The word “fascism” has returned to American political conversation since the rise of Donald Trump. On the Left, it has become a catch-all term to condemn Trump, Trumpism, and right-wing populism more broadly. On the Right, it is used nonsensically to discredit any perceived governmental overreach. In these discussions, Nazism is invariably invoked as a synonym for fascism, especially in toxic online conversations where Godwin’s Law reigns supreme.
But Nazism and fascism are two different ideologies with different (though related) histories, and their elision is reductive at best and dangerous at worst. Fascism is the umbrella term, while Nazism is but one of many manifestations. It’s a bit like that rectangle-square relationship we all learn in elementary school: all Nazis are fascists but not all fascists are Nazis. While the two ideologies have much in common, their differences are equally (if not more) important for making sense of our present moment.
Many right-wing spokespersons, ringleaders, and ideologues today will of course claim to be anti-Nazi; they brag about the “U-S-A” as the “back-to-back World War champs” who twice defeated German militarism. They pontificate about “making America great again,” pining for the days when “the Greatest Generation” stormed the beaches of Normandy, and they resist any histories that depict the United States as anything but a promised land. While these right-wingers aren’t Nazis, they are often the same arms-bearing, originalist “patriots” who supported Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, including the treasonous, fascist-style Putsch attempt against Congress. And among Catholics, their claims are often wrapped up with a bow of conservative “family values”—code for homophobic and anti-abortion obsessions. Opposing overt Nazism is a good thing, but it is too low of a bar for Catholics (and for us all) to clear.
Similarly, the intellectual life of right-wing Catholicism has also taken an anti-democratic turn. A collection of think-tankers, armchair political pundits, and far-right keyboard warriors have embraced anti-liberal philosophies like those of political theorist Patrick Deneen, who advocates what he calls “aristopopulism.” To be sure, liberalism—across its many historical iterations—was and is laced with tensions and inequalities. But we ought not throw out the liberal baby with the bathwater. Europe’s recent past shows that disparaging Nazism while also ditching liberal democracy can be utterly catastrophic. In 1930s Austria, attacks against Nazism were meant as fuel for fascism. In other words, it was not just possible to be pro-fascist and anti-Nazi; many Austrians tried to make those impulses mutually reinforcing.
For most Americans, Austria on the eve of the Nazi annexation conjures idyllic melodies from The Sound of Music. It’s a lovely film, but it is fiction. As Rodgers and Hammerstein would have it, Austria had two opposing political factions: rabid Austrian Nazis foaming at the mouth in favor of annexation to Nazi Germany, and noble Austrian patriots who found subservience to brutish Nazi Germany abhorrent to their proud sense of refinement. And Catholicism, so the story goes, served as a bulwark of morality against Nazi browbeating.
To be sure, Austrian patriots who opposed Nazism were ardently Catholic. But they were no liberal democrats. Instead, they weaponized Catholicism for authoritarian purposes. The Austrian state before the Anschluss (the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938) was often referred to as the Ständestaat, or Corporatist State, a reference to the fascist economic policy pioneered in none other than Mussolini’s Italy. The guiding political philosophy of this Ständestaat was an Austrian strain of fascism, often known as Austrofascism. This ideology relied on a veritable grab bag of things they detested: from Marxism to socialism to liberalism. Essentially, the Austrofascist “movement” was a negative politics, fixated on tearing others down without really offering its own concrete policies for society.
What they did do was boast. Much like the Nazis, these Austrofascists were German-speaking, antisemitic ethno-nationalists with delusions of imperial grandeur. They proudly and repeatedly bragged of their “German-ness” in natalist terms, all to express a desire for greater German glory. But Austrofascists were also explicitly and violently anti-Nazi, and their disdain for Nazism hinged on their Catholicism.