In “Weimar Istanbul: Dread and exhilaration in a city on the verge of political catastrophe” in City Journal, Autumn 2010, Claire Berlinski, a resident of Istanbul, assesses the momentous changes taking place in the Turkish political order:
The City grew rapidly, dwarfing in size and population any other in the country. The streets stimulated like cocaine; horns honked, crowds surged, nerves jangled. To step outside was to be electrified by the harlequinade of roaring colors, bright lights, rushing traffic. Sybaritic nightclubs thrummed until dawn and well thereafter; strange and perverse sights were to be found on every boulevard, in every alley, at every hour, the aesthetic of contradiction between civilization and barbarity heightened by the ersatz baroque of the old architecture and the shocking ugliness of the new. Transvestites prowled, thieves pickpocketed, and in the fashionable cafÃ©s, intellectuals smoked furiously and complained of their anomie.
The Old World had vanished, and with it its agrarian economy, its reassuring class distinctions and social order. An alien and fragile political order had been imposed in its place. Experimental music, art, and cinema flourished; fascinations arose with utopianism, fortune-telling, mysticism, communism.
But there was at once a paranoid mood, a sense of impending doom. Markers of the City’s great imperial past evoked its former glory while proving its decline. The art of the epoch was fueled by the fear of imminent crisis and breakdown. Decadent American culture was hungrily emulated, passionately deplored. Painters produced works genuinely shocking to the eye; writers wrote novels so offensive to bourgeois sensibilities as to provoke threats of murder. A misogynistic terror of women dominated cultural and political debate: Had modernity destroyed their virtue?
If the City was now the undisputed capital of the region’s commerce and industry, all remembered the horror of hyperinflation, which had obliterated the fruit of lifetimes of hard work, and all remembered with contempt the feuding coalition governments whose incompetent stewardship had brought the nation to ruin. The economy’s recent growth was vertiginous but precarious, funded by overseas loans that massively increased the nation’s debt. Unemployment rose and rose. A poorly understood global economic crisis fueled dark conspiracy theories. Daily political violence lent to life a pervasive feeling of menace. The newspapers overflowed with right-wing propaganda. Screaming headlines reported violent clashes in the streets. Intellectuals were assassinated.
The constitution was new and weak, lacking legitimacy and vulnerable to subversion. Many in the City believed that foreign powers were conspiring to weaken and humiliate the nation. Most were cynical about democratic experiments; all were revolted by the selfishness and corruption of their political parties. The cravenness of the industrialists and the business class provoked widespread disgust with capitalism itself. Many yearned for, many openly demanded, a more authoritarian government. Europe, America, and particularly the Jews–those sinister, infinitely powerful magicians–were blamed for the City’s discontents.
A shouting demagogue, having once been arrested for his extremist views, now focused on legal methods of attaining power. He would restore the nation to its former glory, he promised. Intellectuals thought him a ruffian and a buffoon.
The City was proud: it was the new vanguard, the greatest metropolis in the world! It was ashamed: look at what had been lost, how ugly it had become! The City “delighted most, terrified some, but left no one indifferent, and it induced, by its vitality, a certain inclination to exaggerate what one saw.” So Peter Gay described Weimar Berlin.
But his descriptions, as do all of these, might have been written about the Istanbul in which I live. There is a spookiness to living in a city at the epicenter of an impending political catastrophe, a mood of dread but also of astonishing vitality–economic, creative, artistic. It is a distinctive mood and, to anyone acquainted with history, a familiar mood.
There is, it seems, such a phenomenon as a Weimar City.
What is a Weimar City? It is a city rich in history and culture, animated by political precariousness and by a recent rupture with the past, vivified by a shocking conflict with mass urbanization and industrialization; a city where sudden liberalization has unleashed the social and political imagination–but where the threat of authoritarian reaction is always in the air.
Weimar Cities are not freaks of nature. They may be expected to arise under certain social, political, and historical circumstances. World War I destroyed both Imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The remnants of both entities succeeded in imposing alien new social orders on themselves, fragile experiments in democracy. The Turkish Republic has lasted far longer than the Weimar Republic, but the stories do not differ in the fundamentals; they have merely been telescoped or expanded by contingent events.
With the rise to power in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, the Turkish Republic has experienced a fresh convulsion. The AKP opened the Pandora’s box of political Islam. It has presented its reforms as an exercise in liberalization. In a sense, this is true: religion as a political force had, since the founding of the Republic, been repressed. In another sense, it is not true at all: this particular political force is one that, by its nature, tends ultimately to erase liberal reforms. “Democracy is like a streetcar,” Recep Tayyip ErdoÇ§an, now prime minister, said infamously in 1995. “When you come to your stop, you get off.”
Turkey is now in the throes of two revolutions. The social transformations over which Mustafa Kemal AtatÃ¼rk presided have not yet been assimilated; simultaneously, something new–and old–has rushed up to challenge them. The ancient order is thus disappearing doubly. Cultures, it would seem, react in particular ways to the disappearance of ancient orders. The febrile characteristics of Weimar Cities appear at just such times–the in-between times. As fever is a sign of disease, so it is a sign of social dislocation….