Although stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall are not normally considered historical fiction, the anniversary of such a pivotal date and time is definitely something we should all remember.
Fiona Rintoul is a writer, journalist and translator. The Leipzig Affair, which is her first novel, was shortlisted in the 2015 Saltire awards and serialised on BBC R4’s Book at Bedtime. Fiona is a prize-winning author who lives in Glasgow and on the Isle of Harris. (For those who are curious, the Isle of Harris is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.)
28 x 28 = Berlin Germany Europe by Fiona Rintoul
In two days’ time, on 9 November, we’ll be celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Wall has now been gone for as long as it stood. It’s 28 years since East Germans first tore down a structure that had divided them from West Germans for 28 years.
It’s always hard to write fiction about things that actually happened. My novel The Leipzig Affair is set in the former East Germany. Many of the details are drawn from my experiences of living and studying in East Germany. But the events and characters are all fictional.
The exception is the fall of the Berlin Wall. That actually happened. In the first draft of the novel, I had a long chapter set on the night on 9 November. In the end, I ditched most of it. We’ve all seen pictures from that incredible night. Everyone knows what happened.
I held on to just one detail from accounts I’d heard of 9 November: the white line painted on the street at the border crossing that marked the actual border. I thought it said it all that people who had never crossed the border knew this line was there.
In The Leipzig Affair, I also have the character who turns out to have been a Stasi spy be the one who is most thrilled by the experience of crossing the border. The East German protagonist, Magda, who is written in the second person, is more thoughtful:
‘You remember how she hugged you when you stepped over the white line, which you had read demarcated the actual border. “We’re in the West, Magda!” she squealed with delight. You stumbled into the first café you saw and the owner poured two glasses of Sekt.’
To me, that reflected reality. The people who had cosied up to the East German system were often the ones who ran into the arms of the new system and the ones who survived best when the system collapsed. Perhaps, it is ever thus.
It was a problem you could sense coming almost as soon as the first chip was taken out of the Wall. When people were demonstrating for democracy on the streets of Leipzig and Berlin and other East German cities, it felt like a pure fight: good versus evil. After the Wall came down, the picture got blurred. The people who had led those protests were, in the main, sidelined. West German politicians and East Germans ready to cut their cloth to suit a new master took over.
As well as painting a picture of East Germany in the 1980s, The Leipzig Affair is concerned with that complex and difficult aftermath. Looking back on 9 November 1989, Magda, is very clear that it was at best an equivocal moment:
‘How might you have felt then if you’d known what was to come? People talk now about reunification as though it were a victory. They listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with tears in their eyes. But the truth is that for people like you, the people who fought for democratic socialism in East Germany, it was a defeat.’
In The Leipzig Affair, I wanted to convey the ambivalent attitude to reunification that I had observed among East Germans. I thought that ambivalence was an important part of the East German story.
On this 28 x 28 anniversary, that ambivalence is still there. Speaking to the Berliner Zeitung recently, Thomas Kruger, president of the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Berlin, said: ‘In the former East Germany, the dominance of West Germans in the elite is still seen as cultural colonialism.’
For East Germans – and others too – there is a sense that something was missed in the headlong rush towards German reunification. As the Scottish playwright Peter Arnold observes in Writing Ensemble, Susan Kemp’s brilliant documentary film that follows the writing of his play about theatre censorship in East Germany, there was a moment between the Wall coming down and reunification when an alternative path seemed possible.
Very quickly that door slammed shut. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama called it the end of history, but history just keeps on trucking along. Looking back now, it feels more like the end of possibility.
Twenty-eight years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall and a decade after the global financial crisis, populism is on the rise again in Europe. Why? Because we have a system that doesn’t serve us. As a result, we are splintering apart rather than coming together.
We badly need alternative paths. If we want to know how badly, we need only think of that other 9 November anniversary in Germany: Kristallnacht in 1938.
Thank you for reminding us of this critical time in history, Fiona. And for the perspective on today’s unfolding events.
The Leipzig Affair – The year is 1985. East Germany is in the grip of communism. Magda, a brilliant but disillusioned young linguist, is desperate to flee to the West. When a black market deal brings her into contact with Robert, a young Scot studying at Leipzig University, she sees a way to realise her escape plans. But as Robert falls in love with her, he stumbles into a complex world of shifting half-truths – one that will undo them both.
Many years later, long after the Berlin Wall has been torn down, Robert returns to Leipzig in search of answers. Can he track down the elusive Magda? And will the past give up its secrets?
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.