Researchers take on the daunting task of restoring millions of torn files that the GDR secret service wanted to destroy.
First, the researchers cut the sacks lengthways so as not to disturb the mess of torn paper inside. Then they go loose through the bags and pull out leftover food, rubbish, or anything else that was added during the chaotic onslaught to destroy evidence.
They are working on putting together around 40 to 55 million pieces of paper, scrap by scrap, that were torn up by the GDR secret service in the last days of the GDR and stuffed into sacks.
When pro-democracy demonstrators stormed the secret police station in 1989 and 1990, they found officials at work there, hand-shredding, crushing and tearing documents. The Ministry of State Security, known as the Stasi, desperately tried to destroy the surveillance records it had collected over four decades of spying on its own citizens.
Much of the material could no longer be saved, burned or shredded into tiny pieces. But some sacks contained awkwardly torn records that were later to be destroyed. Activists in the GDR managed to stop their destruction.
In the 30 years since then, so-called “puzzlers” have reconstructed the torn documents by hand, laboriously sorted paper fragments according to color and handwriting, filed, stuck together and handed them over to the archive. Most of the time these were employees of their own Stasi records agency, which was founded in 1991, but the files have recently been subordinate to the Federal Archives.
Historian Timothy Garton Ash described the process as an exercise in “extraordinary, but some would say a little crazy, perfectionism”. Around 500 bags have already been reconstructed, 15,500 are still outstanding.
The central principle of the archive is “to help people understand how the Stasi interfered with their lives,” says Dagmar Hovestädt, head of communication and research at the Stasi records archive. Since 1992, the researchers have offered former GDR citizens the opportunity to view their personal Stasi files, a complicated initiation rite that often reveals that family members, friends or neighbors have reported their activities to the Stasi. Now many of the victims of Stasi surveillance are nearing the end of their lives, and the puzzlers are trying to give them the opportunity to see reconstructed documents before they die.
Siad Akkam, a student who sometimes occupies the desk at which people request a file, says her ambivalence is often clear: “You can see that they are somehow insecure and insecure. Should i do it? Should I know? ”Many of the people who pick up an application form are the children or grandchildren of victims hoping to convince their relatives to find out the truth.
A rotating team of around eight employees works in the building that once housed the Stasi headquarters and the office of Erich Mielke, the notorious chief of the secret police. Others work in the former regional centers of the Stasi. It was a special justice, said Hovestädt, to destroy the work of the Stasi in a historic location where repression had been organized for 40 years. That was the brain of the operation. ”In the East German building full of shades of gray and brown, she said:“ You remember in whose footsteps you are standing. ”
A bag can contain not only paper, but also stamps to collect, a phone book for a GDR party congress or Stasi training materials, from Marxist-Leninist literature to instructions for tapping a telephone or cleaning a weapon.
Before starting work on a particular bag, workers determine the rough subject. You are looking for names preceded by the letters “IM”, which stand for unofficial employees or “unofficial employees” – those were the informants of the Stasi. Everything that has to do with the Stasi surveillance of its own citizens has priority. A bag containing mostly training materials or bureaucratic documents would be considered less urgent and put back into storage.
The sacks have their own layers, like geological layers that researchers are doing best to preserve. If the content is determined to be important, either to the historian or to the victims personally, the researchers gradually remove the remains, looking for suitable edges, handwriting, or paper.
If the scrap is too shredded, researchers sometimes reconstruct it virtually using a machine called an ePuzzler. But the amount of torn files is so large that the ePuzzler cannot speed up the project much.
The teams put the remains, which can be reconstructed by hand, together on a table and put each document together with archive tape. From there, the completed documents go to the Stasi files. There is no public affiliation with them, and no one mentioned on the files is notified – the group’s philosophy is that the victim should have a choice of whether or not to ask about his or her file.
Information about Stasi informants and officials is a different story: it is not considered private, so journalists and researchers can apply for access. In the 1990s, the exposure of an informant ruined so many careers and marriages that the German news magazine Der Spiegel, which had regularly outed celebrities thanks to the archives, called them “horror acts”.
In recent years, the tide of revelations has slowed, but the consequences can still be life-changing. “Sometimes you have to rewrite your own life,” says Ms. Hovestädt.
Petra Riemann first found out about her father’s double life through a newspaper report. Lutz Riemann was an East German actor who was known for playing a television cop. But after inspection of the files of the newspaper “Welt am Sonntag” in 2013, he was also an informant and kept an eye on family and friends. Ms. Riemann had known that he sometimes worked with the Stasi foreign intelligence service, but she imagined him as a kind of James Bond figure, she said in an interview – not as someone who used intimate dinners and birthday parties to get information about loved ones Gathering people.
“He used our family to gain the trust of his victims,” she said.
Still, questions remain unanswered. When she later found out that he had a secret second family, she didn’t know whether it was a simple affair or, as he claimed, part of his Stasi work. She said that she and her parents no longer speak.
Ms. Riemann, who wrote a book about the experiences with her husband, the journalist Torsten Sasse, said the findings from the files were worth the effort. “You could read something in these files that will upset you forever,” she said, “but the question, of course, is: could you live with a lie?”
Mr. Riemann could not be reached for a statement. But in 2013 he admitted to Die Welt am Sonntag that he had worked as an informant and said that he had done so as a staunch communist out of ideological conviction.
The reconstructed documents so far contain information about dissidents such as the late writer and politician Jürgen Fuchs, who was arrested by the Stasi before he was deported to the West. Other reconstructed documents shed light on East German sports doping practices and the activities of the Red Army Fraction, the West German radical left-wing terrorist group.
Ruth Zimmermann, archivist working on the reconstruction, said the project was an exercise in the German concept of coming to terms with the past, a word that means coming to terms with the injustices of the past.
However, there is a major loophole in the Stasi archive: it records domestic, not foreign surveillance. The files of the Stasi foreign intelligence service were largely destroyed, which means that informants working in West Germany were not exposed to the same type of exposure. According to Garton Ash, this asymmetry can lead to the feeling that this project represents a kind of “winning justice” from West to East.
“This contributes to the East German feeling of victimization,” he said, “because the people who are exposed as officers and informers are East Germans, and of course there were some agents in West Germany who probably still enjoy a lot of respect.” Retired. “
As a British journalist who worked in the GDR in the 1980s, Garton Ash was suspected by the Stasi of being a foreign secret service agent. They gathered information about him from a number of people, as described in his book “The File”.
One informant was an elderly GDR woman with whom he became friends after meeting by chance at an exhibition. She spied on him to visit her son who had fled to the West. “She was a lot more of a victim than I was,” he said.
“We who grew up in Washington DC or London should at least ask ourselves how would I have acted if I had lived under a dictatorship?” Said Mr. Garton Ash. “I would like to believe that I would have been a heroic dissident, but maybe I wouldn’t have been. This is a question that we really should all have in mind before we judge people who, like this wonderful, lovable 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 complete for centuries. And many of the documents may never be seen. The researchers say that even some people who fill out application forms never come back to view their files.
But that is in line with the guidelines of the project: yes, you have the right to identify and confront those who betrayed you, said Ms. Hovestädt. But, she added, “You must also have the right not to know.”
Produced by Jessie Wender.
Surface treatment is a column exploring the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.