Digital jigsaw of Stasi files

A research team in Germany has developed a computer-software system to piece together some 45 million pages of secret police files ripped into 600 million pieces. The files were torn up nearly 18 years ago by panicking agents of communist East Germany’s dreaded State Security Service (Stasi), writes Ned Stafford in Nature‘s online news service.

The pieces of torn documents are scanned on both sides, and the digital images are then analysed by a cluster of 16 computers for 25 features, including colour, shape, texture, handwriting and typeface. Just like a person doing a jigsaw, the computer then groups the images into clusters with similar features, and finally fits pieces in each cluster together.

The torn documents date from the autumn of 1989, when the communist government of East Germany collapsed and jubilant West Germans and East Germans broke down the hated Berlin Wall. But not all East Germans were dancing in the streets. Stasi agents in ensuing weeks were holed up in offices around East Germany desperately trying to destroy evidence before West German authorities gained access to the files.

The Stasi lacked enough paper-shredding machines to do the job right, and began tearing documents by hand and stuffing them into bags. The plan had been to transport bags bulging with documents by trucks to locations where they could be burned, but by January 1990 East German citizens had taken control of Stasi offices and the plan could not be carried out. West German authorities eventually seized still-intact Stasi documents and more than 16,000 bags of ripped documents.

7 thoughts on “Digital jigsaw of Stasi files

  1. Well, I hope that piece of software doesn’t get into the wrong hands – although mechanical shredding may be more difficult to match, I guess.

  2. I just saw “The Lives of Others,” so this fascinates me. Thanks for the link, Maxine.

  3. I find it odd – why do people care what the documents contain? To my way of thinking, what is done is done; it’s time to move on. Surely they wouldn’t attempt to charge employees of a defunct government for actions ordered and sanctioned by that government?

  4. I think the movie (The Lives of Others) gives you the answer, Susan, if you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend it. (As Susan Balee says, she and I have both, in our separate continents, seen it recently, and is why I posted about this jigsaw story).
    People just did not know who had “shopped” them: neighbours, family members, etc. The people who were the informers were not government employees, they were ordinary people who spied on their fellow-citizens in secret, often in return for official reward, one of the reasons that the regime was so chilling, in that it destroyed the entire society in a poisonous atmosphere of suspicion, corruption and terror.

  5. Also, for a grittier and slightly less happy-ending story about the Stasi and how it worked, read “Stasiland” by Anna Funder.

  6. “The File” by Timothy Garton Ash is another excellent book on this issue; he views his Stasi files, and interviews those who informed on him.

  7. Thanks, James and Laura. I wonder if that book by Garton-Ash is a novel? His name does not sound very German.

Comments are closed.