My Leipzig Affair: Student's term behind the Iron Curtain

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website

image copyrightfiona rintoul
image captionFiona and a friend in Leipzig city centre in 1986

As a "bolshie" student in the mid-80s, Fiona Rintoul spent a term behind the Iron Curtain at a university in East Germany. Three decades later her fascination with the bleak but beautiful world of communist Eastern Europe has led to her first novel, The Leipzig Affair, which is BBC Radio Four's latest Book At Bedtime.

It is a tale of love, betrayal and redemption in the dying days of the Cold War.

Its author says it is the story of a "doomed love affair" between a young Scottish man, Bob, voiced on Radio Four by Scottish actor Douglas Henshall, and an East German woman called Magda.

She had once been a confirmed communist but becomes desperate to leave the iron grip of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

"It is about the love affair but she has a secret agenda that he does not know about," says Rintoul.

"He's out of his depth and so is she actually.

"The secret services are watching and she does not realise quite how much they know about her."

Rintoul says: "I was very interested in the idea of betrayal and the idea of private life, in the different faces you show to different people and how much you tell people and how much you reveal of yourself.

"We all have to deal with those decisions every day in whatever society we live in but they are a little more exaggerated in a society like East Germany where you have got a police state situation and you have got these people watching you."

image copyrightfiona rintoul
image captionLeipzig city centre was very different to the "garish" west
image copyrightfiona rintoul
image captionPeople were expected to turn out for May Day rallies in Leipzig

The novel is fictional, says Rintoul who, like Bob, studied at Karl Marx University in Leipzig in the 80s, but the background detail is drawn from her own experiences.

Rintoul went to St Andrews University in Fife at the same time as her male character and like him felt that her working-class Lanarkshire background marked her out from many of the other students.

She studied French and German and when it came to take part in an exchange programme in the third year she railed against the usual choices in the west of Germany.

Rintoul says: "Because I was a bolshie person in those days I started agitating.

"I would say 'why can't we go to East Germany?'"

A new professor at the university, who had done his PhD in Leipzig, tracked her down and called her bluff.

He said that if she actually wanted to go to East Germany then he could organise it.

image copyrightfiona rintoul
image captionThe cars were "tinny little Trabants and Wartburgs"
image copyrightfiona rintoul
image captionFiona's passport to the Eastern Bloc

Arriving in Leipzig in March 1986, there were very few signs that the Berlin Wall would fall just three years later and the GDR would quickly be dissolved and reunified with the rest of Germany.

Rintoul says: "When we got to the border I think we all felt a little scared because it was not a friendly experience. All these stony-faced border guards.

"We suddenly thought 'hold on a minute, what have we done here? We are going into a completely different zone. We are going out of contact, as it were'."

The exchange students were given a "big talk" about how the GDR was a Warsaw Pact country and they were expected to behave accordingly.

"That was really the only time it felt scary. After that we just adapted and got used to it," she says.

Life was certainly different in the Eastern Bloc but Rintoul says she found it far more exciting than her trip to Paris the previous year.

"When you arrived you noticed it was drab and grey and all the cars were these tinny little Trabants and Wartburgs - that really stood out," she says.

"And there was a lot of political propaganda. But you just got used to it and started to have a good time."

image copyrightfiona rintoul
image captionThe Brandenburg Gate on the East German side of the Berlin Wall. The East German authorities called the Berlin Wall "the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall"
image copyrightfiona rintoul
image captionShops in East Germany seemed very drab and uninspiring at first

She says that when she returned to the West she found everything was "really garish" and thought "my god, this place is awful".

"It made me realise that I had been socialised in a particular way. I'd got used to certain things," she says.

One big difference between East and West was the constant presence of the secret police or Stasi.

"Very quickly when we arrived we realised what the Stasi was," she says.

"I can remember being in town with friends and they said, in whispers, 'that's the Stasi headquarters. That's why there are so many aerials. Don't look'."

She became attuned to wondering why people were sometimes asking "too many questions" about other East German people she knew.

"I was aware that some people were trying to get information from me and we were probably being watched," she says.

"My friend from Edinburgh University was there for a year so I think she was more closely watched.

"One of her East German room-mates got drunk one night and told her she was writing weekly reports on her for the Stasi. She confessed it all."

image copyrightfiona rintoul
image captionThe Leipzig Affair is Fiona Rintoul's first novel
image captionShetland star Douglas Henshall is one of the readers of the novel on Radio 4's Book At Bedtime

Rintoul, who works as a financial journalist and translator, said she had been back to Germany many times since the Berlin Wall came down.

She says: "It is basically a world that has completely gone now.

"There is a kind of nostalgia for it which people sometimes find difficult to understand but I can because it was an interesting world and it was a different way of doing things.

"I don't want to make excuses for the things that were bad but it had its plus points.

"One of the things I liked about it was that it felt like it wasn't ruled by money."

The novel also looks at what happened after reunification.

"I wanted to look at that because here in Britain we have got quite a simplistic view of it," she says.

"We think the wall came down and everyone was happy. I think that really wasn't the case at all.

"A lot of the people who protested for democracy didn't necessarily want reunification.

"There was a kind of belief in socialism that had managed to survive all the bad things that happened in East Germany.

"There was still that belief among a lot of people in the possibility of a socialist future - obviously it was not fulfilled."

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