I found myself thinking back on the last few weeks, especially on the San Bernardino Islamic Terror Attack. This was spurred by happening upon the unbelievable libeling of one of the victims–Nicholas Thalasinos—by one fortuitously-named New York Daily News columnist, Linda Stasi. Her surname, of course calls to mind the old East Germany and, from there, I remembered one of the many other times in which a mainstream media sort received push-back from the serfs.
A few years back [sic], veteran editor Tina Brown opined that “bloggers were the new Stasi.” In response, I opined that if our journalistic betters were going to hurl epithets at us that it wasn’t too much to ask that they know what those epithets mean so that they could be sure that the epithet was appropriate before hurling it. “Stasi” is German shorthand for Staatssicherheit— literally ‘state security,’ the late East Germany’s infamous and feared secret police force. Think of all the images and concepts conjured by the phrase “secret police force in a communist country.”
The Stasi not only embodied those images and concepts, it defined them. As far as I know, bloggers have not banded together to kick down doors and drag ideological enemies away for interrogation and/or confinement. Banding together to fact-check and trade information on the public writings of our betters as we imbibe adult beverages isanother story, however. But now, I can see where Brown’s comparison made some semblance of sense; the Stasi watched the every move of every citizen and visitor in German Democratic Republic and bloggers watch every move of professional journalists.
One might also argue that with all of the personal cameras and microphones lurking around every corner to capture images of everything happening that some bloggers are fast approaching the Stasi’s level of nosiness. But Brown’s metaphor was still a very imperfect one. I thought that journalists wanted their offerings read and dissected.
Anyway, that’s a setup to point you to the fascinating story of the STASI’s legacy, dark as it is, and the attempts to preserve that very tangible legacy as a reminder. Embodying stereotype of German efficiency, the Stasi kept meticulous records of everyone they surveilled. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, they succeed in destroying roughly 5% of it.
That might not sound like much, but the agency had generated perhaps more paper than any other bureaucracy in history — possibly a billion pages of surveillance records, informant accounting, reports on espionage, analyses of foreign press, personnel records, and useless minutiae. There’s a record for every time anyone drove across the border.
Which means I have one. [While in the USAF, I was stationed in West Berlin 1985-1989 and 1990-1991.]
In the chaos of the days leading up to the actual destruction of the wall and the fall of East Germany’s communist government, frantic STASI agents sent trucks full of documents to the Papierwolfs and Reisswolfs — literally “paper-wolves” and “rip-wolves,” German for shredders. As pressure mounted, agents turned to office shredders, and when the motors burned out, they started tearing pages by hand — 45 million of them, ripped into approximately 600 million scraps of paper.
There’s no way to know what bombshells those files hide. For a country still trying to come to terms with its role in World War II and its life under a totalitarian regime, that half-destroyed paperwork is a tantalizing secret.
The machine-shredded stuff is confetti, largely unrecoverable. But in May 2007, a team of German computer scientists in Berlin announced that after four years of work, they had completed a system to digitally tape together the torn fragments. Engineers hope their software and scanners can do the job in less than five years — even taking into account the varying textures and durability of paper, the different sizes and shapes of the fragments, the assortment of printing (from handwriting to dot matrix) and the range of edges (from razor sharp to ragged and handmade.) “The numbers are tremendous. If you imagine putting together a jigsaw puzzle at home, you have maybe 1,000 pieces and a picture of what it should look like at the end,” project manager Jan Schneider says. “We have many millions of pieces and no idea what they should look like when we’re done.”
The wholesale destruction of the files was prevented by the East German citizens themselves.
In several small cities, rumors started circulating that records were being destroyed. Smoke, fires, and departing trucks confirmed the fears of angry Germans, who rushed in to their local Stasi offices, stopped the destruction, and spontaneously organized citizen committees that could post guards to secure the archives. Demonstrators spray-painted the walls with slogans like “The files belong to us” and “Stasi get out.” Finally, on the evening of January 15, 1990, thousands of demonstrators pushed in the front gate of the Stasi’s fortified Berlin compound.
It’s long, but very interesting–especially in light of the fact that some of our betters seem to be forgetting the inefficiencies and abuses inherent in socialist/communist governments–or hoping that the average citizens forgets. Read the whole thing.
That Germany is dead, but the post Reunification Germany is dying. And in spite of all of Germany’s crimes and stupidities, this makes me sad.
Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. (Her older blog is located here.) Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2012. Her second novel, tentatively titled, Arlen’s Harem, will be done in 2016. Follow her on Twitter.
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