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.
In contrast to the likes of U.S. radio stalwart Father Coughlin—who wielded Catholicism to muster sympathy and support for Nazism and American neutrality in World War II—Austrofascists used Catholicism to define themselves in opposition to Nazism. They pathologized Nazism as a vulgar, thuggish outgrowth of north German (i.e., Prussian) militarism and Protestantism, and they saw Nazism as a nearly pagan cult. In Austrofascist calculations, Catholicism made Austrians the “best type” of German and Christian—the most authentic creators, bearers, and defenders of Kultur and Geist. By this logic, their anti-Nazi stance was fulfilling Austria’s historical mission to hold the line of “the West” against nondescript hordes from “the East,” be they Mongols, Ottomans, Soviets, or, in the 1930s, Prussians in Nazi uniforms. Indeed, some Austrofascists disparaged Prussians as east European Slavs masquerading as Germans.
The Catholic Church in Austria went all in on this authoritarian, fascist endeavor. Such eager collaboration has also earned the Austrofascist regime the label of “clerical fascist” among some historians, a modern ideological spin on older notions of theocracy. Ignaz Seipel, the revered leader of the Christian Social Party that later spearheaded the Ständestaat, was himself a Catholic priest. Political rallies featured massive statues of Jesus on the cross, before which Church leaders said Mass. Such iconography and clerical agency would have been unheard of at Nazi rallies, where sacrality was held by the Führer alone. Austrofascists adored their own Führer, Engelbert Dollfuss, as the Austrian David to the German Goliath. When Nazis assassinated him in a 1934 Putsch-attempt, the country saw an outpouring of memorials that framed him as Austria’s messianic leader. Catholicism also framed Austrofascist policies, as Austrian leaders looked to the papal encyclical Quadragesimo anno to guide their economic decisions.
This curious Austrofascist case—while perhaps fringe and short-lived—casts a much longer legacy over the politicization of Catholicism. Mustering Catholicism against Nazism, while a good thing on its own, ought not be a heuristic for ethical and moral behavior. Case in point: Austrofascist leaders themselves committed horrific abuses. They oversaw the dismemberment of Parliament in 1933, warped Austria’s First Republic into their authoritarian dictatorship, violently suppressed opposition, banned other political parties, and established concentration camps for dissidents. Much of this persecution was aimed at the Left, but it was also meant to eliminate the Nazi threat in Austria, which was banned in 1933 and whose remaining members were, ironically enough, sent to such concentration camps.
Likewise, we see the Right of today offering us nothing but the braggadocious rhetoric of a negative politics, in which “owning the libs” has become both the means and ends. Indeed, Deneen attacks liberalism again and again as destructive of a healthy civilization and insists that its replacement through “a raw assertion of power” would allow the right kind of society to come into being. This vision is negative in two senses of the word: it mobilizes populism’s worst impulses, and it’s really just a cathartic tantrum aimed at tearing down the current establishment. All the while, it offers very little of substance that is actually new.
Such political-project-by-negation also rings uncannily familiar to what the Austrofascists had on offer: little to nothing feasible in their own right save for obsessive vitriol against everything else, from political ideologies like Nazism, Marxism, socialism, and liberalism to religious beliefs like Protestantism, Judaism, and atheism. Thus do such right-wing revolutionaries—indeed, Deneen claims to want something more revolutionary than revolution—do the (relatively) easy work of casting aspersions on the status quo. Since radical revolutionaries remain in opposition, usually by definition, they can keep procrastinating the much harder work of delivering new, concrete solutions until “after” they have “won,” even if that first victory is easy, pyrrhic, and short-lived. Trump, for example, was the ultimate tantrum candidate; after winning the White House, his meandering policies were just about slashing budgets, tax rates, and international agreements rather than delivering concrete results. At most, such negative politics just serve to contribute to ongoing confusion. People across the political spectrum must be wary not to fall for this cathartic clamor in the hopes that some better alternative will fall into place.
If we feed such frustration and resentment, then we risk repeating the same mistakes as Catholic Austrofascist activists: alienating, even eliminating, all available allies in the struggle against what was, in actuality, modern humanity’s worst ideology.