Uncovering the Stasi's secrets

Germany is using a new computer programme to piece together shredded documents.

    It would take hundreds of years to reassamble the torn up Stasi files by hand

    When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the East German secret police - or Stasi  - shredded many of its documents and files.

    More than 600 million scraps of paper were recovered and the huge task of discovering their secrets began.

    Tim Friend travelled to Berlin and how Germany is uncovering the extent to which the state spied on its citizens.

    Reinhard Fuhrmann was a 24-year-old student activist when he was arrested by the Stasi for allegedly having contacts in the West. He was betrayed by fellow students and served a year in prison.

    He now has his old Stasi file but sections of it are still missing.

    "I think it is perhaps possible that these files are actually intact somewhere and that it is possible to piece them back together. A lot of things are still unclear," Fuhrmann told Al Jazeera in an interrogation room at the Stasi headquarters.

    About 45 million documents were destroyed in the final days of East Germany as the collapse of the communist government became increasing evident.

    "The files were supposed to have been completely destroyed by the Stasi. The shredding machines overheated because they were working day and night,' Thomas Nitschke, who has been leading the reconstruction effort, said.

    Rubbish bags rescued

    Their efforts were interrupted by activists and 16,250 rubbish bags full of scraps were rescued.

    "We developed the machine exactly like a human would start a puzzle - you look at the pieces, the form, the colour and other elements - the machine does exactly that"
    It is estimated that it would take 30 people up to 800 years to reassemble the files by hand but a new computer programme could finish the job in as little as seven years.

    The scraps will now be scanned into the system and newly-refined software will try to arrange the fragments according to shape, texture, ink color, handwriting style and recognisable official stamps.

    "We developed the machine exactly like a human would start a puzzle - you look at the pieces, the form, the colour and other elements - the machine does exactly that," Bertram Nickolay of the Fraunhofer Institute, which has the coontract to carry out the reconstruction, told Al Jazeera.

    There is still a long way to go and there is political opposition to the reconstruction, many Stasi informants are likely to uncovered when the programme has been completed. 

    But Reinhard Fuhrmann, who now leads guided tours around the Stasi prisons, believes it is important to uncover the truth of what happened under the country's communist rulers.

    "I think human beings are capable of anything, I just think as few people as possible should undergo my experience," he said. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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