Will we see totalitarianism in Europe again?

While there’s currently another thread with a charming discussion of the possible restoration of European monarchies, I’m picturing a scenario that seems much more realistic. Eight decades ago, when much of the world’s financial system was breaking down, different countries responded differently. Some democracies elected good leaders who plotted an intelligent course out of the financial difficulties. Others went the wrong direction and selected totalitarian leaders. This lead eventually to World War II. The Nazis were defeated, but at cost of letting the communists take over half of Europe. Europe’s last totalitarian regime, in Yugoslavia, was not destroyed until the late 90’s, and residual effects from that unfortunate set of events still exist in some places today.

I often hear that today’s economic crisis is “the worst since the Great Depression”. In the United States, whether measuring by unemployment or the stock market or anything else, things haven’t been nearly as bad as they were during the depression. In some European countries, on the other hand, the numbers are getting close to depression levels. Greece and Spain have unemployment rates higher than 20%. The Greek stock market has lost over 80% of its value in less than five years.

History tells us that political extremism thrives on economic crisis. In this month’s elections in Greece, parties of both the communist and fascist variety did better than expected. Likewise in the first round of French elections. There are signs of similar changes in other European countries, but so far no such party has actually taken power at the national level.

I’ll freely admit that a true understanding of the events that are destroying Europe’s financial system is beyond by capability. I recently read this article in the Financial Times detailing potential consequences of what’s happening:

So what might a collapse entail? A cessation of external official funding could trigger a disorderly collapse. The government would default. The European Central Bank would argue that Greek banks no longer possess good collateral, which would prevent it from operating as a lender of last resort. There would be comprehensive bank runs. Athens would impose exchange controls, introduce a new currency, redenominate domestic contracts and default on external contracts denominated in euros.

This would be chaos. Unpaid police officers and soldiers are unlikely to keep order. Looting and rioting could occur. A coup or civil war would be conceivable. Any new currency would depreciate and inflation would soar. …

A Greek exit, particularly a disorderly one, is likely to trigger bank runs in Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain, and even further afield. It could also cause collapses in the prices of financial and other assets. A flight to safety, to Germany or beyond the eurozone, could accelerate.

The doom loop in which several other nations are caught could worsen substantially. Spain’s official unemployment rate was 24 per cent in March, and its youth unemployment more than 50 per cent. The IMF forecasts its general government fiscal deficit at just over 6 per cent of GDP this year. With real GDP contracting, its fiscal position is worsening rapidly: gross debt is forecast to increase from 36 per cent of GDP in 2007 to 79 per cent and rising this year. Yields on government bonds are more than 6 per cent. A further large rise in these rates would be unmanageable. …

Suppose that such efforts were not undertaken and the eurozone disintegrated. Mr Cliffe has sought to evaluate such an event. He concludes that the impact on GDP would be huge, not least on Germany. Thus, “in 2012 a deep recession across the eurozone emerges, dragging down the global economy. In the eurozone, output falls range from 7 per cent in Germany to 13 per cent in Greece. Individual country experiences would vary depending upon their exposure to foreign trade and financial interlinkages.”

Inflation would soar in the periphery; in core nations, deflation would set in. Inflation should erode peripheral nations’ debt mountains, provided they were promptly redenominated in the new domestic currencies. The value of the foreign assets of core countries would fall, their new currencies would soar relative to erstwhile partners and their economies shrink. It would be painful for all.

This analysis may even be too optimistic in its estimate of the impact of a full break-up. The mechanisms at work would be powerful: runs; the imposition of (illegal) exchange controls; legal uncertainties; asset price collapses; unpredictable shifts in balance sheets; freezing of the financial system; disruption of central banking; collapse in spending and trade; and enormous shifts in the exchange rates of new currencies. Further government bailouts of financial systems would surely be needed, at great cost. Big recessions would also worsen already damaged fiscal positions.

Such a break-up would also trigger legions of lawsuits. Beyond this, the EU would be cast into legal and political limbo, with its most important treaties and its proudest achievement in tatters. It is impossible to guess at the result of such a profound change in the European order.

This sounds to me like an environment in which a totalitarian government could easily whip up public sentiment and reach power. I’m not saying that such an outcome is certain or even likely. The article I linked to says that this economic crisis may be avoided, and even if it happens it doesn’t guarantee a totalitarian government coming to power. However, to me it looks as if the possibility exists and it’s a large enough threat that we’d be foolish to ignore it entirely.

Won’t happen. The Europeans know damned well what living under totalitarianism looks like, and they know it isn’t a solution. Heck, the Greeks had to kick out a junta just forty years ago. I can see some fairly unpleasant politics emerging, even some xenophobic nonsense - but at the end of the day, democratic institutions will still be in charge.

If the Great Recession continues/double dips then I do think you will see totalitarian states in Europe. Whether they will be expansionistic is another question.

As for a run on banks, it is already happening is a sense. I know that if you are in Italy, Spain etc…and you have a substantial savings in the bank (in Euros) you better get it the hell out…because if the government does leave the Euro, they will most likely forcibly take your savings and replace it with the country’s new currency which will rapidly lose most of its value.

Take your money out (in Euros) NOW even if you have to bury it in the back yard so that if the above does happen, in the future you can dig it up and exchange it at market rates for your country’s currency.

From John J. Reilly’s review of Fascism: A History, by Roger Eatwell:

Depending on how you define Europe and Totalitarianism, it might exist in Europe now.


It looks to be a possibility for Hungary, to the extent the EU has levied sanctions against the current government.

I would expect it’s more likely in former Soviet bloc nations, where western style democracy hasn’t really taken hold. Even in Russia, it’s not a stretch to argue that power is still heavily concentrated in the same few sets of hands it was back in the Soviet days.

