Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Stasi Archives

In an old post I mentioned the archives of the Stasi, the former East German security service.

The archivist in me keeps coming across the odd article about them and I've managed to hunt out a few papers and books on the whole thing.

I also recently watched the brilliant movie "Das Leben der Anderen" (The Lives of Others) which gives an insight into how those archive were produced.

While I was waiting for a few of those books to arrive, I came across an article in a 2008 issue of Wired; Piecing Together the Dark Legacy of East Germany's Secret Police, which gives a good quick overview of the whole thing, along with some interesting information on software and hardware designed to try and piece together the approximately 45 million torn up pages of documents the Stasi tried to destroy in the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall - 5% of the total of Stasi documents. (the frantic Stasi officers resorted to tearing by hand after they had burnt out every paper shredder they could get their hands on).

Stored in paper sacks, they were previously being pieced together by hand, like some immense never ending jigsaw puzzle but where you have no idea what the picture is. In 13 years the Archive staff had managed to piece together 620,500 pages by hand (I can't imagine even trying to do that..). They figured it would take about 700 years to finish them all.

From Wired:

"...As the enforcement arm of the German Democratic
Republic's Communist Party, the Stasi at its height in 1989 employed
91,000 people to watch a country of 16.4 million. A sprawling
bureaucracy almost three times the size of Hitler's Gestapo was spying
on a population a quarter that of Nazi Germany.

Unlike the prison camps of the Gestapo or the summary executions of
the Soviet Union's KGB, the Stasi strove for subtlety. "They offered
incentives, made it clear people should cooperate, recruited informal
helpers to infiltrate the entire society," says Konrad Jarausch, a
historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They
beat people up less often, sure, but they psychologically trampled
people. Which is worse depends on what you prefer."

That finesse helped the Stasi quell dissent, but it also fostered a
pervasive and justified paranoia. And it generated an almost
inconceivable amount of paper, enough to fill more than 100 miles of
shelves. The agency indexed and cross-referenced 5.6 million names in
its central card catalog alone. Hundreds of thousands of "unofficial
employees" snitched on friends, coworkers, and their own spouses,
sometimes because they'd been extorted and sometimes in exchange for
money, promotions, or permission to travel abroad...

(the short slide show is also worth looking at)

BTW, an archive usually indicates the extent of a particular holding or set of documents in terms of linear shelf space - 8" of papers or 6.3m of documents or such. The Stasi archives consists of 112 linear kilometres of files. I'm not sure of the statistics for other organisations, but I can't can think of any other single organisation that has amassed that amount of documentation over the same period of time. The Vatican Archives "only" consists of 85 linear kilometres of documents in it's archives - and that was amassed over a few hundred years. I imagine something like the US defence department might have more - but that would be for the whole of the US Army, Navy and Airforce etc and not one single government department. It's quite mind boggling

(Photos by Daniel Stier/Wired)

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