The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Germany is still trying to crack the Stasi puzzle

A worker reassembles torn or shredded documents in the former headquarters of the Stasi in Berlin in 2019. (John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)
4 min

On average, it takes about nine hours to complete a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. At that rate, 600 million pieces take centuries. That is the task Germany is confronting as it launches a new attempt to piece together a dark chapter of its past.

A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, attempted to destroy the hoard of information it had collected on the country’s 16 million citizens. That effort created over 16,000 sacks of shredded paper. Now, more than three decades later, the German government is launching a new effort to restore the documents with the help of information technology.

It’s a mammoth task that remains more relevant than ever. Democracy is increasingly under pressure around the world — and Germans are being reminded of its fragility in many ways. The rise of domestic extremists on both left and right is causing widespread anxiety, while right-wing populist regimes in Hungary and Poland are undermining democratic institutions in Berlin’s own neighborhood.

Given this background, Germans have an urgent interest in achieving a full understanding of the most extensive surveillance state Europe has ever experienced. (At its peak, the Stasi boasted 91,000 full-time operatives and one informant for every 90 citizens.)

For decades, Germany has been trying to reassemble the shredded Stasi files. Archivists spread out bits of paper by hand, then match them up and glue them together. Last year, 17,215 file pages were reconstructed in this way — but that was a drop in the ocean. In the past three decades, the puzzle-solvers have processed a mere 600 sacks of paper, less than 4 percent of the total.

Germany is determined to find a better solution. The Federal Archives, the agency that looks after the Stasi files, recently announced that it’s searching for new information technology to speed up the process. The archive’s director, Michael Hollmann, said that progress on reconstructing the documents “is in the interest of the victims.”

He’s right. Many East Germans fought hard to preserve this evidence. A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people in the city of Erfurt noticed thick clouds of smoke hanging over their city. Stasi operatives, panicked by the impending collapse of the system, had started shredding and burning documents. Activists soon organized a takeover of the city’s Stasi headquarters to stop the destruction — and other East German cities soon followed suit. The Archives now holds 69 miles of paper files, nearly 2 million photographs, 3,000 fragments of film and video, and 23,000 audio recordings.

Yet many of the documents survive only in fragments. When the Stasi shredding machines began to seize up, staff started tearing the documents into pieces by hand. Then they tried drenching the fragments in water and pulping them. Historians still don’t know the precise amount the secret police managed to destroy before they were stopped. Between 40 and 55 million pages remain, albeit in hand-torn fragments.

Attempts to automate the restoration have failed. Starting in 2007, the German government spent 6.5 million euros (about $6.9 million) on a giant scanner designed to fit pieces together by matching up tear lines. But the system struggled with files where several pages had been torn at once, leaving them with identical edges. Of the 400 sacks chosen for a test run, it salvaged just 23. Since 2016, not a single page has been reconstructed electronically.

So why bother trying again? Some might argue that the Stasi’s secrets are too dated to be relevant. Soon East Germany will have been gone for more years than it existed. The two long-serving heads of the ruling party, Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, have been dead for decades. Stasi chief Erich Mielke died in 2000.

Yet plenty of victims survive, and they retain the right to find out who reported their secrets to the state. When Heiko Lietz, a pastor targeted by the Stasi, viewed part of his file in 1993, he discovered that he’d been spied on by one of his closest associates. He described the experience as “diving into a world that massively influenced and shaped me.” But parts of his file still seem to be missing. Those who work with Stasi documents note that former victims who have applied to see their personal files often come up empty — presumably because the documents are still among the sacks of shredded paper.

Yet restoring the shredded documents that exist remains imperative. To safeguard our modern democracies, it is essential to understand how autocracies work. As William Faulkner once put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The Stasi was not the first system used by a government to control its own people — and it won’t be the last.