Archives & Manuscripts

Reconstructing the physical past

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Thirty years ago, as Germans were tearing down the Berlin Wall, East Germany’s secret police (Stasi) were tearing up as many documents related to surveillance as possible. Electronic shredders couldn’t keep up, so officers took to tearing the files up by hand. Citizens stormed the Stasi headquarters before everything could be destroyed, and now bags upon bags of shredded and torn documents line the shelves of that headquarters where archivists continue the laborious project of piecing the documents back together.

In the last 20 years, they’ve managed to reconstruct 1.5 million documents from 500 bags. An impressive feat–but there are still 15,500 bags of document fragments left to reconstruct.

Sacks of torn documents of the former East German secret police lie in storage in Magdeburg, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Sacks of torn documents of the former East German secret police lie in storage in Magdeburg, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Despite advances in technology, human eyes are still quicker than a computer’s in putting together these puzzles. These archivists are quite literally rebuilding the Stasi archives, shred by shred. As the memory of the Stasi recedes further into history, though, their work has come under some threat from the German government, which has expressed an intent to take control of these materials. Some see this as a threat to access and use–might the German government try to hide some of its unsavory history if it does manage to repossess the bags? I think the work these archivists do to rebuild and maintain the dark side of a country’s past is so important for government accountability and transparency.

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