Weimar Istanbul

 

When I was working on that piece about banning the burqa, I found it extremely helpful to put the question to Ricochet’s members. It very much helped my to clarify my own thoughts. (That piece will be out next week in National Review, by the way. You’ll see that I came down on the side of banning it–and quite strongly. I thought the arguments in favor of the ban won the day.)

I’m working now on another piece, for City Journal, and again trying to get my own thoughts organized. The story is about what I’d call “Weimar Istanbul,” by which I mean the spookiness of living in a city that’s at the epicenter of an impending political catastrophe, the mood of dread but also of astonishing vitality — creative, artistic, economic — that makes it hard to believe things are as serious as my sense of logic tells me they are.

I’m wondering if there’s such a phenomenon as a “Weimar city,” by which I mean a city that is in some way animated, given a distinct culture, by a mood of political precariousness. What would these cities have in common? What would be good examples of such cities from history?

Any specialists in Weimar history and culture out there? What might I be reading (beside Peter Gay, obviously) that might give me a fuller sense of the parallels between contemporary Istanbul and, say, Weimar Berlin? I’m looking for analogies both political and cultural.

Don’t hesitate to participate, even if this isn’t your subject of expertise–all ideas that might lead to interesting avenues of thought are welcome. I’d be particularly curious to hear from Confucious, the Œcumenical Volgi, and from Victor Davis Hanson.

Hey, anyone like this as a slogan? Ricochet: You do the thinking, I’ll take the credit!

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Boston in 1776.

    Buenos Aires during the currency crash.

    Most of all, Spain — perhaps Seville when the Moors took control, and then were expelled, for example. It’s a subject I don’t know a ton about, but certain parallels suggest themselves: a country on the edge of Europe where religion drives a cultural and political revolution.

    And of course Orwell told the story of another Spain, also in turmoil, in Homage to Catalonia.

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    @Claire

    Interesting. Know offhand of any first-person accounts of what it was like to live in those cities?

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    @

    When I think of Weimar I think of hyperinflation. The fascists used this economic crisis (caused entirely of course by the governmental monetary authorities in Germany) as an opportunity to say, as Christopher Hitchens once described speaking with Peter Robinson, that the woe not just of the German people but of the world was to be blamed upon global Jewry. Political and economic crises make for fortuitous chances for savy, ambitious politicians. How’s Turkey doing lately in terms of stability?

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    @Claire

    Yes, exactly, that’s the association that got me thinking along these lines in the first place. Now, remember: The Weimar hyper-inflation took place between 1921 and 1923, a full ten years before Hitler’s rise to power. It ended with the introduction of the Rentenmark. Yet Hitler did indeed exploit the memory of that event; this was an important part of the formula that allowed him to capture the German imagination. What does this tell us? It tells us that hyperinflation is a searing national trauma, the memory of which persists long after the real risk is gone, leaving democracies particularly fragile in its wake. So–what brought the AKP to power in Turkey in 2001? Hyperinflation. Not the rise of political Islam. Overwhelmingly, voters voted for the AKP because they believed it to be the party best able to manage the economy. And to an extent, they were right: The AKP brought hyperinflation under control. I don’t think it’s possible to diminish the psychological importance of this when trying to understand what’s happening here. The memory of this kind of trauma can and does persist for a generation, driving political events.

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    @Caroline

    Pre-World War 1 Vienna

    See the books by Frederic Morton: A Nervous Splendor and Thunder at Twilight.

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    @

    The sting from hyperinflation, from rapidly rising prices, is obvious once its understood through an economic approach.

    Government’s use monetary policy as a means of finance. Via legal tender laws and central banks, governments can finance their own undertakings by ordering central banks to print money and lend it to their treasury departments. This of course increases the supply of money which decreases the “price” or purchasing power of money. As the price or purchasing power of money falls, the quantity of money demanded at the new price falls (law of supply), meaning as the purchasing power of money falls, people begin to dishoard it in exchange for consumer goods. As the government prints more money and the fall of purchasing power becomes expeditious, a few things become impossible:

    1. Economic calculation: Costs can hardly be compared to revenue over time when costs keep increasing

    2. Production: People become less concerned with going to work and more concerned with dishoarding their soon-to-be-useless cash

    3. Economic stability: Excess credit, thanks to artificially low interest rates, finds its way into businesses who end up using it to invest in ultimately unprofitable endeavors that require liquidation (the recession phase).

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    @

    Maybe Yeltsin-era Moscow? From the Vanity Fair profile of the Exile founders:

    The decade had all the indulgence of 1920s Paris and Weimar Berlin, without the bothersome art and poetry.

