Step off the S Bahn at Frankfurter Allee and you are almost there. The cold, bureaucratic heart of state paranoia.

You might be thinking Nazis, but no. For three times as long as Hitler was in power, the socialist government of East Germany ran one of the most insidious administrations the world has ever known. It spied on its own citizens with an industriousness that makes America's National Security Agency look like the Council for Civil Liberties. By the 1980s one in seven East Germans was an informant for the Stasi, the secret police.

The past is another country. That is especially true of East Berlin. It used to be, "literally", as my 6-year-old is fond of saying, in another country ‐ the German Democratic Republic. The GDR was formed from the Russian-controlled sector of Germany after it was defeated by the Allies in World War II. From 1949, this considerable chunk of the country became a "workers and peasants" state, aligned with Moscow, part of the Eastern Bloc.

Frankfurter Allee still has a chilly utilitarian feel about it. The road is flanked by rows of identical 14-storey apartment blocks. Utopian accommodation built on the ruins of a bombed-out city. The GDR termed this architectural style "socialist classicism". Pale ghosts move behind black windows, urging the proletariat towards greater productivity. I walk briskly lest I be judged for my untied shoelaces and slovenly pace.

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Two blocks down is a low-slung modernist construction, the Stasi headquarters, the GDR's Ministry for State Security, which has been turned into a museum. This isn't entirely a touristic expedition, I'm hoping to find some files on my uncle. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, unarmed citizen committees stormed the Stasi HQ. Not to destroy it, but to protect the building and its contents so that future Berliners would have some idea of what they had lived through.

They succeeded. A special government department is still cataloging the 1.4 million photos, video and audio recordings from surveillance, telephones and bugs, 111km of paper and 39 million index cards left behind by the Stasi.

Insisde the Stasi Museum, Berlin. Photo / Ben Garrett
Insisde the Stasi Museum, Berlin. Photo / Ben Garrett

The city of Berlin seems bent under the weight of memory. Made tired by the effort of remembering and forgetting. After any regime change there is a natural tension between the two. One inclination is to try and keep harsh memories alive as a warning. In his latest novel,

The Infatuations

, Javier Marias describes an opposite tendency. Something that happened in Spain after Franco. An enforced social amnesia for the sake of reconciliation. To forget the dictatorship ever happened and endeavour not speak of it it again.

One thing Germans are not allowed to forget, something which may eventually overwhelm all other recollections of their 20th century, including the Stasi, is the totalitarian regime that came before. A Newsweek cover at the airport wanted to know: "Will it ever be possible to defeat Hitler's evil legacy?" A special edition.

The day before, I'd been at the monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It's the size of a football field, filled with concrete rectangles of uneven sizes. Cobbled paths run between them. A tourist strides across the grey tombs with a GoPro and selfie stick searching for the perfect angle. I don't want to touch the sculptures. They are coffins stacked up, windowless buildings emptied of people, bar graphs of mathematical destruction. The effect is eerily similar to the cascading waters at Ground Zero in New York. Intensely personal and at the same time disconcertingly abstract. A challenge to that human defence mechanism of blocking our most horrific moments.

Yet we are also fascinated by horror, most of us, if we are honest. After a certain period of time the fascination becomes acceptable. Eventually it becomes tourism.

Five hundred metres away, in the corner of a carpark, a Spanish tour group gather around an information board. Underneath them is what remains of the Fuehrer Bunker, the underground shelter where Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun, poisoned themselves. Whoever wrote the entry on the board takes strange solace in the fact that conditions in the bunker were not that luxurious, quite rudimentary in fact. What disturbs me most is the bit about the wife of Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, who used cyanide to kill her six children in that cramped little foxhole.

A memory. My Uncle George. His hair combed straight back. Typing and smoking. Sat at a small portable typewriter, inhaling his cigarette as if the very operation of the keys depended on it. That monochrome image sits on the bookshelf in our bedroom. It was the early 60s. He had fought in the war against Hitler and survived. Afterwards, he moved to West Germany, where he began a distinguished career working as a journalist for Reuters.

There was no lack of copy. It must have been like reporting from the edge of a tectonic plate. The dividing line between East and West. Communism vs capitalism. Cold War propaganda from both sides reaching epic proportions. People in the East wanted to know how bad it was in the West, Westerners had a similar intrigue with the East.

Walking into the offices of Erich Mielke at the Stasi Museum I experience a guilty thrill at the perfectly preserved furnishings. Mielke was the man in charge of the Stasi when my uncle was arrested. There are vinyl swivel chairs and wood veneer dash; a triumph of minimalist mid-century design.

Erich Mielke , former head of the Stasi.
Erich Mielke , former head of the Stasi.

Three circular dial telephones rest on Mielke's desk. One had a direct line to Moscow. A classic 70s television set and a reel-to-reel recorder crouch in the corner. Not luxurious, but certainly comfortable. Next door, a bedroom, bathroom and private casino.

