The worst crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930’s has reawakened grim memories on both sides of the Atlantic.
The ghost of Franklin Delano Roosevelt haunts Barack Obama’s United States. Historical arguments over whether FDR’s New Deal worked now form an important part of American debates over current monetary and fiscal policy in general, and the US Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing in particular.
In Europe, where national economic failure once led to the collapse of democracy itself, people are now asking if it could happen again. Some see another Weimar moment, reminiscent of the belt-tightening and surging unemployment that characterized Heinrich Brüning’s Germany and helped to bring the Nazis to power.
At first sight, the reasons to dismiss this scenario seem overwhelming. If the European Union has done one thing, it is to make war between France and Germany unthinkable. Thus, the entire geopolitical context is far less threatening than it was in the 1930’s.
Moreover, the ideological extremes that excited and polarized the continent back then are hardly in vogue today.
Discredited by the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, communism is effectively moribund, and its core constituencies—where communist parties manage to hang on—are aging and incapable of reproducing themselves.
As for fascism, its political heirs in countries like Italy and France must contend with the stigma of the past. Vivid memories of total war and genocide, frequently revived, hinder any revival of the totalitarian parties of the right.
This is also why we are unlikely to see the return of military regimes in southern Europe or anywhere else; the suffering that they caused is too vivid. The last thing the Portuguese or Greek armies want to do is assume responsibility for governing.
Then there is the most fundamental—and, hence, easily overlooked—difference of all. In the 1930’s, politics attracted the masses because people believed in the future. Millions marched for the great causes of the day, and hundreds of thousands joined political parties—often for life. Today’s marches and demonstrations are a feeble reminder of those times, while parties everywhere are haemorrhaging members.
But it would be rash to conclude that the interwar crisis has nothing to teach us. Quite the contrary. In the 1930’s, the US and Britain were among the few countries in the world where multi-party democracy survived.
Almost everywhere else veered sharply to the right. In Germany and Italy, fascist parties came out on top, while elsewhere, dictators were backed by armies or kings.
Analysing these events much later, historians constructed elaborate typologies to distinguish between fascist and merely authoritarian regimes. These differences were not trivial. But much more important was what the fascist and authoritarian regimes shared—all were beneficiaries of a sweeping collapse of the legitimacy of democratic politics. They all thereby indicated that democracy is not some kind of natural condition, nor some end-point of history whose stability and permanence can be taken for granted.
On the contrary, democracy’s strength lies not just in its character, but in its achievements as well. Its popularity can ebb quickly when it becomes associated with crippling and systemic failure.
Those who doubt that this could happen again should consider the European country hardest hit in the current crisis—Greece. After the colonels’ junta there fell in 1974, a democratic system sprang up. Two main parties began to alternate in power and European integration acted as a stabilizer for domestic politics. It is not doing so now. On the contrary, Greece’s creditors—and its own politicians—have handled the crisis in a way that has thrown the entire constitutional achievement of the past four decades into doubt.
Indeed, the political turmoil caused by the crisis has broken the back of the old two-party system.
Between 2010 and 2012, the centre-left PASOK was in government, doing whatever it took to preserve Greece’s membership of the euro and ward off formal default. The result was that its electoral support plunged from 44% to 12%. It is now a wizened and humiliated husk of a party. The entire centre left is in flux, and new parties will probably come and go.
The centre-right New Democracy has also lost ground, though not as badly. But a new force has emerged on its flank: Golden Dawn, a frankly neo-Nazi party that is spreading violence on the streets and in public life.
The catalyst of Golden Dawn’s sudden rise is not Greece’s large population of illegal immigrants—their presence predates the rightward shift by many years—but rather the massive rise in poverty and unemployment over the last three years and, above all, growing popular anger with the political class as a whole.
In short, the crisis has produced a deep delegitimization of Greece’s democratic politicians and their supposed achievements.
This is not Weimar. But it illustrates how rapidly in 21st century European democracy has been undermined through the application of the economics of austerity, and by the failure of political leadership at home and abroad. What might replace democracy is another matter. But we should not be complacent merely because we cannot imagine the alternatives. ©2012/Project Syndicate
Mark Mazower is professor of history at Columbia University. His most recent book is ‘Governing the World: The History of an Idea’.