Söderströms, 2005. ISBN: 9515222435
Reviewed by Anne Stauss in SBR 2006:1
Nils Erik Forsgård, Professor in the History of Ideas at the University of Helsinki, worked as a Guest Professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin between 2001 and 2004 and was duly charmed by the city – just as others will be after reading his 2005 book 10115, Berlin – Touchdown in a European Capital. The book is not, if one were to believe the author himself, a book about Berlin. It is “a book about a small part of Berlin as perceived from a certain disposition... suggesting, in the first place, a little walk or a tour through the city – in thought or in deed”. Simultaneously, it is clearly not just a physical description of Berlin, but a description of its soul and the soul of its inhabitants as well – a study of a modern European capital in search of its identity. It is, furthermore, “a walk through a binary past, through Germany’s binary past, through a city and a nation branded by two essentially completely different regimes: Nazism and Communism. The walk takes place in the part of Berlin that was once the capital of the DDR, but that is now the very heart of the new city.” Forsgård’s profound factual knowledge and academic background make him uniquely qualified to discuss his topic with utmost authority. His book features profiles of several luminaries from Berlin’s past: Goethe and Schiller, Heine, Einstein, Brecht, Lessing, Engels and Marx, and we are reminded of the great ideological waves that shook Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, putting their irrevocable mark on the city. Forsgård returns, time and again, to Nazism and the persecution of the Jews, and to how the Berliners of today are grappling with the legacy of the capital’s shameful past. And we are, time and again, brought back to the Wall – the Wall before, during and after 1989 – to life in the DDR, to life outside the DDR, and to life without the DDR. We are given statistics – Forsgård has a most investigative mind. We learn about the on-going migration from east to west, and how each side is striving to adapt. We learn what awaits those who move west, and how the different generations are coming to terms with their new identities. We learn what became or is to become of the many landmark buildings and historic monuments in the east. Intermittently, we are given more light-hearted titbits: there are chapters devoted to, for example, the state of the lindens on Unter den Linden (one of the very few streets in Berlin never to have had its name changed); the rat population (on the increase) and the kestrels; the fact that each Berliner has the legal right to a small plot of land to be buried in; the birth rate (on the decrease, apparently every fifth father is someone other than the one listed in the birth register); the current tendency of Berlin to become a city of one or two person households (a city of singles, potentially a city of some very lonely people) and, alongside the vibrant, new community: the beggars, the homeless and the prostitutes. We meet Der Ampelmann, the sprightly, hat-wearing, illuminated figure controlling pedestrian crossings, once a cherished presence in the DDR and nowadays adopted by the city at large. A poignant chapter is devoted to the “children of the Wall”. Forsgård compares the present-day situation of die Mauerkinder, who grew up in the shadow of the newly erected Mauer in the early 1960s, to that of die Zonenkinder, born in the 1970s and hence in their early teens when the Wall fell. Meanwhile, die Wendekinder, who grew up in the 1990s, can observe, firsthand, their parents’ numb sense of disorientation. Interspersed in italics throughout the book are Forsgård’s own reminiscences and personal musings on subjects ranging from accounts of memorable meals and encounters to questions on national identity, race, religion and life in general, passages the author, again very modestly, suggests can be skipped. The reader may beg to disagree, since every word in 10115, Berlin seems well worth its space. Apart from a somewhat annoying style of making each sentence in the principal text a paragraph all its own, Nils Erik Forsgård has written a most captivating, illuminating and easy-to-read book about a city that obviously stole his heart.