THE STASI FILES; EXCLUSIVE When the Berlin Wall Fell, the East German Secret Police Panicked and Shredded Their Secret Papers. Now, a New Machine Is Beginning to Reassemble
Byline: By DAVID EDWARDS
FOR almost 20 years they've lain in dusty sacks, an impenetrable reminder of a time that still sends a shudder down the spine of millions of Germans.
The files of the sinister Stasi secret police had remained an unwanted legacy of the communist reign in East Germany.
But an astonishing new machine is steadily piecing together the shredded fragments of paper - and revealing their terrible secrets.
Once completed, the documents will finally tell us the names of all the husbands who spied on their wives, the bosses who informed on their staff and the people who condemned their best friends to jail.
Over four decades, the Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security) assembled a vast archive, holding information on an estimated six million citizens thought to have Western sympathies.
Along the way, the mix of rumour, innuendo and fabrication wrecked marriages, destroyed lives and killed the innocent.
So when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, desperate Stasi officers - led by convicted killer Erich Mielke - set about destroying the files, first with shredders then, when they seized up, with their hands. Within weeks, they had filled 16,000 sacks with 600 million fragments.
"The officers used their last strength trying to destroy these documents," says Gunter Bormann, of the federal commission for state security files.
When investigators uncovered the haul at the Berlin HQ, they soon realised that the leaders of a unified Germany preferred to look forward rather than back.
Only a token 15 people were assigned to reassembling the sheets - and it was estimated it would take 400 years to piece them all together.
When the first intact documents were made public in the early 90s, the authorities printed 100,000 application forms for people interested in seeing their files.
THESE were snapped up on the first day and now more than 3.4 million people have requested to see information held on them.
Along with fears that naming ex-Stasi officers could spark reprisals, the demands from public figures - including former chancellor Helmut Kohl and Olympic ice skater Katerina Witt - to keep their records a secret have also heightened the intrigue.
Meanwhile, The Lives Of Others, a recent Oscar-winning movie about a Stasi agent's surveillance of a young couple, reignited interest in the organisation.
Under increasing pressure, earlier this month the government announced it would earmark pounds 4million for a high-tech project to piece together the world's biggest jigsaw.
It meant scientists could use the E-Puzzler - a machine that should complete the mammoth task as soon as 2013.
Using technology developed in Berlin, the E-Puzzler is a pattern-recognition machine that works by being fed scraps of paper on a conveyor belt that leads to digital scanners.
These read images on both sides of the paper, memorising the paper's colour, typeface, any stamp marks and the scrap's outline. As soon as it discovers edges that match, it links the images. "It's very exciting to decode Stasi papers," says Jan Schneider, the 36-year-old who's leading the reconstruction. "You have the feeling you are making history."
His task will be made easier by the way the papers were ripped up. When a table was filled with torn pieces, they were shoved into one bag, before the next lot was destroyed.
As a result, each of the 16,000 sacks contain almost a complete set of papers. Betram Nickolay, who has spent 10 years helping to develop the E-Puzzler, says: "It's no longer safe to shred a document - the days of shredding machines are over. The only safe way to destroy something is to burn it. …