Winners write history: from Hosni Mubarak’s regime, to the Stasi and the Nazis, a history of shredding

 Sir Winston Churchill, 1942

Sir Winston Churchill, 1942

Sometimes I wonder, how much do we really know about past events?

It was Winston Churchill  who said: “History will be kind to me for I intent to write it”.

Yes, history was kind to him. He was among the protagonists of a world war that had cost the lives of many millions of innocent people. He, as a part of the winning side, made history. And history is favorable to the winners. They write it.

Different accounts can come to dominate in different periods of time or in different societies; depending on how free a society is, these accounts can be more or less accurate to the events in question.

Power struggles within societies can question the present social order. New agendas would rise that could question old dominant discourses and thus lead to a retelling of historical events bringing forward accounts, events and details that had been cast aside. It has happened before. [1]

But history cannot be objective. It is the story as it is told by the winners. It doesn’t have to be the “truth”. The truth is that half of the “facts” we think we know are merely fictions, pieces put together to create convenient and powerful stories; myths that support a certain scheme of things, a dominant power/knowledge system. [2] From what we have been taught in schools to the everyday news we read in the newspapers or the live coverage of important events on our television screens: all past is history, all present is history as well..

We can’t avoid it. We cannot avoid or dismiss history; choices of what should be kept and what we should forget. And yet, history is always on the making. And sometimes winners will become losers. History will be rewritten. Then, as regimes fall, and the dominant discourse and its surrounding myths collapse all kinds of evidence can rise into the surface; facts of the real nature of regimes that would otherwise be forgotten or would exist just for the eyes of the privileged few.

Egyptian State Security kept files on citizens and activists.

Egyptian State Security kept files on citizens.

This is the case with Egypt. On March the 5th of 2011 thousands of Egyptians stormed the headquarters of the State Security Police known as Amn Al – Dawla. Among the people of Egypt this is the “Capital of Hell”. They wanted to halt any effort by allies of the ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s regime to destroy police and intelligence documents of great value. Demonstrators succeeded to get hold of thousands of records providing evidence that there was a wide-reaching campaign of surveillance, torture and secret detention. Evidence was found that proved that media owners were on the payroll of the secret police. Documents existed that described extreme violations of human rights. However, protestors also found mountains of shredded or burned documents on the spot. [3]

In East Germany, during the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 – a series of political demonstrations against the regime of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) – Stasi’s offices were stormed by protesters. Stazi existed almost for 40 years. But the amount of agents and informers was such that the files they amassed had filled more than 60 miles of shelving. They had huge special shredding machines that could shred hundreds of meters of files. They worked day and night for more than three months. At the end, when they finally abandoned their posts, more than 16.000 sacks of shredded files were found which accounts just for 5% of the most important documents.

According to Karina Juengert – an archivist who has devoted her life in piecing together shredded documents of her nation’s past – the effort to reconstruct those destroyed documents is an effort to reconstruct a nation’s “shredded” history: “Nobody is going to spend time and energy tearing up documents that have no importance. So the work we are doing is, yes, of absolute importance“. [4]

From left to right: Neville Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Galeazzo Ciano.

From left to right: Neville Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Galeazzo Ciano.

In Nazi Germany they did not have nowadays technology of paper shredders. If they had, so many of the evidence of what the Third Reich had done or did plan to do would have been lost. With no evidence of the events many war criminals would have walked away free still advocating their ideas of hatred, denying the horror of their actions. Yes, it is true, neo-nazis still deny the Holocaust, and the existence of death camps, the experiments on humans, the millions of deaths. But if documents were shredded, the victory of the Allied forces would not be so clear. Without evidence, history would have been more kind to the Nazis. Even nowadays, they try to rewrite history by destroying documents; assistance comes from unexpected places.  [5] 

History is connected with documents. And there are times when the most secure thing to do is to shred them before they are used for harmful purposes. You know, it doesn’t have to be regimes or secret agencies. This is also the case with companies or organizations, public or private, which deal with credit reports or other documents containing sensitive consumer information such as patients’ records. [6]

Documents of this nature are a vital part of the personal history of individuals that no agency or company should keep copies off. Information of this kind in the wrong hands can be used to blackmail or to deny access to services, they can even prove valuable for identity theft purposes. [7] In that sense, shredding is a procedure of essential importance for citizens and businesses alike.

Sorting & Shredding Room

Sorting & Shredding Room, 1901

In fact, this is not just an ethical issue. Under the Data Protection Directive, it becomes a requirement of the law to destroy any documents that contain sensitive information. According to the Directive, data – processing systems should be designed to serve man; “whereas they must, whatever the nationality or residence of natural persons, respect their fundamental rights and freedoms, notably the right to privacy, and contribute to economic and social progress, trade expansion and the well-being of individuals” [8]

Failure to comply may lead to proceedings against the data controller, large fines or financial compensation to the data subject. The Directive – after the NSA leaks – will become stricter. [9]

Shredding machines is the most secure and common tool that people use to destroy sensitive documents. Shredding has been used to protect regimes as it is used to protect citizens. In the end, history is not definite; it can be kind to us as long as we respect the laws and make good use of the tools we have in hand. Shredding machines is such a tool. [10]