After the Berlin Wall was erected, Mielke was given powers to "hinder escapes from the Republic". On his watch an estimated 138 people were killed in the death zone around the wall. The human toll bears no comparison to the millions killed during the Holocaust. It is the nature of the repression rather than the absolute number of victims which marks the East German experience. Famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal described the Stasi as even more oppressive than Hitler's secret police, the Gestapo.

One day, George got picked up by Stasi officers and taken in for questioning. They wanted to know who he had been talking to on their side of the wall. Names and addresses.

"I need the bathroom," he had blustered in an imperious English manner. The same voice he used to blag his way past checkpoints in war zones or to put uppity young nephews in their place.

In the Stasi toilet, he tore the pages containing details of his East German contacts from his notebook and ate them one by one. He was released without harm. That was not unusual.

Eschewing age-old methods of imprisonment and torture, the Stasi embraced more subtle psychological techniques. One of their slogans was "Mit Allen Mitteln", by any means possible. That included something known as decomposition or zersetzung. The idea was to completely degrade a dissident's sense of self until they were incapable of actions against the state.

The Stasi would undermine the person's professional standing, smear their name by spreading rumours and sending falsified letters and photos to their family and employers to bring them into disrepute. They would also break into their houses and move furniture around, swap varieties of tea, remove paintings, so-called "gas lighting", to make targets doubt their own sanity.

It was a modern dictatorship. State control relied on the accumulation of personal information gained by Mielke's network of spies, his little birds. Under Nazi rule, the Gestapo had one agent for every 2000 Germans. The Stasi had one for every 166. When you add in the part-time and fulltime informants it works out at one informer per 6.5 people. East Germany is regarded as the the most heavily surveilled country that's ever existed.

The extensive Stasi payroll included many in deep cover. Tatjana Besson, a female member of punk rock band The Firm, worked for the secret police under the name Kim. Being a punk rocker was regarded as illegal. Their crime: "Provoking adults by raucous behaviour, modern haircuts and clothing."

As a senior journalist at Reuters there is little doubt that Uncle George would have been heavily researched. Our family has always wondered whether his files survived the shredders. His wife, Maggi, learning I was going to Berlin, asked if I would mind finding out. As I travel up the floors looking for the records section I encounter more displays of Stasi inventiveness.

There's a machine gun concealed in a briefcase. Surveillance equipment from a time before microchips. Cameras in bags, a camera in a radio cassette, a shoe camera and a cross section of a door with a bugging device, including D-size batteries. The door of a Trabant car with a bank of infrared flashes to illuminate subjects at night up to 20m away; the door is covered by plexiglass and a thin layer of paint, making it invisible to the human eye.

From this side of the millenium some of the Stasi techniques seem more Borat than Bond. The instructional photo on how to disguise yourself as a tourist is lol funny. It's very hard to understand how anyone thought this cheesy outfit would allow them to blend in.

I finally discover the section with the files. There is a glass display case with a handwritten logbook. Painstaking observations of one person's movements on a certain day. Almost anthropological in nature. Index cards where dissidents' personal details are meticulously recorded. But they are just a few sample copies. I explain what I have come for. A helpful young man in a red vest tells me they don't hold the files here. They are in a secure place. I can apply online for the files.

Back through the communist canyons to the train station. Many of the grimmer apartments, abandoned after reunification, are home to a new generation of shell-shocked war survivors. In the affluent centre and west of Berlin it's difficult to detect any signs of the million Syrian and Iraqi refugees invited in by Chancellor Angela Merkel. I'm looking quite hard. I see a sad-looking Middle-Eastern boy in the train with a burn on his face, or is it a birthmark?

A machine gun concealed in a briefcase. Photo / Phil Vine
A machine gun concealed in a briefcase. Photo / Phil Vine

In today's East Berlin, however, migrants are everywhere. Old women in headscarves beg on street corners. A migrant child wears a black hand-me-down T-shirt that exclaims: London Paris New York Tokyo. Families struggling up the steps of the Red Cross, hauling meagre belongings they packed in Aleppo or Basra. Bringing some memories, leaving others behind. Remembering and forgetting. I wonder if their experiences, so fresh now, will one day turn into a museum exhibit or a sculpture park. Will future tourists to Berlin be able to virtually experience the Syrians perilous exodus across the Mediterranean? Will it be advertised by the photo of a 3-year-old dead Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach?

Back at our accommodation I try to apply for George's Stasi file on the computer. I hit a major snag. You can only get a family member's information if they are deceased. George is 97, and very much alive.

Uncle George. Sitting in the conservatory of his home in Fairlight, Sussex. Early summer light falls on the soft furnishings. His hair still combed back. I can't ask him about his time in West Germany anymore. Vascular dementia is robbing his past. No more remembering and forgetting for him. He doesn't recognise his nephew from New Zealand. Although he is still quite able to make a judgment without recourse to memory. "I like that man," he tells my Aunty Maggi.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to Berlin via their hub in Hong Kong.

Things to : Visit the Stasi headquarters museum.

Further information: See visitberlin.de.