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Hand-torn documents in the Stasi Records Archive.

The Reconstruction of Torn Documents

In the 1990s, the Stasi Records Archive began reassembling documents that had been torn up by hand by the staff of the Ministry for State Security (MfS). This material had been stuffed into a total of 16,000 bags.1.7 million pages from 600 bags have been manually reconstructed, indexed and archived. Additionally, as part of a pilot project, a computer-assisted reconstruction program reassembled approximately 91,000 pages from 23 bags.

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Current Situation

What is happening with virtual reconstruction?

With the dissolution of the Stasi Records Agency in June 2021, responsibility for the MfS records was transferred to the Federal Archives. At that time, the legislature for the first time established document reconstruction as a legal task of the Federal Archives (§2, Paragraph 2, No. 10 Stasi Records Act). While the manual reconstruction continues, the Federal Archives put under scrutiny the previous research findings of the virtual, computer-assisted reconstruction process conducted under the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Files (BStU). The project had by then been dormant for some time: scanning was discontinued in 2014 and reassembling stopped in 2016.

Were efforts made to continue virtual reconstruction?

Representatives of the commissioned Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK) met with members of the German Bundestag to explore potential technical and contractual solutions. In conclusion, the Federal Archives determined that the project that began in 2007 could not be continued in the same manner. The Procurement Office was instructed to terminate the old contract.

What is the next step?

A catalogue of requirements will be drawn up, incorporating the technical, qualitative and quantitative requirements that are currently necessary for the project to achieve its purpose efficiently and sensibly. Based on the developed criteria, the Federal Archives will carry out a market survey, with which the search for suitable providers can begin. The survey will aim to determine whether and which vendors exist for a project of this type. As is customary, interested parties will submit an outline showing their plan for implementation along with a rough calculation of expenses.

Will manual reconstruction continue during this process?

Manual reconstruction will continue as before. In this way, the Federal Archives ensures that its legal mandate is fulfilled. A separate department is handling the close inspection of bags filled with torn-up documents as well as the reconstruction of documents whose individual parts are large enough to be assembled by hand so that they can be transferred to the archive as complete documents.

Technical Details on Computer-Assisted Reconstruction

What part of the computer-assisted process did not work?

The pilot project did not result in a suitable technical process that would have enabled the approximately 15,500 existing bags of “snippets” to be assembled in an assessable amount of time and at economically feasible costs. In the fall of 2013, Fraunhofer IPK was able to demonstrate that the software developed by its scientists, the so-called e-Puzzler, works in principle. However, the process proved unsuited for mass production. Overall, the project never achieved the envisaged automated reconstruction rate of at least 80 per cent.

Can findings from other reconstruction projects be applied to the torn Stasi documents?

Not easily. The Deutsche Bundesbank, for example, has pieced together damaged banknotes, in which the original paper shares an identical pattern and has a clear orientation to a uniform template. This is not the case with Stasi documents which exist in many different paper forms. Moreover, the amount of material involved in many of the other projects, such as the reconstruction of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s estate, is considerably smaller. In February 2022, representatives of the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM) and the Federal Archives visited the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne to learn about its system of reconstruction. The staff of the Cologne archive shared its experiences working with current scanning technology and provided information about the reconstruction process. Here too, however, there was little basis for comparison since the Stasi documents involve a mass operation conducted in a stable institution.

Why is it taking so long to develop this process?

The virtual reconstruction process has no model to go on and is unique in the world. It involves developing a technology from scratch. The process was interrupted and subsequently realigned several times as a result of new findings. This, in turn, caused delays in scheduling and financial planning. In 2015 the Federal Audit Court (Bundesrechnungshof) began scrutinizing the continuation of the project and finished its examination in 2017, handing over valuable new impulses to the Stasi Records Archive for the continuation. A project outline to adapt the process that was submitted by Fraunhofer IPK in 2018 was thoroughly reviewed and examined. Afterwards, meetings were held to discuss terminating the old contract and issuing a new one.

How much has the pilot project cost so far?

Since the project began in 2007, based on contractual obligations, around 6.5 million euros have been paid to Fraunhofer IPK or the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft from budget funds made available by the German Bundestag.


