Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Labyrinth of Forgetting


Because before it was disbanded, the Stasi shredded or ripped up about 5 percent of its files. 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.

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.


As the enforcement arm of the German Democratic Republic's Communist Party, the Stasi at its height in 1989 employed 91,000 people to watch a country of 16.4 million. A sprawling bureaucracy almost three times the size of Hitler's Gestapo was spying on a population a quarter that of Nazi Germany.

Unlike the prison camps of the Gestapo or the summary executions of the Soviet Union's KGB, the Stasi strove for subtlety. "They offered incentives, made it clear people should cooperate, recruited informal helpers to infiltrate the entire society," says Konrad Jarausch, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They beat people up less often, sure, but they psychologically trampled people. Which is worse depends on what you prefer."

That finesse helped the Stasi quell dissent, but it also fostered a pervasive and justified paranoia. And it generated an almost inconceivable amount of paper, enough to fill more than 100 miles of shelves. The agency indexed and cross-referenced 5.6 million names in its central card catalog alone. Hundreds of thousands of "unofficial employees" snitched on friends, coworkers, and their own spouses, sometimes because they'd been extorted and sometimes in exchange for money, promotions, or permission to travel abroad.


The truth is, for Poppe the reconstructed documents haven't contained bombshells that are any bigger than the information in the rest of her file. She chooses a black binder and sets it down on the glass coffee table in her living room. After lighting a Virginia Slim, she flips to a page-long list of snitches who spied on her. She was able to match codenames like Carlos, Heinz, and Rita to friends, coworkers, and even colleagues in the peace movement. She even tracked down the Stasi officer who managed her case, and after she set up a sort of ambush for him at a bar — he thought he was there for a job interview — they continued to get together. Over the course of half a dozen meetings, they talked about what she found in her files, why the Stasi was watching her, what they thought she was doing. For months, it turned out, an agent was assigned to steal her baby stroller and covertly let the air out of her bicycle tires when she went grocery shopping with her two toddlers. "If I had told anyone at the time that the Stasi was giving me flat tires, they would have laughed at me," she says. "It was a way to discredit people, make them seem crazy. I doubted my own sanity sometimes." Eventually, the officer broke off contact, but continued to telephone Poppe — often drunk, often late at night, sometimes complaining about his failing marriage. He eventually committed suicide.