    Of course, the point of that passage is to note that Moscow had the decadence without the efflorescence, so maybe it doesn’t fit.

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    @EJHill

    I don’t know about a city but it seems we’ve got a big chunk of the next generation in that funk. I’ve asked many a young person why they did something they might obvious regret later (like a tattoo with someone else’s name) and they say it doesn’t matter, that they’re not even going see 40, let alone 80.

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    @

    Jeepers! That’s a tough crowd you’re hanging with EJ. Maybe Rob needs to sponsor his friend Harry on Ricochet so we can hear from some (more) youthful voices.

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    @MatthewGilley

    You should consider comparisons to pre-Civil War American cities: Charleston, SC v. Boston, Baltimore v. Washington, Richmond v. Philadelphia, New Orleans v. New York, etc.

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    @DuaneOyen

    A recent example would likely be Monrovia, and there are probably a lot of oral histories available from refugees walking around the US.

    EJ, don’t you think that sort of dumb kid nihilism is a standard trait of the airheads from every generation? I keep going back to Mr. Barone’s Hard America, Soft America.

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    @EJHill

    I sometimes substitute teach at high schools in my area. These kind of reactions are not unusual. They’ve been told by Al Gore and others that the planet is mortally wounded, that their country is morally and financially bankrupt, etc.

    It works on their young psyche and they lack the historical context to process it emotionally. I wish it wasn’t so.

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    @AaronMiller
    Claire Berlinski: Hey, anyone like this as a slogan? Ricochet: You do the thinking, I’ll take the credit! ·

    I dig it. My hard-copy of National Review just arrived yesterday. I was delighted to see Rob’s article on obscene Hollywood accounting, as he first discussed here. How quickly Rob moved from the cover article to the last page! I didn’t notice a Berlinski article in my quick scan, so I’m guessing you meant NRO.

    Your theory of Weimar Renaissance might be related to the frequency of depression and other forms of psychological distress in the minds of creative geniuses, such as Beethoven and Poe. Many studies have explored that link, but there are as many conclusions. Some possibilities, which are not exclusive:

    — More powerful emotions inspire more powerful art, and such people experience emotions beyond the normal range.

    — Depression encourages introspection, contemplation.

    — One is more inclined to appreciate what one can’t have (beauty, excellence, love, peace).

    — Such people perceive life in more dramatic terms.

    — The brain’s regions interact in unusual ways.

    Extreme sadness drains one of motivation and interest. But moderate bouts often drive one to an instrument, brush or pen.

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    @EJHill

    I want to add something to my previous comments. There is now a whole industry centered around the apocalypse. Not only our our young people bombarded with the political side of global warming, you can’t even do any shopping without being reminded of it. And that doesn’t even touch the publishing and entertainment side. Heroes, 2012, you name it, every season brings more “entertainment” devoted to the end of the world fatalism. How much can the young take?

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    @Talleyrand

    Perhaps Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), but reading it is hard work. Also, it is an profoundly antidemocratic work but had a great influence on Weimar Germany, esp post WW1. I have read it only in English translation but its a dog of a read, and I must admit I skimmed thru the bits on certain civilizations that I was not much interested at the time.

    Perhaps I wasted to much of my youth on now obscure texts? (Henry Miller, anyone?)

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    @Talleyrand

    Aaron, not sure I would not read to much into Vaterland vs Mutterland in German. I recall they use Muttersprache (Mothertongue) for one’s native language, and Mutterland for one’s place of origin. Lots of germanic based languages use Fatherland type words; and also Italian uses Patria/Madrepatria (yes both Father and Motherland) in the sense of homeland.

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    @VictorDavisHanson

    I think there are a number of cities in history which were precarious politically, while enjoying rich cultures amid an impending sense of doom that things would not last, or at least could change in a blink. Augustine’s City of God is written amid the barbarian invasions of North Africa and the final Vandal siege and the end of a once prosperous and cultured Hippo Regius. Life in Constantinople between, say, 1420-53 took on a sense that the end was coming and a rich Byzantine culture flickering out with no way to marshall the forces of Christendom to fight off the Ottomans. Much of life in 19th and 20th century Trieste, like perhaps Vienna after the war, was predicated on the fact that the fate of the city was in someone else’s hands and could change at any minute. 

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    @VictorDavisHanson

    In a somewhat different strain, William Shirer’s Berlin Diary, in its early sections (e.g. 1934-9), reflects well the Nazi exuberance in a booming city, following Weimar, but with a foreboding that the dark side of Hitler’s new Third Reich is inevitably about to corrupt and destroy German culture and much of Europe along with it. Of course, the topos begins with Homer’s Iliad, especially the wonderful scenes in Book VI between the Trojan Hector and his wife and son, when he knows that the end is in store for  them all, and everyone around.

