And I thought researching my master’s thesis was bad. I just read a Wired article (thanks to Instapundit) about how East Germany has developed computer technology to piece together the files that the Stasi destroyed before the wall came down in 1989.

It seems that the Stasi documented every instant of every citizen’s life, big or small. Even while three-quarters of the population was protesting, they still held out hopes that they could continue business as usual after things had calmed down. Even so, they decided to destroy key documents just in case, and spent the next two months shredding and eventually ripping them by hand. (I love German – the shredders were called Papierwolfs and Reisswolfs — “paper-wolves” and “rip-wolves.” So literal!) Huge mountains of shredded paper were produced as a result.

Some years later, people decided to see what was so important that the Stasi had to destroy it rather than have it be found. A group started doing it by hand — talk about a needle in a haystack. Eventually, a German computer scientist heard about the project and decided to lend his expertise. Now they can do it digitally, but even so it could take up to five years to match the millions of tiny pieces together.

My question is… and then what? Surely the Stasi compulsively documented so much crap in everyone’s daily life that even the “important” stuff must be mostly trivia. Why not just destroy it and put the past safely in the past?

Apparently there was a huge debate following the end of the Cold War about whether they should do just that. In the end, it seems there is a hunger in East Germany to know what the Stasi had in their files:

“When we started in 1992, I thought we’d need five years and then close the office,” Bormann says. Instead, the Records Office was flooded with half a million requests in the first year alone. Even in cases where files hadn’t been destroyed, waiting times stretched to three years. In the past 15 years, 1.7 million people have asked to see what the Stasi knew about them.

I guess it brings a sense of catharsis, a way of making sense out of a time of tragedy that made no sense at all. Having spent years feeling like someone was watching you, it must feel good in the end to know that they were indeed watching your every moment — and here’s what they saw, page after detailed page of it.

Perhaps the shreds of those documents hold some kind of vindication for a life spent in fear, something concrete after years spent in doubt and uncertainty. If that is the case, then this is one of the best uses of technology I could possibly think of.

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