi headquarters and the office of Erich Mielke, the notorious head of the secret police. Others work in the former regional Stasi hubs. There is special justice, says HovestÃ¤dt, in undoing the work of the Stasi in “a historic site where, for 40 years, repression has been organized. It was the brains of the operation. In the distinctly East German building, full of grays and browns, she said: “You remember the traces of who you are.”
A bag may contain not only paper, but perhaps collectible stamps, a phone book for a GDR party conference, or Stasi training materials, from Marxist-Leninist literature to instructions on how listening to a phone or cleaning a gun.
Before starting to work on a given bag, workers determine the raw subject. They look for names preceded by the letters “IM”, which means harmless Mitarbeiter, or âunofficial collaboratorâ – these are Stasi informants. Everything about the Stasi’s surveillance of their own citizens takes priority. A bag containing mainly training material or bureaucratic documents would be considered less urgent and returned to storage.
The bags have their own layers, like geological strata, which researchers are working to preserve. When content is deemed important, whether to historians or to victims personally, researchers remove pieces in stages, looking for matching edges, writing, or paper.
If the offcuts are too shredded, researchers sometimes replenish them virtually with a machine called an ePuzzler. But the volume of ripped files is so vast that the ePuzzler is unable to speed up the project significantly.
The teams place the pieces that can be reconstructed by hand on a table and use archival tape to piece together each document. From there, the completed documents go to the Stasi files. There is no advertising associated with them, and no one mentioned in the files is warned – the group’s philosophy is that the choice should be the victim’s, whether or not to inquire about their case.
Information about informants and Stasi officers is another story: it is not considered private, so journalists and researchers can request access. In the 1990s, revealing that someone had been an informant ruined so many careers and marriages that German news magazine Der Spiegel, which regularly exposed personalities through archives, dubbed them the “horror files. “.
In recent years, the flow of disclosures has slowed down, but their consequences can still change lives. âYou have to rewrite your own life in some cases,â Ms. HovestÃ¤dt said.
Petra Riemann first heard about her father’s double life in a newspaper article. Lutz Riemann was an East German actor best known for playing a policeman on television. But, according to records seen by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper in 2013, he had also been an informant, keeping an eye on his family and friends. Ms Riemann knew he sometimes worked with the Stasi’s foreign intelligence arm, but imagined him as some sort of James Bond character, she said in an interview – not someone who uses intimate dinners and birthday parties to collect information about loved ones.
âHe used our family to gain the trust of his victims,â she said.
Yet, questions remain unanswered. When she later found out that he had a secret second family, she wasn’t sure if they were the result of a simple affair, or if, as he claimed, part of his Stasi job. She said that she and her parents were no longer talking to each other.
Ms Riemann, who has written a book about the experience with her husband, journalist Torsten Sasse, said the knowledge gained from the files was worth it. âYou might read something in these files that will bother you forever,â she said, âbut the question of course is: could you live with a lie? “
Mr. Riemann could not be reached for comment. But in 2013 he recognized at Welt am Sonntag that he had worked as an informant and said that as a committed Communist he had done so out of ideological conviction.
So far, the reconstructed documents have included information on dissidents such as the late writer and politician JÃ¼rgen Fuchs, whom the Stasi imprisoned before his deportation to the West. Other reconstructed documents shed light on athletic doping practices in East Germany and the activities of the Red Army faction, the far-left West German terrorist group.
Ruth Zimmermann, an archivist working on reconstruction, said the project is an exercise in the German concept of Aufarbeitung, a word that means working through the injustices of the past.
There is, however, a major loophole in the Stasi archives: they record domestic rather than foreign surveillance. The files of the Stasi’s foreign intelligence arm were mostly destroyed, meaning informants working in West Germany were not subjected to the same kind of exposure. This asymmetry can lead to a feeling, according to Mr. Garton Ash, that this project represents a kind of “winner’s justice”, from West to East.
âIt adds to the feeling of East German victimization,â he said, âbecause the people exposed as officers and informants are East Germans, and of course there were quite a few ‘agents in West Germany, who probably still enjoy a well-respected status. retirement. “
As a British journalist working in East Germany in the 1980s, Mr. Garton Ash was suspected by the Stasi of being a foreign intelligence agent. They gathered information about him from a variety of people, as he described in his book âThe Fileâ.
One informant was an old East German woman with whom he befriended after meeting by chance at an exhibition. She spied on him in exchange for permission to visit her son who had fled to the West. “She was much more of a victim than I was,” he said.
âWe who grew up in Washington DC or London should all at least ask ourselves, how would I have acted if I had lived in a dictatorship? Said Mr. Garton Ash. âI would like to think I would have been a heroic dissident, but maybe I would not have been. So this is a question we should all have in mind before passing easy judgment on people who, like this wonderful and charming old lady, informed for the most compelling human reason: she wanted to see her son again.
At the current rate of around 20 bags per year, the project would not be completed for centuries. And many documents may never be seen. Researchers say that even some people who fill out application forms never come back to see their records.
But this is in line with the project guidelines: yes, you have the right to identify and confront those who betrayed you, Ms HovestÃ¤dt said. But, she added, “you must also have the right not to know”.
Produced by Jessie Wender.
Surfacing is a column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.