Ed Driscoll

The City on the Edge of Nihility

Claire Berlinski on “Weimar Istanbul” and “Weimar cities” in general, in the new issue of (appropriately enough) City Journal magazine:

Weimar Cities have emerged, blazed, and died throughout history. The sack of Rome and the fall of the Empire prompted Augustine to write The City of God, the work itself an emblematic admixture of the anxiety and creativity that marked the epoch. Constantinople before the fall was consumed with evil prophecies and the well-founded fear that Byzantine culture was as doomed as it was glorious. A similar mood possessed the extravagantly genteel elite of antebellum Charleston. Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 1917 were cities of this sort, marked by the kinetic creative energy that accompanies the belief that the forces of history will soon somehow sweep away the past. The tortured intellectual blossoming of Vienna at the turn of the century was intimately connected with a sense of helplessness about the city’s fate, which all who lived there understood was not in their hands. The currency crash of 2002 prompted a creative efflorescence in Buenos Aires. San Francisco during the Summer of Love was a Weimar City, Hunter S. Thompson’s famous Wave Speech a characteristic signature: “There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere.”

All were cities marked by voluptuous excess, excitement, and fear, but the archetype, of course, is Berlin in the twenties. “There is no city in the world so restless as Berlin,” recalled the diplomat Harold Nicolson:

Everything moves. The traffic lights change restlessly from red to gold and then to green. The lighted advertisements flash with the pathetic iteration of coastal lighthouses. The trams swing and jingle. . . . In the Tiergarten the little lamps flicker among the little trees, and the grass is starred with the fireflies of a thousand cigarettes. Trains dash through the entrails of the city and thread their way among the tiaras with which it is crowned. The jaguar at the zoo, who had thought it was really time to go to bed, rises again and paces in its cell. For in the night air, which makes even the spires of the Gedächtniskirche flicker with excitement, there is a throbbing sense of expectancy. Everybody knows that every night Berlin wakes to a new adventure. Everybody feels that it would be a pity to go to bed before the expected, or the unexpected, happens. Everyone knows that next morning, whatever happens, they will feel reborn.

Could there be such excitement without danger? I doubt it. Never was the Weimar Republic viewed as legitimate by its enemies, and never has the secular state been viewed as legitimate by its enemies here. Both societies have been destabilized in turn by leftist subversion, right-wing militias, assassinations, endless coup plots, the savage repression of protests and strikes. The Nazis evoked nostalgia for a social and moral past that they proposed to restore, and so does Turkey’s AKP government. Just look at the map of the Ottoman Empire, say its diplomats. Turkey is returning to its rightful place.

Berlin in the twenties was a polyglot city, struggling to absorb immigrants: Jews from the east, Russians fleeing the revolution. So, too, Istanbul, swollen with mass migration from the east, large populations of Kurds, and refugees from the many nearby conflict zones: Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Chechnya. Berlin had only the most limited power of assimilation; ethnic violence was always close to the surface. It was no melting pot, and neither is Istanbul, as recent headlines here suggest: KURDISH REBELS ADMIT ISTANBUL BUS BOMBING. STRATEGY EXPERT WARNS OF ETHNIC CLASHES. ETHNICALLY POLARIZED SOCIETIES EASY TARGETS FOR PROVOCATEURS.

Christopher Isherwood, the great chronicler of interwar Berlin, brought to literary life Fräulein Schroeder, the petite bourgeoise pining for her former comforts and nostalgic for a vanished epoch. The new city seemed to her brutish, ill-mannered, overrun. She is a familiar fixture in Istanbul; I have met many Fräulein Schroeders here. How much more civilized this city was, they tell me, before these uncultured mobs descended upon it, like ants.

If Berlin was characterized by an endless number of political tribes, movements, and causes, from free love to vegetarianism; an endless number of social experiments, from nudism to yoga; and an endless number of artistic styles, from the neue Sachlichkeit to the twelve-tone row; so, too, is Istanbul. My e-mail in-box is full of invitations to join Vipassana meditation courses, Reiki retreats, concerts, openings of new galleries, and, above all, rallies—rallies for the liberation of transsexuals, rallies for the liberation of Gaza, rallies against the rape of animals (of all things). And at all these rallies, one finds the police, flanked like centurions, with their truncheons, shields, and gas masks at the ready.

Over the summer, when when Berlinksi was drafting her article, she used the excellent commenters at Ricohet.com, as well as her Facebook page, as a sounding board for her ideas. As she wrote at Ricochet, “People have immediate, instinctive responses to the word ‘Weimar,’ and their responses say quite a bit about the way they view the contemporary world.”

You can read her earlier posts at Ricochet here and here including their comments from such readers as Victor Davis Hanson, Conor Friedersdorf and other Ricochet regulars.