Recovering the files of the Stasi
November 18, 2003 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Recovering the files of the Stasi
A group of German scientists has developed a computer scanning system that will be used to reconstruct millions of files torn up by the East German secret police after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
posted by Irontom (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There has been a team of people doing this by hand, but the results were (predictably) slow: it was predicted that it would take 400 years to reconstruct it all. Now it looks like they'll be done in just 5 years.
posted by Irontom at 7:31 AM on November 18, 2003

I'm sure the technology is interesting, but what's the value of the underlying activity? Near as I can tell, secret police files should be destroyed. Sure, you might find some secret police to prosecute, but you might also massively damage the lives of relatively innocent people. Why not just let this information stay gone?
posted by jacquilynne at 7:40 AM on November 18, 2003

Why not just let this information stay gone?

Er, because that would be a terrible waste of a valuable resource to historians? I mean, there aren't that many societies that go to such trouble documenting the lives of their citizenry - and when you consider that the definition of 'dissident' was loose enough to include 2.4 million people, these scraps will provide an amzing in-depth record of everyday lives and lifestyles, as well as insight into the procedures of the Stasi, life under totalitarian regimes, etc.

And I don't know about you, but I'd prefer to know if my best friends/siblings/parents had been grassing me up to the authorities for years, even if only to forgive and forget.
posted by jack_mo at 8:12 AM on November 18, 2003

Perhaps if the information is valuable to historians, it should only be made available when it is actually history - as in, when anyone mentioned has been dead for awhile. Many of the files that were not destroyed have been made available to the people they were about, and I know that in my family, it caused more than a small amount of heartbreak and grief. The value of history does not outweigh the value of the people who are forced to live it.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:25 AM on November 18, 2003

jacquilynne, can you share any details? Unfortunately, this whole issue is kind of abstract to me and probably others. It would be interesting to hear from someone personally affected. 100% understood if not.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:38 AM on November 18, 2003

It would also be interesting to find out who in other countries were Stasi spies, or otherwise complicit in their activities. For example, it was Soviet files (and a Soviet defector) which finally confirmed that Alger Hiss was a spy for the Soviet Union in the 1940's.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:45 AM on November 18, 2003

I was not "personally affected" per se, as I'm from the West German side of the family, but it did affect my extended family. My father's aunt, when she received access to her file, found out that her son had, in order to support his alcoholic habit, informed on their family. She died last year, having never spoken to her son again after receiving the file.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:48 AM on November 18, 2003 [1 favorite]

"Montag: 100cc steroiden für das Frauen Schwimmen Gruppe..."
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:05 AM on November 18, 2003

Anna Funder's book Stasiland has an interesting chapter about the people who were/are doing the reconstruction work by hand.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 9:10 AM on November 18, 2003

Learn the lesson from the Stasi, kids, shred and burn. Shred & burn.
posted by Blue Stone at 9:48 AM on November 18, 2003

How very sad Jacquilynne, and I totally agree with you that the files should be sealed until they can't cause any more sorrow than they already have.
posted by zeoslap at 9:53 AM on November 18, 2003

jacquilynne - seems to me that value of the truth outweighs the value of the people that lived it.

If I were part of this, I would want to know exactly who informed on me - regardless of why. I've stopped speaking to family members for far less heinous offenses.
posted by Irontom at 9:53 AM on November 18, 2003

The files aren't delivered to the East Germans automatically, are they? Won't the people involved be the ones to decide individually if they want to open Pandora's Box? And the files can otherwise stay sealed or at least confidential until they achieve the status of a historical document?
posted by orange swan at 11:08 AM on November 18, 2003

See also The File: A Personal History, by Timothy Garton Ash. The author was surveilled by the Stasi during his time in Berlin (late 70s and early 80s). After reunification, he was able to find and review his file, and he interviewed members of the secret police and those who had informed on him. Personal review: I was left strangely disappointed and underwhelmed by the book, but I'm bringing it up anyway since someone else might find it interesting.
posted by Dean King at 12:24 PM on November 18, 2003

Fascinating issue of conflicting moral and legal goals: privacy vs. transparency.

I recommend reading this short presentation (pdf) of the law. Some interesting points:
- the scope: 91,000 Stasi officials, 174,000 unofficial collaborators, 1 spy for every 62 inhabitants.
- the task was to reconcile the aim of bringing the documented results of an oppressive regime out into the open with the principles of privacy protection.
- access: files fully accessible to victims and their relatives; conditional acces for historical research and media publication. Until 2007 public servants and CEOs can have their files submitted to their employers.
- victim may under specific circumstances apply for anonymisation or destruction of their files as from 1 January 2003.
- figures: 123 km of records (thickness!!), 16 km of shredded material, 1.7 mio. victims have
seen their records, 1.5 mio. applications by public employers.
- the Stasi Records Act has had followers in Central and Eastern Europe.

The whole translated act to be found here.
posted by ugly_n_sticky at 12:36 PM on November 18, 2003

Things like that must be made known.

Incidentally, that brings to mind Vladimir Bukovsky's archives of the KGB.
Quite a fascinating read, definitely deserving its own FPP if only it were in English... I wonder if anyone ever translated these. Introduction in English is here

and the archive itself can be found here.

His books, listed in the introduction, are in English and are worth reading, especially given MeFi discussions of Iraq, Left-Right, etc.
posted by bokononito at 1:48 PM on November 18, 2003

If people stopped trying to find the truth because it disturbed or upset some people, then what kind of world would we live in? How many acts would we be doomed to repeat becasue history's lessons were overlooked?
posted by Hackworth at 2:00 PM on November 18, 2003

Iran has published over 77 volumes of documents seized from the US embassy, at least some of which were shredded CIA documents reconstructed by hand.

Discussed in this fascinating article that places the exposure in historical context, e.g. in 1917, the revolutionary Communist government of the USSR exposed various secret treaties of the Western Allies; and more recently, Pakistani (and some US) policy on the Taliban was revealed from papers seized after the fall of Kabul.

"Luckily, the Stasi tore the files directly into sacks so we can almost be sure all the pieces of the documents are in the same sack," he said.

German efficiency.
posted by dhartung at 11:26 PM on November 18, 2003 [1 favorite]

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