EAST OF EAST KILBRIDE: My Journey Behind the Iron Curtain – A Photo Essay by Fiona Rintoul

In 1986, Fiona Rintoul travelled from her home in East Kilbride to the Karl Marx University Leipzig (KMU) to study German for a term. This trip behind the Iron Curtain led to a lifelong fascination with Eastern Europe and the former German Democratic Republic. Rintoul’s first novel, The Leipzig Affair, is set in the bleakly beautiful world of 1980s’ East Germany. It tells the story of a doomed love affair between Robert, a young Scot studying at KMU in 1985, and Magda, an East German woman desperate to flee. Here, Rintoul takes us on a photo journey through the East Germany she knew, highlighting some of the places that inspired her novel.

by Fiona Rintoul 

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On 26 March 1986, I travelled to East Germany with two other students. The exchange was organised by a lecturer at St Andrews University who had done his PhD in Leipzig. The East German border guards spent an impressive amount of time examining our passports and peppering them with stamps before confiscating my copy of the Guardian. Aside from one or two visits to the reading room at the British consulate in East Berlin, that was to be the last time I saw a western newspaper for three months. Western newspapers were housed in a special section of the KMU library. You needed a “Giftschein” (literally a “poison certificate”) to access it, and I didn’t have one. The East German daily, Neues Deutschland, was pretty much unreadable, and so the French communist newspaper L’Humanité, available from the international newsagent, became my regular read.

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The German-German border was at its most absurd in Berlin. By the Brandenburg Gate, which was just on the East German side, the Wall was lower, in order— I presume— not to spoil the view. The East German authorities called the Berlin Wall “the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall” – an idiotic misnomer. By the same token, when in I was in West Berlin after I left East Germany, I found the exploitation of the Wall as a tourist attraction equally idiotic – and a little repulsive. Robert confronts some of these emotional nuances in The Leipzig Affair, when he is, paradoxically, trapped in the West, trying to get back to the East.

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This enormous bronze relief of Karl Marx in a swarm of heroes of socialism hung above the doorway of the main university building at KMU. The building stood where the University Church had once been. The church, the last mediaeval building in the university complex still standing after the war, was demolished by the East German authorities in 1968. The building in the picture has since been demolished too and replaced by a building that mimics the outline of the destroyed church.

When we arrived at KMU, we were given a pep talk about how we — as citizens of a NATO member state — were expected to conduct ourselves in a Warsaw Pact member state. That was the one and only time, I felt a bit scared in Leipzig.

Rintoul 4Leipzig city centre was festooned with flags and political slogans. At first, they stood out to us, and we mocked the clumsy messages. The one in the picture reads: “Our vote for the candidates of the people.” But after a while we stopped noticing them. When I returned to the West, I found the billboards and neon adverts garish and jarring, and the advertising slogans ridiculous.

Rintoul 5Similarly, the shops in East Germany seemed very drab and uninspiring at first. This window display was typical, and there was much less choice that there was at home. However, when I returned to Britain I found the huge choice of basic items such as shampoo overwhelming and came to understand that choice creates its own tyranny. I shudder to think how East Germans managed when first confronted with West German shops.

Rintoul 6Clothes shopping was a particular problem in East Germany. West Germans and people from other Ostbloc countries loved to laugh at East German clothes and shoes, and they were often a bit skanky. Certainly, it was hard to find anything quirky or unusual. The friend of mine in the picture made all his own clothes – a detail I used in The Leipzig Affair. It was his way of rejecting what was on offer not just in the shops but in East German society.

I did notice, though, that a lot of people in East Germany didn’t fully understand the role that money played in the West. They thought that if things were in the shops you could have them. When I returned to Britain I got a lot of requests to send expensive items to Leipzig that I couldn’t possibly afford to fulfil.

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Some of the East German goods that were mocked in the 1980s, such as these Trabants parked outside the parliament in Berlin, have since some become style icons. The most famous is the East German “Ampelmännchen” (the little traffic light man with its hat) which came to represent East Germans’ desire to hold on to some of what had gone before. “Ostalgie”— nostalgia for the East — is a complicated phenomenon, perhaps best understood in the light a distinction recently drawn by former dissident Roland Jahn between East German society, where people make a life for themselves, and the East German state.

Rintoul 8We students lived four to a room in an overheated modern building on Tarostraße, named after the photographer Gerda Taro, a friend of Robert Capa and – according to the street sign – a young Communist. On the other side of the tracks (literally – we accessed it through a tunnel) lay another world of dilapidated, turn-of-the-century tenements we weren’t encouraged to visit. The buildings were unmodernised, and people could live in them cheaply. A lively underground arts scene thrived in this area, known as the Südvorstadt. Galerie Eigen + Art, today one of Germany’s leading art galleries, started in a flat there.

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The underground scene was one way to escape “actually existing socialism” in Leipzig, but you couldn’t always get away from politics. People were expected to turn out on May Day. As one East German friend put it to us: “We must voluntarily demonstrate.”

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In a letter to my parents, I wrote that East German friends had asked me if we had big demonstrations in the UK similar to May Day. They seemed surprised when I told them we did but they were usually organised against the government rather than by it.

Rintoul 11Our East German hosts were diligent, and we travelled all round the country during our term in Leipzig. The trip to Dresden is one of the ones I remember best, not least because of a memorial we visited to the victims of the “Anglo-American Fascist bombing raid” in February 1945. I used some of the resultant exchanges to frame a scene between Magda and Robert in The Leipzig Affair. The picture above shows the ruins of the Frauenkirche, which has since been rebuilt.

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Telling the folks back home about these excitements wasn’t so easy. Letters could take a while to arrive. I knew my post would be opened by the Stasi, but when I got home I saw that it had also gone through Cheltenham. The difference was Cheltenham stamped it; the Stasi didn’t. Phone calls home had to be made from the central post office (the slogan above reads: “Joined forever to the land of Lenin”) as phone boxes almost never worked. You could wait hours for a line out, and when you got one you always heard the little click that meant the Stasi had joined the call.

Rintoul 13My time in Leipzig began and ended at the central train station – the largest train terminus in Europe. In between times, I spent more than a few hours in the Mitropa, the railway canteen which stayed open all hours. This wonderful photograph by Barbara Muerdter was taken 1991 but it beautifully captures the dissolute ennui of the place in East German times. It is there that Magda and Robert meet for the first time: 

I saw at once why Magda had chosen the Mitropa for the handover. It was chaotic and noisy and stank of fags, fried food and spilt beer. Most of the customers looked like they’d been there all night drinking beer and had no intention of ever taking a train. It was the perfect place to feel anonymous. I found a table near the back and ordered a coffee, which tasted like mud. I recognised Magda as soon as she pushed through the swing doors.

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The Leipzig Affair is published by Aurora Metro books on 10 November 2014. Join the author at 6pm on 11 November for the Glasgow launch at Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street.