Is there a link between the euro crisis, the powerlessness of political leaders and the murder of two Senegalese street traders, perpetrated by a far right extremist in Florence on 13 December?

At first glance, the answer appears to be no. On the one hand, you have a wealthy continent ruled by incapable leaders that are unable to restart their countries’ economies in the wake of half a century of success: on the other, an armed racist neo-fascist. But, take a closer look and you will see how, in the wake of the psychological turmoil prompted by the recession, the worst poisons of our history are returning to the surface.

When he returned to London following the divorce with Europe, British Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised by observers of the City, which he claims he wants to defend. But he was also acclaimed by conservative MPs who hailed his return to Westminster with shouts of “Bulldog spirit!” — a reference to the British bulldog much loved by Winston Churchill.

In the last few months of debate on the euro, we have been treated to a nauseating collection of snapshots from an album of bad memories that we assumed would be forever closed.

In Greece, there were demands “for war reparations for the German occupation of the country during the Second World War,” to be handed over in exchange for the payment of Athens’ debt. German newspapers, led by Bild, described Greeks as lazy and us Italians as spendthrift orgyists.

Playing with the fire of populism and nationalism

In response to Berlin economists’ criticism of our public finances, Italian websites have been flooded with anonymous comments that confine what they have to say to “Germans = SS.” Cameron’s performance has prompted references to “perfidious Albion” — a term much cherished by Mussolini.

Hatred, resentment, racism, contempt for others, intolerance: all of these incidents have been marked by the same DNA which manifests itself in time of crisis. And this is also true of the 13 December murders in Florence.

In 2003, on the eve of the war in Iraq, a disagreement between the United States and Europe — that is to say the allies who 15 years earlier encountered no resistance when they won the Cold War — degenerated into an exceptionally vehement exchange of insults. Remember Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus… ? The nonsense that poisoned the atmosphere at the time highlighted a sense of unease and a remoteness that has persisted ever since.

In the spring of 2003, the United States Congrees invited four European witnesses to a hearing that was supposed to bridge the gap that had opened up between Washington and Brussels. I was one of this group, as was the current Foreign Minister of Poland, Radek Sikorski. At the time, we highlighted the perils of playing with the fire of populism and nationalism in the difficult economic climate that prevailed at the beginning of the century.

Florence, a European capital of culture

And today, serious European observers, like Gideon Rachman and Martin Wolf, and even Economics Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman, are saying that they see in the hatred that is proliferating on the Internet, and the recession that is being triggered by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s failure to make the right choices, the beginnings of a season of tragedy similar to the 1930s in Europe, when we had totalitarian fascism in Italy, Spain and Germany, and Stalinist purges in Moscow.

Krugman writes that “the recession” has made -

... many Europeans furious at what is perceived, fairly or unfairly (or actually a bit of both), as a heavy-handed exercise of German power. Nobody familiar with Europe’s history can look at this resurgence of hostility without feeling a shiver.

The Nobel laureate was writing before the killings in Florence, but he was already raising the issue of the neo-Nazis connections of the Freedom Party in Austria, the xenophobia of the True Finns in Helsinki, the anit-semitic and anti-Roma group Jobbik and the authoritiarian tendencies of the Fidesz government in Hungary.

To this list we can add the neo-fascists in England and France and our own Italian racists, who were responsible for the bloodbath in highly civilised Florence, a European capital of culture for more than five centuries.

Fear of the demons to come

Is Krugman exaggerating? I hope he is. Unlike my Anglo-saxon colleagues, I do not believe that we will see a repeat of the 1930s with brown shirts once again marching in the streets: history does not progress mechanically, and evil demonstrates proof of imagination and a capacity for metamorphosis.

However, I believe that in response to the difficult economic times we are now facing, attacks on new arrivals in the name of supposed national identities, on Europeans in London and the English on the continent, along with a systematic hostility to “others” justified by “our” defence will be increasingly commonplace.

In this context, political leaders who want to take advantage of this epidemic to gain an extra vote, along with journalists who sow hatred to sell an extra copy or an extra click, are preparing a potion that could be very harmful.

It is not the fear of a return to an authoritarian past that should encourage us to defend well-being, growth, dialogue and tolerance. It is the fear of the demons to come that intolerance will invoke: they are not yet in blackshirts, but events ranging from the student massacre near Oslo to the killing in Florence have already shown their horrible faces.