BERLIN – In a musty room inside a maze of offices in east Berlin, two women are working patiently on what may be the biggest puzzle the world has ever seen: more than half a billion pieces that together detail innumerable crimes by East Germany's secret police.
The Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi, used a network of agents and informers to collect details of almost every citizen in East Germany, to better quash dissent. When the communist regime collapsed, Stasi officials tried desperately to destroy the evidence of their totalitarian surveillance apparatus.
Even now, as Germany marks 25 years since reunification this weekend, historians are still putting together the pieces.
There were so many files, East German shredders couldn't cope, said Juliane Schuetterle, who works at the Stasi records office, a special government institution set up to handle the files. "They had created such a large archive, that they couldn't destroy them using conventional methods. So they began destroying them by hand," she told The Associated Press in an interview.
Stasi officers managed to tear up some 48 million pages filling over 16,000 brown sacks — each containing up to 40,000 shreds of paper. Together with about 112 kilometers (70 miles) of files that the Stasi was unable to destroy, they constitute a vast, but probably incomplete, catalog of mundane observations and cruel repression spanning 40 years.
But piecing all the bits together would, by some estimates, have taken 800 years.
In an effort to speed up the process historians and scientists from the nearby Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology devised a method that allows computers to scan pre-sorted shreds and automatically find bits that match.
"We're at the start of a pilot program for the virtual reconstruction," said Schuetterle, who oversees the project. "The software puzzles in the background, and where it gets stuck it receives support from our archivists."
Nobody knows what will emerge as the files are put together again — and who may be exposed as a Stasi informer.
That fact caused some concern after German reunification in 1990. However, a decision was made not only to keep the records but to make them accessible to those who wanted to see them, as a way for people to come to terms with a past in which their neighbors, friends and even family members may have spied on them.
"It was important for the victims of the Stasi to have the opportunity to find out who had denounced them," said Heinrich August Winkler, a prominent German historian.
The decision to process the files and even put together those that were destroyed contrasts with the way Germans after World War II engaged in collective silence about their role in the Nazi state, said Winkler.
"For a while that was psychologically understandable, but it was also a big burden," he said. "This process of reassessing the past was much more successful, I think, in the reunified Germany after 1990 than in West Germany after 1945."
So much so, said Winkler, that other countries have copied Germany's model, particularly in the former communist Eastern bloc.
Even today, interest in the files is unbroken in Germany, Schuetterle said.
"We get about 5,000 requests a month from citizens who want to have their personal file or that of family members," she added. Many people who initially hesitated to request their files for fear of what they might find out are now doing so. Others are making repeat requests as new material comes to light.
One of those who chose to request his files is Manfred Teichmann. A retired engineer from Zossen, a town just south of Berlin, Teichmann managed to emigrate from East Germany in 1988, after petitioning to do so for years.
"The main reasons for wanting to leave were the fact that East Germany was a people's prison, and that the economy in West Germany was better," he said. "I wanted to offer my family a better life."
Such views inevitably put him on the radar of the Stasi. Once, Teichmann said, he found a man lurking outside his house, and neighbors claimed to have seen people enter their home while the family was out.
Teichmann's suspicions were confirmed in the late 1990s. "Our Stasi files prove that our apartment was searched by members of the Stasi," he said. "They show Stasi agents made copies of our keys."
The experience brought not only certainty, it also helped release some of the tension built up by decades of repression.
"We laughed at some of the passages in there," Teichmann said.