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"That half-destroyed paperwork is a tantalizing secret."
January 30, 2008 7:42 AM   Subscribe

"That half-destroyed paperwork is a tantalizing secret." The Stasi fostered a pervasive and justified paranoia. And it generated an almost inconceivable amount of paper, enough to fill more than 100 miles of shelves. The agency indexed and cross-referenced 5.6 million names in its central card catalog alone. Hundreds of thousands of "unofficial employees" snitched on friends, coworkers, and their own spouses, sometimes because they'd been extorted and sometimes in exchange for money, promotions, or permission to travel abroad. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi tried to destroy its records. Now, with the help of computer science, the "billion-piece puzzle" is finally coming together. The article is an interesting update on the one featured in this 2003 Metafilter post .

Related:

The Stasi Museum in Berlin

If It Had Not Been For 15 Minutes (an incredible defection story)
posted by amyms (29 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
it's an interesting exercise of technology and will probably shed some light on Stati procedures ; it may even yeld some legal consequence. Yet I don't exactly see how it could be of use, without a parallel effort to teach young and future generations that they ought to protect themselves from making the use of espionage a LEGAL method of collecting evidence, but in relatively few and extremely well specificed circumstances.

Few weeks ago I was making a very similar point to a friend of mine who's a lawyer specialized in privacy laws ; I sustained that attempting to stop collection of data is not particularly useful, while containing or stopping its legal use is a lot more important : take , for instance, the data I can gather on your health history , can you imagine how can use it against you, actively or passively ?
posted by elpapacito at 8:04 AM on January 30, 2008


The Stasi Museum in Berlin is amazing. What was most striking is that this massive intelligence apparatus operated not out of a high-tech James Bond control center, but a banal office building with crappy office furniture.
posted by grouse at 8:15 AM on January 30, 2008


The Stasi museum is awesome, being basically the old Stasi HQ. If you've seen The Lives of Others (and really, you need to see The Lives of Others) then you see it several times. I beleive the film also uses some authentic equipment, borrowed from someone who collects such things.

My photo snaps of the neat funiture the stasi bosses had are at the bottom of the page here, for what it's worth. They may have been a fearsome tool of oppression, but I kind of like their mid century decor and awesome retro phones.
posted by Artw at 8:17 AM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


What a fascinating mine of information. I didn't hear about this the first time around, but rereading the 2003 thread, I'm struck by some of the conversation around this anecdote from jacquilynne; it cuts to the quick of it, the balance between historical importance (what a massive, amazing study in documentation) and the harm it represents (first from the complex that created it, later in the personal revelation of its contents).
posted by cortex at 8:21 AM on January 30, 2008


Oh, and if you do rent/buy The Lives of Others do watch all of the features and documentaries that go with it, it's really worthwhile.

Sorry to keep banging on about it, but it really is that good.
posted by Artw at 8:25 AM on January 30, 2008


Hmm. I wonder how just how mixed up the chunks of paper are, I mean I would imagine that the order of the paper holds a lot of information. Like if you have a stack of chunks, and you find that that matches something in another stack of chunks, then likely all the chunks would match.

I'm surprised they didn't just burn all that stuff.
posted by delmoi at 8:32 AM on January 30, 2008


A useful tool in the dreaded lustration process.

It would be very interesting to write your autobiography based on what the secret police wrote about you: day by day, your version and theirs in parallel, maybe on opposing pages, maybe with photos and recordings you never imagined were being made.
posted by pracowity at 8:35 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Barring a genuine autobiography, a novel done in the style of annotations to such a file would be something to see.
posted by cortex at 8:40 AM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


When I was a kid i wanted to grow up and do jigsaw puzzles for a living. I fear I've missed my calling here.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:41 AM on January 30, 2008


That wired article is excellent and beyond creepy. I'm making my students read it this semester. I'll figure out a justification later.
posted by mecran01 at 9:14 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I just read an interview recently, I think in Der Spiegel, about somebody who was politically active in East Germany before the wall came down. Asked if he would want to see the files that the Stasi had on him, he said he was tempted but he would rather not know and keep his friends rather than know the truth about who betrayed him back then. From some other conversations I have had with "Ossis" this is not an uncommon sentiment. Somehow typically German in a pragmatic kind of way.
posted by chillmost at 9:18 AM on January 30, 2008


Anyone interested in this should read The File: A Personal History by journalist Timothy Garton Ash.

He was a student in East Berlin the late seventies, and after the wall came down got hold of his voluminous Stasi file. In the book he tracks down the informants referenced in the files, many of whom he considered friends at the time.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:52 AM on January 30, 2008


delmoi: "Hmm. I wonder how just how mixed up the chunks of paper are, I mean I would imagine that the order of the paper holds a lot of information. Like if you have a stack of chunks, and you find that that matches something in another stack of chunks, then likely all the chunks would match.

