Stasi Files: The World’s Biggest Jigsaw Puzzle
More than 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, you might think the Stasi had been consigned to history. But a new generation wants to know what the East German secret police did to their parents, and computing wizardry is about to make it easier to find out.The German Democratic Republic (GDR) and its agencies did not disappear immediately once the Berlin Wall fell.
For some weeks afterwards many Stasi staff remained in their offices, trying to destroy evidence that could land them in jail or expose their spies in foreign countries.
But they ran into technical difficulties.
"The Stasi was an organisation that loved to keep paper," says Joachim Haussler, who works for the Stasi archives authority today.
It therefore owned few shredders - and those it did have were of poor East German quality and rapidly broke down. So thousands of documents were hastily torn by hand and stuffed into sacks. The plan was to burn or chemically destroy the contents later.
Some papers were lost when protesters stormed Stasi HQ in 1990
But events overtook the plan, the Stasi was dissolved as angry demonstrators massed outside and invaded its offices, and the new federal authority for Stasi archives inherited all the torn paper.
It amounts, says Haussler, to “the biggest puzzle in the world”, estimated at between four and six hundred million pieces of paper - some no larger than a fingernail.
The authority has had a small team in Bavaria reconstructing torn documents by hand. But humans struggle to cope with the smaller fragments. At present rates, it would take centuries to reconstruct the documents.
So now the authorities are turning to technology. Computers, says Haussler, are “quicker, cheaper and can match and remember things humans can’t”. The particular computer taking on the task is the “ePuzzler” made by the same people who invented the mp3 player - the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin.
Bits of torn paper of all shapes and sizes are taken out of the sacks, ironed flat, then scanned.
Each piece, however small, is given a computer file into which is entered any information about, say, paper colour, handwriting or print on it, any significant acronyms that might link it to a particular Stasi office.
Then a complex mathematical programme is brought into action matching that information and the paper’s shape with other fragments from among the millions.
A technician showed me a test run, as pieces moved around a screen before finally forming a reconstructed Stasi document.
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