It's been years in the making, but finally software designed to electronically piece together some 45 million shredded documents from the East German secret police went into service in Berlin on Wednesday. Now, a puzzle that would take 30 diligent Germans 600 to 800 years to finish by hand, according to one estimate, might be solved by computer in seven.
"It's very exciting to decode Stasi papers," said Jan Schneider, head engineer on the project at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology located in the German capital. "You have the feeling you are making history."
Or at least putting it back together again. In 1989, with the looming collapse of the Communist regime becoming increasingly evident, agents of the East German Staatssicherheitsdienst or Stasi feverishly plowed millions of active files through paper shredders, or just tore them up by hand.
Rights activists interrupted the project and rescued a total of 16,250 garbage bags full of scraps. But rescuing the history on those sheets of paper amounted to an absurdly difficult jigsaw puzzle. By 2000, no more than 323 sacks were legible again -- reconstructed by a team of 15 people working in Nuremburg -- leaving 15,927 to go. So the German government promised money to any group that could plausibly deal with the remaining tons of paper.
The Fraunhofer Institute won the contract in 2003, and began a pilot phase of the project on Wednesday. Four hundred sacks of scraps will be scanned, front and back, and newly-refined software will try to arrange the digitized fragments according to shape, texture, ink color, handwriting style and recognizable official stamps.
Günter Bormann, from the agency that oversees old Stasi documents (the Federal Commission for the Records of the national Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic), says most of the paper probably dates from the years 1988 and 1989. "This is what Stasi officers had on their desks at the end," he says. "It's not material from dusty archives."
Still-unknown Stasi informants -- ordinary East Germans who spied on other East Germans -- stand to be uncovered. International espionage files are reportedly not among the thousands of sacks; most of those having been more conclusively destroyed.
The Fraunhofer Institute's computers will start with documents torn by hand, because large irregular fragments lend themselves to shape recognition more readily than uniform strips from shredding machines. The institute received a promise of €6.3 million ($8.53 million) in April from the German parliament for this phase, which is expected to take about two years.
If it's deemed successful, the rest of the job would take four to five years, according to project chief Bertram Nickolay. The final cost will be up to €30 million.