I'm surprised they didn't just burn all that stuff.
"

In the Wired article (at least in the print one, which I only assume is the same as the linked online version) they discuss this a little. In the final days, the Stasi were trying to destroy all the files clandestinely; in some cases the people were literally breaking down the doors and stopping them. Thus no mass incineration or simply setting the building on fire -- it would have drawn too much attention. They were trying not only to destroy the files but sweep their existence under the rug.

So they shredded and tore and then bagged the resulting pieces and hid them. I assume that if they'd had time, the pieces would have been taken to discreet places and destroyed more thoroughly, via burning, but the people caught up to them and stopped the process before it got to that point.

In some ways I think the methodicalness of the Stasi really helped the reconstruction; if they'd been less organized, the job would be more difficult. E.g., rather than dumping out all the papers and then tearing them and stuffing the mixed-up pieces into bags, they'd tear one bag of papers at a time, stuffing them back into the bag as they went. This means that generally, all the pieces of any document are in the same bag, and there's probably a good chance that all the pieces of a document are next to each other.

I don't know how the software deals with or weights 'proximity' in determining a match (the technical aspects weren't really addressed in the article), but it seems too good to just ignore.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:21 AM on January 30, 2008


Fascinating article. I always found the Stati's tactic of collecting sweat and body odors to be one of their creepiest, and apparently the German police did it last summer during the G8 protests.

On a sidenote, I wonder how much information the Stasi would be able to collect if they were still around, operating on an equally obsessive level?
posted by pyrex at 10:31 AM on January 30, 2008


chillmost wrote, "From some other conversations I have had with "Ossis" this is not an uncommon sentiment."

That's the thing about a totalitarian government like East Germany's-- the private sphere is greatly restricted. Everyone was under immense pressure to cooperate. It reflected a moral failing to cooperate, maybe, but it was a common one. Reading your own file would be like reading about everything flippant or mean that every friend has ever said about you-- except they would have done so under threat from the government. I would probably do the same, even though I'm not German.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:35 AM on January 30, 2008


frantic Stasi agents sent trucks full of documents to the Papierwolfs and Reisswolfs — literally "paper-wolves" and "rip-wolves," German for shredders

Those Germans have a word for everything!
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:26 PM on January 30, 2008


A week later, 120,000 people marched; a week after that, the number was 300,000 — in a city with a population of only 530,000.

The remaining 230,000 watched the demonstration with binoculars, through gaps in their apartment curtains.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:33 PM on January 30, 2008


It would be very interesting to write your autobiography based on what the secret police wrote about you: day by day, your version and theirs in parallel, maybe on opposing pages, maybe with photos and recordings you never imagined were being made.

By golly, pracowity, you've just saved my (previously slightly lame) half-written novel! no, really! (It takes place immediately post-Wall-fall in East Berlin...)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:33 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


They're a profoundly longewerdupmachen people, Ubu.
posted by cortex at 2:34 PM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


heh - This being Germany, there's even a special word for it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or "coming to terms with the past."
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:38 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


He was a student in East Berlin the late seventies, and after the wall came down got hold of his voluminous Stasi file. In the book he tracks down the informants referenced in the files, many of whom he considered friends at the time.

I'd say he should reassess any negative judgment; they were very probably even better friends than he thought. In a completely paranoid society which collects information on everyone, little seems more likely to alarm the powers that be than an unexpectedly empty dossier, or to provoke them to more drastic action-- to justify their existence and keep themselves amused, if nothing else.

Sort of like that old story about Caligula. After he got tired of having his guards murder on the spot people he pointed out to them during his walks around Rome, he told them to murder everyone he didn't point out to them.
posted by jamjam at 4:00 PM on January 30, 2008


Artw writes "If you've seen The Lives of Others (and really, you need to see The Lives of Others) then you see it several times."

Execellent recommendation ! Must see for people who don't get how miserable the life of an average spy can be.
posted by elpapacito at 4:54 PM on January 30, 2008


interesting that we are able to be amazed at the masses of information collected by a repressive and totalitarian government yet fail to draw comparisons to our own.

FISA
posted by altman at 9:57 PM on January 30, 2008


altman writes: interesting that we are able to be amazed at the masses of information collected by a repressive and totalitarian government yet fail to draw comparisons to our own.

I was totally thinking of the Bush regime when I read the article, altman. That's one of the reasons why I found it so fascinating.
posted by amyms at 10:22 PM on January 30, 2008


Pff. Mere dabblers by comparison.
posted by Artw at 10:30 PM on January 30, 2008




This FPP is a great follow up/ elaboration to the cited previous FPP. Thanks.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:44 AM on January 31, 2008


Sorry Timothy Ashton Smith, but your "endemic surveillance society" is laughable by comparison. No ones going to tip M15 off that you're writing Guardian artics and then send some goons around to arrest you in the middle of the nigft.
posted by Artw at 7:51 AM on January 31, 2008


Speaking of FISA: Surveillance Bill Discussions Hinging on Retroactive Immunity
posted by homunculus at 12:03 PM on January 31, 2008


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