Neo-Fascism's Stunning Rise in Europe

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The past weighs heavily on us. That’s the message that I got during the first week of a sabbatical in southern Europe. Two incidents, one in Rome and the other outside Athens, showed this roving historian firsthand the real presence of neo-Fascism. 

Soon after arriving in Rome, my wife and I took a stroll in the Villa Sciarra. This lovely park across the Tiber sits on the grounds of a former estate, with a 17th-century villa in the center.

A plaque on the wall of the villa states that the last owner, Henrietta Wurts, donated the estate to the people of Rome. Oddly enough, two lines of the inscription have been erased. Or not so strangely, once you look at the date – 1932. That year came smack in the middle of the Fascist era, so it doesn’t take much imagination to fill in the blanks. Signora Wurts gave the estate to Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, known as “the leader” – Il Duce in Italian. The only condition was that he make it a public park, which he did.

As my wife and I stood discussing this, a rather disheveled man approached us. Complaining loudly in Italian about the “shame” of the erasure, the gentleman went on to call the Italian dictator's expunging from the plaque a “disgrace.” He gave Mussolini the term of respect that was used to describe him in the Fascist era, “il cavaliere Benito Mussolini,” that is, Sir Benito. He then pulled out a small medallion stamped with Mussolini’s face. We walked away, slowly.

In a sense, the incident was no surprise. Italy is a wonderful country and the Italians are the salt of the earth. But society there has never come to grips with its painful past. That an Italian would openly praise Mussolini to foreign strangers was, sadly, plausible.

Still, I guess the Rome incident could be filed under 'C' for crank - not so the set of events a few days later in Greece; they were downright disturbing. What happened was this: We were visiting a small city near Athens to take part in a historical commemoration. It was a great event. Justly famous for their hospitality and friendship, the Greeks did not disappoint. A number of different ceremonies were scheduled over a period of several days. At one of them, representatives of Greece’s various political parties were invited to take part.

We noticed that one group of attendees was wearing black tee shirts, reminiscent of Fascist paramilitary groups in pre-1945 Europe. They were supporters of Golden Dawn. A political party, Golden Dawn recently broke into the big leagues, scoring 18 out of 300 seats in this year's parliamentary elections, making it the fifth largest party in Greece.

Proudly nationalist and openly racist, Golden Dawn follows the motto, “Greece for the Greeks.” Greece has a very large immigrant population, and Golden Dawn opposes immigration. In a country of 11 million people, 1.5 million are immigrants – many of them non-white, thus adding a racial dimension. Members of Golden Dawn have been involved in a number of violent incidents against immigrants and political opponents.

But, as Greek friends have told me, Golden Dawn also engages in charitable works, such as escorting the elderly to the bank in dangerous neighborhoods. My Greek friends found this as clever as it is disturbing. It is no surprise that support for Golden Dawn is rising, as is Greek backlash and concern.

Golden Dawn rejects the label of neo-Fascist or neo-Nazi, but its symbolism suggests otherwise. On closer look, we saw that its supporters’ black shirts boasted a Greek Key design subtly resembling a swastika. There was certainly nothing subtle about the shout with which they made their presence known at the ceremony, resembling something between a football cheer and a war cry.

The next day, members of Golden Dawn advertised themselves at another event. Representatives of political parties had not been invited there. About 50 supporters of Golden Dawn rode by on motorcycles as dignitaries arrived at a luncheon — an event featuring several Greek and foreign officials. Several of those on motorcycles carried Greek flags as they passed loudly by.

These were minor incidents, I suppose. Minor, until you consider what they might symbolize.

Golden Dawn openly identifies with the Metaxas dictatorship of pre-World War II Greece, an authoritarian if not quite fascist regime. No one is talking about another authoritarian government that ruled Greece more recently. Yet it was only about 40 years ago that Greece was freed from the dictatorship of the colonels, a military junta that overthrew democracy in a violent coup in 1967. The colonels fell in 1974 only because they had badly over-extended themselves in a plot to take over Cyprus. That backfired disastrously, leading to a Turkish invasion of Cyprus that has divided the island to this day. The colonels collapsed in disgrace and handed power back to civilians.

Greek democracy had thrived since the junta's fall in 1974, until the recent financial crisis, that is. Now, forced into a drastic and unpopular austerity program by its backers in the European Union, Greek governments have been battered by the rise of extremists not only on the right but also on the left, where Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, nearly won the last parliamentary election.

Italy’s economy is in severe recession, and Greece faces a downright depression. That alone is no doubt enough to explain the rise of a group like Golden Dawn or the mouthing of a busybody in a park in Rome.

But neither is enough to soothe the worry that something ugly is brewing in the lands that gave birth to democracy and republicanism. As the leaders of Europe ponder their next moves, they need to remember that more than bank balances are at stake. Extremism has exacted a terrible price in Europe’s not-so-distant past. We must not pay it again.

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