Why are there torn up Stasi documents?

During the Peaceful Revolution in 1989/90 numerous documents of the Ministry for State Security (MfS) were destroyed by its own staff. They were executing destruction orders designed to erase any traces of unlawful actions and information about people’s identities. But they also got rid of everyday records of the Ministry. Documents were shredded, pulped or burnt. Many documents were first torn up by hand and stuffed into bags awaiting final destruction. The occupation of the Stasi offices by citizens, which began in December 1989, gradually put a stop to this destruction.

How much material was destroyed?

Following the issuing of the order for the destruction of material and its execution by the Stasi itself in the autumn of 1989, there were further incidents of destruction of Stasi documents in the first half of 1990. These were approved by political bodies in the GDR (Round Table and interim government) albeit not without resistance and pressure. They include, for instance, the destruction of records of the HV A (Main Directorate Intelligence of the MfS) or of the sub-division military espionage of the NVA (National People’s Army) whose early documents had been stored in the Stasi archives. In contrast, the destruction of the card indexes of the HA VI (Main Directorate for Passport Control) with details of entry into and departure from the GDR was in keeping with generally accepted data protection regulations. The exact volume of material destroyed by the Stasi in 1989/90 could not be accurately calculated up to now. A Stasi Records Office research product is currently examining all existing sources in order to make a more accurate assessment.

How large is the volume of material torn up by hand?

The Stasi left behind material, which had been torn up by hand, but which could still be processed in approximately 16,000 bags. Each bag contains between 2,500 and 3,500 fragments of torn-up pages. There are still roughly 400 to 600 million fragments which represent around 40 to 55 million pages.

Could shredded paper be reconstructed?

No. A few thousand other bags contained paper that had been shredded into incredibly small pieces in 1990. This material was destroyed back in 1991 after inspection by the Stasi Records Office. Hence, there is no longer any paper shredded by the Stasi at today's archive .

Process of Reconstruction

Do we know what the bags contain?

Since 2008, all the bags have undergone close inspection which means they were sorted according to formal criteria (registration numbers, file numbers or paginations). Their content relevance (topics or references to individuals) was examined and the degree of damage was recorded. Up to now, 7,700 bags have been closely inspected.

How are bags selected for reconstruction?

For manual reconstruction the degree of destruction is the main criterion. Mainly pages which have been torn into half or into quarters can be manually restored. Then come the criteria which were used to select the bags for the pilot project on virtual reconstruction. The criteria are:

  1. Importance of the service unit. When it comes to reappraising the activities of the MfS in conjunction with victims, the units of the "operative division", i.e. persecution, surveillance and "subversion" of individuals and institutions, are particularly relevant.
  2. The principle of filling in the gaps, i.e. consideration of torn-up material from service units for which few intact records have survived.
  3. Regional history of the MfS. As more than half of all the torn-up documents come from the former district administrations of the MfS, regional topics should be taken into account.

How is manual reconstruction done?

Torn Documents and the fragments pieced together are spread out like a large puzzle. Once they have been matched, they are glued together. The reconstructed pages are then recorded by the archivists at the Stasi Records Archive and indexed in the archives. 

Content of Reconstructed Documents

What is in the documents?

The material stems from all four decades of the GDR. Many of the documents were already helpful when it came to establishing what happened to people and for the rehabilitation of citizens. In manual reconstruction, for instance, documents could be restored about the spying on and persecution of prominent GDR opposition leaders like Jürgen Fuchs or Robert Havemann and the dissident writer Stefan Heym. The cooperation of various unofficial collaborators (IMs) with the MfS was confirmed in reconstructed files. The documents also provided insight into doping practice in sport in the GDR or border security in 1961. Some of the more prominent findings had to do with the RAF terrorist Silke Maier-Witt who went into hiding.

Up to now a large volume of contents from the late 1980s has been compiled in the virtually reconstructed pages. They include documents on the MfS plan of defence, on the investigations into a Nazi war criminal or on spying activities on the peace movements in the East and the West. They likewise include extensive files on the IM informer "Schäfer" who was active amongst dissidents in the 1980s.