Niall Ferguson on Europe's New Fascists

Members of Golden Dawn sing the Greek National anthem. Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP-Getty Images

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. Can 13 percent of Italians really want to substitute the unkempt comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-European Five Star Movement, for Mario Monti, the prime minister who has pulled their country back from the brink of moral as well as financial bankruptcy? Do the supporters of the Lega Nord (Northern League) really intend to dismantle Italy and create a new rump state of Padania—not so much a banana republic as a Bolognese republic? Is talk of Catalan independence just a Barcelona bluff?

Nearly one in five French voters backed Marine Le Pen's French National Front in last spring's election. Le Pen has described the European Union as "a structure that I consider totalitarian, it is the European Soviet Union ... a rootless ... impotent empire." She also denounced last year's fiscal compact, designed to slash European budget deficits, as "anti-democratic," "anti-economic," and adopted "by order of Germany."

Credit where it's due: a few wise men warned the Europeans that creating a monetary union without any kind of fiscal integration would lead not just to economic crisis but also to conflict. They were right. Last month, at a conference on the shores of Lake Como, I heard Prime Minister Monti declare: "I do not fear controversies between governments, but I do fear difference and hate between peoples." That hate is growing.

Yet there is one crumb of comfort. Fascism is for young men. All that marching around, beating up opponents, and giving Roman salutes gets steadily harder once you pass the age of 30. And the good news is that Europe really has passed the age of 30. To be precise, nearly a quarter—23 percent—of the population of Greece are 65 or older. For the Italians it's even higher: 25 percent. Any Spaniard over 50 remembers what fascism was really like.

Perhaps for this reason, the new right tends to do rather poorly when people actually vote, rather than just opine to pollsters. The Dutch Freedom Party lost around a third of its seats in last month's elections. Earlier in the year, Timo Soini tried and failed to become the Finnish president. Marine Le Pen couldn't even win a seat for herself in the French National Assembly.

Blackshirts were bad and brownshirts were worse. But who's honestly afraid of grayshirts?

Fascism still isn't funny. But the more it ages, the less it scares me.

Niall Ferguson on Europe's New Fascists | World