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In a musty room somewhere inside a maze of offices in east Berlin, two women are working patiently on what may be the biggest puzzle the world has ever seen – more than half a billion pieces that together detail innumerable actions committed by East Germany’s secret police.
The Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi, used a network of agents and informers to collect details of almost every citizen in East Germany, so as to better quash any dissent in the communist state. When the communist regime collapsed a quarter century ago, Stasi officials tried desperately to destroy the evidence of their totalitarian surveillance apparatus. But poor-quality East German shredders couldn’t cope with so many files while other options like burning the documents or dumping them in the river were deemed to cause unwanted attention.
The Stasi managed to tear up some 48 million pages filling over 16,000 brown sacks, each containing up to 40,000 shreds of paper. Together with about 112 kilometers (69.6 Miles) of files that the Stasi was unable to destroy, they constitute a vast, but probably incomplete, catalogue of mundane observations and cruel repression spanning 40 years. After German reunification in 1990, a decision was made not only to keep the records but to make them accessible to those who wanted to see them, as a way for people to come to terms with a past in which their neighbours, friends and even family members may have spied on them. One of those who chose to request his files is Manfred Teichmann.
A retired engineer from Zossen, a town just south of Berlin, Teichmann managed to emigrate from East Germany in 1988, after petitioning to do so for years. “The main reasons for wanting to leave were the fact that East Germany was a people’s prison, and that the economy in West Germany was better,” he said. “I wanted to offer my family a better life”. Such views inevitably put him on the radar of the Stasi who sent spies to both lurk outside his home and break into it while he was out, Teichmann reveals. Back in the Stasi archives Juliane Schuetterle, a historian at Germany’s Stasi records office has noticed a change in the approach towards the records on the part of those who lived in East Germany as more files are uncovered. Two years ago, historians and scientists from the nearby Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology made a breakthrough using specially-adapted scanners that will dramatically speed up the process of putting together the shredded files. It remains to be seen what will emerge as the files are put together again.
The only thing that is certain is that in the dying days of the German Democratic Republic, the Stasi didn’t want the people that it spied on to find out.