reassembling shredded stasi files

The Stasi, the feared secret police agency of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), was formally disbanded in February 1990. But before disbanding and until East German citizens could put a stop to it, Stasi personnel destroyed a vast number of sensitive files. They shredded and hand ripped photos, documents, tapes and index cards. When citizens stormed the Stasi headquarters in Berlin, they saved many bags and boxes of shredded Stasi files from complete destruction.

File shredder used by the Stasi - on exhibit in the Haus in der Runden Ecke, Leipzig, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

File shredder used by the Stasi – on exhibit in the Haus in der Runden Ecke, Leipzig, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

The Destruction of Stasi files

Aside from containing personal information, Stasi files often contained critical evidence against individuals who had committed atrocities in the name of the agency. Therefore, Stasi officials wanted to get rid of the documents. When their shredders burned out, they ripped the files by hand. When the public became aware of the destruction on 15 January 1990, protesters overcame the police and stormed into Stasi headquarters. It should be noted, however, that not all protesters were victims. Some were actually former Stasi collaborators who hoped to destroy incriminating evidence.

The fate of salvaged Stasi files

Along with the German Reunification on 3 October 1990, a Stasi record agency was founded. It is called Der Bundesbeauftragte fuer die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik” and officially abbreviated “BStU” (Stasi Records Authority). The fate of the salvaged Stasi files was decided under the Unification Treaty between East and West Germany. In 1992, the  files were opened and people could have a look at their own files. Between 1991 and 2011, around 2.75 million individuals – mostly citizens of the former East Germany – requested to see their files.

What about the shredded Stasi files?

The shredded strips sat there for five years. Then in 1995, the BstU assigned the monumental task of trying to reassemble the shredded documents to a small group of 31-36 workers. In the past fifteen years 1.5 million shredded documents (the equivalent of 500 bags of shredded Stasi files) have been reconstructed. Although an incredible achievement, it remains a mere drop in a bucket because the total number of salvaged bags of shredded Stasi files is close to 16,000.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


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