When the Germans found out from Edward Snowden that America's National Security Agency had spied on Germany, an outraged German artist projected onto a wall at the American embassy the words "United Stasi of America." Chancellor Angela Merkel was not so outraged. She said that American and German intelligence services had been working together in the service of the security of both countries.
The comparison to the Stasi was absurd, particularly to Frau Merkel, who grew up in the East and who knew well the efficiency and extent of Stasi surveillance. When I was in Berlin earlier this month, the old Stasi prison opened a permanent exhibit revealing just how the victims of the Stasi suffered. The Berlin-Hohenschonhausen Memorial exhibition shows the horrible conditions where innocents and dissidents were incarcerated.
The Stasi infiltrated every corner of ordinary life. It was both a secret service and a secret police, a powerful combine for invading the private lives of everyone through its ugly network of neighbors, friends and even families who spied on each other. The Stasi employed more than 91,000 full-time employees with 189,000 "unofficial employees," informal informers from all parts of society who supplied information about everyone they knew.
"Workers wrote reports about their colleagues, teenagers about their fellow classmates, soldiers about their comrades," says Miriamne Fields, the English translator for the exhibition (and, coincidentally, my daughter). "Friends betrayed friends, and sometimes family spied on each other."
When the Berlin Wall began to crumble, assisted by those escaping from behind the Iron Curtain, the Stasi went to work to destroy the evidence of their evil. But like a computer hard drive that is all but impossible to erase, all that Stasi paper couldn't be shredded. The task made more difficult by the shoddily constructed German shredding machinery. Like figures in a comedy whose disguises fall away when hotly pursued, Stasi employees were reduced to tearing up the paper records with bare hands and stuffing millions of bits and pieces into 16,000 plastic garbage bags, ironic vessels of their nasty work.
Their pre-tech primitive filing system of scraps and snippets was left behind in Stasi offices when the spies fled the freedom posse. The shreds, however, were rescued and modern digital scanners are archiving the tattered remnants. Technicians at the Berlin Fraunhofer Institute have built an "e-Puzzler" that can piece together the paper fragments into coherent documents. This is "cutting edge" technology, literally and figuratively, and will enable surviving victims of the Stasi to find out who informed on them.