Europe's New Fascists

Article excerpt

Byline: Niall Ferguson

Populism takes an ominous turn.

It can be a mistake to laugh at fascists. Charlie Chaplin mocked Hitler and Mussolini in The Great Dictator. P.G. Wodehouse had fun with his preposterous parody of Oswald Mosley, Roderick Spode. But Nazism turned out to be no joke. Today Chaplin's film, for all his comic genius, is embarrassing to watch, while Wodehouse lived to regret his complacency about what was brewing in Berlin.

So when a party called "Golden Dawn"--which has something that looks a lot like a swastika as its logo-- starts denying aspects of the Holocaust and heaping opprobrium on immigrants, it's best to keep a straight face. Sure, they're Greeks, not Germans. Sure, their party leader, Nikolaos G. Michaloliakos, is about as charismatic as a barrel of rotten olives. But if elections were held tomorrow, these guys could become the third-largest party in the Greek Parliament.

The Greeks are the extreme case. But maybe that's only because economically they are the extreme case. This year the Greek economy is forecast to contract by 7 percent. Unemployment is at 23 percent and youth unemployment a mind-blowing 54 percent. Under these circumstances, it would be rather remarkable if people were patiently sticking to the mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right.

Populism is the standard political response to financial crisis. In America we have seen two different variants--the right-wing populism of the Tea Party and the left-wing populism of the Occupy movement. But European populism takes more toxic forms.

Nothing was easier to predict than this: that the crisis of the euro zone would spark a nationalist backlash. Golden Dawn is not just xenophobic; it's also Europhobic. The same thing has happened in the Netherlands: there, Geert Wilders started out by attacking Muslim immigrants (and indeed Islam itself), but has more recently added Euro-bashing to his repertoire of his Freedom Party.

This strategy was pioneered in Finland by the "True Finns," whose leader, Timo Soini, has succeeded in pushing his country's government to take an increasingly tough line on bailouts for (you've guessed it) the Greeks. Populism in the North fuels--and feeds on--populism in the South.

As I said, there is much about this neo- or crypto-fascist wave that is hard to take seriously. …