Some of the 16,000 sacks of Stasi files

BBC Radio 4 ran a compelling show last Friday about The Stasi Jigsaw Puzzle–the shredded documents that form the core of my novel, The Puzzle People. As the Berlin Wall was coming down so dramatically in 1989, East German secret police, the Stasi, began shredding thousands upon thousands of documents in the files they had collected by spying on their own people during the Cold War.

After reunification, the German government discovered 16,000 sacks of shredded documents (up to 600 million pieces of paper)–only a small portion of the Stasi files. At first they decided to meticulously reassemble the shredded documents by hand, but today it’s being done by computer. As a result, the past is coming back to life, piece by piece, secret by secret.

In East Germany behind the Wall, neighbors spied on neighbors, friends spied on friends, and spouses even spied on spouses. But in Germany today, victims of the spying are allowed to see their Stasi files. For instance, one man found that spies had drawn a detailed map of his apartment, showing exactly where the furniture was located, so they had obviously been inside his rooms. He also found that they had mapped the route his daughter took to school every day. The spying even went to bizarre lengths. In the BBC report, you can hear Stasi agents secretly being recorded by colleagues while they busily install a bug to spy on someone else.

When former East German citizens delve into their files, they often find “gut-wrenching, heart-breaking stuff. It could be the betrayal of a friend,” one woman explains in the BBC report. But as she adds, people still want to find answers to what happened to them behind their backs and behind the Wall. As she puts it, they want to “solve the mysteries of their life.”

The Stasi Jigsaw Puzzle (BBC radio report)

Stasi files: The world’s largest jigsaw puzzle (print story by Chris Bowlby)

By Doug Peterson

History by the Slice