Yes, just like in civilised, educated, advanced Germany, there was no chance of totalitarianism. It can happen in any country.

I would not be surprised to see a military coup in Greece to prevent a Left government taking them out of the Euro as the consequences for the world economy will be too dramatic. God knows they have been sold enough weaponry by France, Germany and the USA over the last few years.

Before the year is out,

We taught them a lesson in 1918, and they’ve hardly bothered us since then.

Your view of human behavior is optimistic. Mine, not so much. Europeans are used to a certain standard of living. They get water and electricity piped to their homes; food, clothing, and other necessities are easily available; paychecks arrive when expected; society as a whole functions smoothly, even during a recession. If a country like Greece reaches the point where the utilities no longer function, food and other things don’t reach store shelves, paychecks stop coming, and the police can’t keep order in the streets, people will grow desperate and emotions will take over. Reasoned considerations about the effects of totalitarianism may fall by the wayside.

The other thing to remember about totalitarians is that they often exploit genuine frustration with a democratic system. Right now there’s a lot of that frustration. In Greece the whole political system was corrupt, and throughout all of Europe there’s been inadequate leadership since the crisis started. Nobody has a workable plan for bringing down deficits while keeping economies in good shape. I find it all to easy to imagine a demagogue using these facts together with racist and nationalist rhetoric, convincing people that democracy is causing the problems, and saying that a dictator is needed to solve them.

You can bet your bottom Euro that behind closed Greek doors prospective ‘men on horseback’ are meeting with friends of friends of the extreme right to muse over what might be necessary when the June elections come up with the wrong results.

There’s too much at stake for all sorts of national and international shennanigans not to be going on.

A totalitarian government? You mean, the EU becomes totalitarian? Seems unlikely.

No, I’m picturing individual countries turning to totalitarianism.

Percentage of GDP spent on the military isn’t a good indicator of how totalitarian a country is. The US spends 4.8% and Israel 7.8% and neither is totalitarian or slipping in that direction. As for arms importations consider the source: an article in The Journal of Turkish Weekly casting Greece in a bad light vis a vis Turkey, from the original article:

There is a good deal of animosity between Greece and Turkey, and it all sounds very ominous unless one realizes that Turkey spent more on the military than Greece, they just didn’t have to import it as much as they have developed their own domestic arms industry. For example, the 160ish F-16s Greece bought were imported, while the 240 Turkey bought were produced domestically under license.

On the other hand, one could say despite the lessons of WW2 Greece still had to kick out a junta only 40 years ago, Salazar continued to rule in Portugal until 1968, and Franco in Spain as late as 1975; 30 years after the end of WW2.

Then it’s a good job no one in this thread has claimed it is then. It is, however, an indication of how well-equipped a military is and whose arms industries have been selling them this shit and are probably expecting to be paid for it in shiny euro’s not worthless drachma.

One does not have to be a cynic to think that people (both State and Non-State actors) with a lot to lose if Greece falls out of the euro have a backup plan to ‘Let TheAngry, Impoverished Greek Electorate Decide’. The West were totally fine with the Colonels as well as the spanish and portugese fascist regimes until they fell to internal pressure.

Sure, when a coup comes, there will be a lot of EU hand-wringing and crocodile tears before ‘reluctantly’ letting a non-democratic Greece remain part of the EU in exchange for a nebulous time-table for a ‘return to democracy’.

This is the real world, where it seems, the well-being of the world economy rests on somehow squeezing more blood out of the Greek stone.

Maybe they’ll convince themselves that somehow a Greek default won’t lead to the fall of the rest of the southern european economic dominoes.

But my money is still on a coup if the anti-austerity parties win out in the June elections.

And if there is there is a nice, shiny army to carry it out.

EDIT - there is no Turkish ‘threat’ to arm against to this extent. Both are NATO members with no serious territorial disputes and it is utterly inconceivable that a shooting war is possible.

Turkey borders a volatile Middle East and has the Kurdish issue. They are not arming against Greece.

Right, international capital is really going to let that happen.

Lets try and live in the 21st century people.

No country in Europe is going to become totalitarian. That requires a totalizing ideology. There might be illiberal and undemocratic authoritarian governments in Europe, that’s not the same as totalitarianism.

Also, it’s one thing if Greece gets an authoritarian government. It’s another when France or Germany does.

The next misconception is that the Fascists of the 30s rode to power on the promise of increasing living standards. They didn’t. They rode to power promising war, bloodshed, glory, shared sacrifice, and heroism.

Anything could happen in Europe over the next few years, but the one thing that is guaranteed not to happen in Europe is a replay of the disasters of 1914-1945. They’ll have their own brand new disasters.

For a coup to work, the generals behind the coup have to give orders that the captains and lieutenants and seargants and privates obey. When the generals order the army to shoot at the people, does the army obey? And if the new government is popular and doesn’t need to shoot the people to stay in power, then it isn’t a coup, they can take over by democratic means.

Then why were you quoting the % of GDP it’s been spending on the military? How well armed a countries military is (which surprisingly is directly related to % GDP spending) also doesn’t have much bearing on how totalitarian a country is or is likely to become. A military coup doesn’t need tanks, bombers, guided munitions or even a particularly large army. Noriega’s Panama and Pinochet’s Chile weren’t particularly well armed for example.

Cynical, no. Paranoid and conspiratorial more come to mind.

Clearly you are entirely unfamiliar with Greek-Turkish relations. See for example Cyprus Dispute, Aegean Dispute,in 1995, The Turkish Parliament issued a casus belli against Greece in reaction to an enacted extension of Greek territorial waters from 6 nautical miles (11 km) to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the coast and here are some incidents:

To show, as I reiterated, they have a well-equipped military. It’s not rocket surgery.