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    @Claire
    Aaron Miller: I’ve heard it said that only Germans refer to the Fatherland, instead of the Motherland. You can hear it the language.

    Interestingly, one of the most politically meaningful phrases in Turkish is “devlet baba” — Father State.

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    @Claire
    Aaron Miller: Perhaps the arts and other expressions of creativity are a natural response of a blunt-minded people when trapped with problems that demand endless nuance. · Jul 27 at 11:41pm

    That said, the Turks are anything but “blunt-minded.” The subtlety and opacity of the culture, after all, give rise to the word “Byzantine.” All of your associations with that word are correct.

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    @AaronMiller
    David Kube: Aaron, not sure I would not read to much into Vaterland vs Mutterland in German. I recall they use Muttersprache (Mothertongue) for one’s native language, and Mutterland for one’s place of origin. Lots of germanic based languages use Fatherland type words; and also Italian uses Patria/Madrepatria (yes both Father and Motherland) in the sense of homeland. · Jul 28 at 1:31am

    Interesting. In every culture, the images of father and mother, male and female, emerge to reveal associations with ideas like husbandry and guardianship or nurture and affection. Perhaps some insights can be found by identifying where such associations occur.

    But I admit that there are often no definite conclusions to be drawn. However certain words in Spanish became masculine or feminine, the logic eroded long ago. Latin was so much more sensible with its neuter gender.

    Claire Berlinski

    The subtlety and opacity of the culture, after all, give rise to the word “Byzantine.” All of your associations with that word are correct. · Jul 28 at 1:58am

    In my experience, circumspection encourages an artful use of language, excepting where lawyers are involved.

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    @Claire

    Thank you, VDH. Today my job is to try to figure out what it was, exactly, about Weimar that made it not only vulnerable–many cities in history, obviously, have been vulnerable–but so vibrant. There’s something about the moment at which a previously authoritarian society begins to liberalize and democratize that makes it both usually fragile–because these political concepts are new and alien; because inexperienced democracies are prone to big mishaps; and because, in the case of both Weimar and Turkey, there were and are serious flaws in the constitution–and simultaneously hugely expressive and creative, because the process of democratization unleashes big energies that had hitherto been suppressed. There’s also something about the richness of both Turkish and German culture that inherently allows both to become quite feverish and fecund under the right conditions. There’s also something about both nations’ histories and collective political temperaments that makes them vulnerable to despotism and tyranny–especially when there’s an ambient dread of “irresponsible elements” and “decadent forces,” which are seen as becoming too powerful. I need to put my finger on exactly what these things are. Ideas?

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    @Claire

    Fantastic ideas on this thread, by the way, and I’m truly grateful to everyone who participated. Having a pool of interesting, creative people at my disposal with whom to discuss these sorts of things has been a real blessing for me, especially since I’m living in relative linguistic and cultural isolation–I’m not at a university or a think tank, so when I want to talk about ideas like this, it’s not easy to find willing interlocutors. Thank you, everyone.

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    @AaronMiller

    I’ve heard it said that only Germans refer to the Fatherland, instead of the Motherland. You can hear it the language. You can read it in their philosophy. For a long time, Germans were the antithesis of the French. They preferred direct confrontation and simple solutions. At least, that’s what my limited knowledge leads me to believe.

    I know even less about the Turks. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a similar inclination to confrontation and simple solutions, because they are gatekeepers, culturally and militarily, of a vital geographic crossroads.

    Perhaps the arts and other expressions of creativity are a natural response of a blunt-minded people when trapped with problems that demand endless nuance.

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    @Palaeologus

    Increases in political violence perhaps? A group that’s so sure it’s right that no one else should be allowed to speak. I’m thinking brown & red thugs breaking up each others rallies in Berlin or that cretin Publius Clodius whipping up mobs in the Roman slums just before the end of the republic.

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    @JonathanMatthewGilbert

    Sarajevo in 1990-1991?

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    @Palaeologus
    Claire Berlinski

    Aaron Miller: Perhaps the arts and other expressions of creativity are a natural response of a blunt-minded people when trapped with problems that demand endless nuance. · Jul 27 at 11:41pm

    That said, the Turks are anything but “blunt-minded.” The subtlety and opacity of the culture, after all, give rise to the word “Byzantine.” All of your associations with that word are correct. · Jul 28 at 1:58am

    It’s worth noting (to me at least) that said subtley and opacity pre-dated the Turks, and availed little in 1453.

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