New tool unravels Stasi secret files

Germany's "puzzle people" will soon be able to count on a new tool in their Herculean task of re-piecing together thousands of ripped-up former Stasi secret police files.

New tool unravels Stasi secret files
Photo: DPA

A computer system which can digitally recreate documents by scanning bits of paper that were shredded or torn by hand as the former East Germany collapsed, is nearing the end of its test phase.

While the eyes of the world were fixed on euphoric Berliners attacking with pickaxes the hated Wall that had spliced the city and country in two for 28 years, destruction of another kind was underway far from public gaze.

Stasi employees began destroying their secret files as the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, initially shredding them, but as the machines broke down under the strain, they were forced to tear documents by hand.

The waste was to be pulped or burnt but “citizen committees” stormed Stasi offices across East Germany, seizing millions of files, along with 15,500 bags of torn-up documents.

Each bag was stuffed with between 50,000 to 80,000 bits of paper – with potential insight into decades of inquiries and interrogations by the former communist regime’s feared secret police.

And in 1995, the work to re-build these archives began – by hand. Germans are generally keen to come to terms with their past. Since the Stasi’s archives first opened to the public 20 years ago, the federal office in charge of Stasi archives has received 2.83 million requests for information.

“In 2000, the Bundestag lower house of parliament asked us to look for ways to speed up this reconstruction (work),” Joachim Häussler, one of those in charge of the programme at the federal office, told AFP.

Bertram Nikolay, an engineer at the Fraunhofer Institute research organisation, said they decided to take up the challenge and he came up with the idea for a computer-aided virtual reconstruction.

An experimental machine was initially introduced before a pilot project was launched in early 2007, Häussler said, from his set-up in the former headquarters of the Stasi, now an archive centre and museum in a grey district of east Berlin.

Seated next to him around large tables were six co-workers silently at work emptying the bags under a glaring neon light.

They first sort through the pieces themselves and put them into different boxes before the computer takes over, scanning the pieces, using criteria such as the colour and style of the paper, the character type or writing style to rebuild the destroyed pages.

“So far we have digitalised the contents of 70 bags,” Nikolay said, adding that when the test phase is finished in several months’ time, the contents of 400 bags are due to be pieced back together.

A total of €8 million of public funds has been poured into testing the computer system and more will be needed to move onto the next stage, although exactly how much more is not yet known.

Nikolay predicted the digital reconstruction of Stasi documents would begin in earnest next year at the earliest, or more likely in 2014, saying he sees a real political will to see through the process.

Public demand for information concerning the archives certainly does not seem to be waning with the passing of time – in 2011 alone, 80,611 new requests were lodged.


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One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

A 21-year-old gunman opened fire at a secondary school in northern Germany on Thursday, badly injuring a female member of staff before being arrested, police said.

One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

The incident happened at the Lloyd Gymnasium school in the centre of Bremerhaven, a city on Germany’s North Sea coast, on Thursday morning. 

“The armed person has been arrested and is in police custody,” police said in a statement. The injured woman was not a pupil, police said.

They said the suspect had entered the school building and fired at a female member of staff, who was “seriously injured”.

The alarm was quickly raised and police said they detained the suspect at a nearby location soon after and had seized his weapon at the scene.

The injured woman is being treated in hospital.

A video circulating on social media and German news sites appeared to capture the moment the gunman was arrested.

A man dressed in black is seen lying face down on a street corner, with a weapon next to him, before being handcuffed by officers.

But there was no immediate confirmation of reports the alleged weapon was a crossbow.

Bremerhaven police tweeted in the morning that a large deployment was under way in the city centre and asked residents to avoid the Mayor-Martin-Donandt square and surrounding streets, in the vicinity of the Lloyd secondary school.

Local news site Nord24 said a school pupil had heard shots being fired and called the police. Pupils barricaded themselves in their classrooms.

Police launched a large-scale operation and cordoned off the area around the school while they carried out inquiries. 

By mid-afternoon, police said special forces had completed their search and the last people had left the building.

Authorities set up a phone hotline for concerned parents. Many parents had gathered in front of the school after being alerted by their children.

Pupils and staff are receiving psychological counselling.

Local media said only around 200 people were on the school grounds, fewer than normal because of exam times.

In a separate incident on Thursday, police in the eastern city of Leipzig said they had detained a 21-year-old student still at secondary school after being tipped off by Snapchat that he had posted pictures of himself with a gun and made unspecified threats.

The US social media platform alerted German authorities, prompting Leipzig police to take action.

 A police spokesman said that the 21-year-old did not pose a real threat, however, and only possessed an airsoft gun, a replica firearm that uses non-lethal, usually plastic, pellets.

‘Strict gun laws’

School shootings are relatively rare in Germany, a country with some of the strictest gun laws in Europe. But a recent spate has rattled the population.

Last week, investigators in Germany’s city of Essen said they foiled a school bomb assault, as they arrested a 16-year-old who is suspected to have been planning a “Nazi terror attack”.

Police in Essen stormed the teen’s room overnight, taking him into custody and uncovering 16 “pipe bombs”, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim material.

In January, an 18-year-old student opened fire in a lecture hall at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany, killing a young woman and
injuring three others before fleeing the scene and turning the weapon on himself.

In 2009, a former pupil killed nine students, three teachers and three passers-by in a school shooting at Winnenden, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. The gunman then killed himself.

In 2002, a 19-year-old former student, apparently in revenge for having been expelled, shot dead 16 people including 12 teachers and two students at a school in the central German city of Erfurt. He too then killed himself.

The Winnenden and Erfurt massacres were carried out with legal weapons and spurred Germany to tighten gun laws.

The country currently requires anyone under 25 to pass a psychiatric exam before applying for a gun licence.