Fascist and Nazi: these two words loom large in the history books and in heated conversations about politics - conversations that have far outlasted the regimes that originally embraced them. For many of us, the words fascist and Nazi bring to mind the worst dictators and crimes against humanity.
But as these ideologies make the news in 2020s, used especially in the context of a growing concern about authoritarian policies in the US, how many of us can define the key characteristics of a fascist or fascist regime? Or describe how fascism differs from Nazism?
As the saying goes, if we don’t know our history, we’ll be doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.
What is a fascist?
Fascism is a system of government led by a dictator who typically rules by forcefully and often violently suppressing opposition and criticism, controlling all industry and commerce, and promoting nationalism and often racism.
The word is sometimes capitalized, especially when it specifically refers to the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in Italy from 1922 to 1943, or authoritarian systems similar to his, including those of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Francisco Franco in Spain.
As an ideology, fascism typically centers around extreme nationalism and an opposition to democracy and liberalism. In practice, fascism revolves around a ruler who uses absolute power to suppress the individual freedom of citizens, making everyone completely subject to the power of the state. To achieve this, fascism often uses violent methods for political ends. In the context of a fascist government, this often involves the use of the military against citizens.
Fascism is often considered a form of totalitarianism, in which the government controls almost every aspect of ordinary life. (Some left-wing forms of government, such as forms of communism, are also considered to be totalitarian.)
The term fascist can be a noun referring generally to someone who has such views, or, more specifically, to a member of such a government or movement. Fascist can also be used as an adjective describing something involving or promoting fascism.
Where does the term fascist originate?
The first records of the word fascism in English come from around the 1920s. It comes from the Italian fascismo, from fascio, meaning “political group.” Mussolini formed these small political groups into a political party, Partito Nazionale Fascista - the National Fascist Party.
Fascism and the Italian fascio ultimately derive from the Latin fascis, meaning “bundle” (the plural form is fasces). In ancient Rome, fasces consisted of a bundle of rods with an axe blade sticking out. This was used as a symbol of a government official’s power. The Italian fascists brought back the fasces as a symbol of their brand of nationalism, which became known as fascism. The suffix -ism indicates a doctrine or set of principles.
What is a Nazi?
Nazis don’t need much of an introduction: they were the German government and military that slaughtered over six million Jews and others during World War II.
Nazi is a shortened form of Nationalsozialist (the National Socialist German Worker Party). The actions of these groups during WWII caused their names to become synonymous with “ruthless authoritarianism and unjust brutality.” Adolf Hitler led this party to power in Germany in 1933, and his rule lasted until 1945.
Nazism is described as one type of fascism. Both fascism and Nazism reject democracy and liberalism as ideologies, and instead embrace the concept of a nationalist state.
Fascism as an ideology focuses on the state itself. However, fascist leaders typically gain support by appealing to people’s nationalism and racism, especially by promoting suspicion or hatred of people that they label as foreigners or otherwise cast as illegitimate citizens—as Hitler did with the Jews in Germany. Such leaders often reinforce these themes among their followers with rallies and mass parades (developing what’s sometimes called a cult of personality).
Nazis (today’s movement to revive nazism is also known as neo-Nazism) believe in the superiority of the Aryan race. Nazis embrace such concepts as eugenics (which discouraged, for example, “reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits”) and scientific racism to further their views. Nazism views the state as a means to perpetuate these racist views.
The defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945, predictably, led to a general decline in the popularity of Nazis and fascists worldwide. The terms themselves became pejoratives; thus, the terms’ meanings became more negative over time.
Is it OK to call someone a Nazi or fascist?
In a moment when far-right nationalism has surged in countries across the globe, it can be hard to believe the terms Nazi and fascist have at times been used in a more lighthearted fashion. (Remember the Soup Nazi? It wasn’t that long ago.)
When a word’s meaning becomes more negative over time, it’s referred to as pejoration. The opposite - when a meaning is viewed in a more positive light over time - is called melioration. Word evolution like this is pretty common; some words even manage to go through both pejoration and melioration.
Fascist’s rehabilitation into the vernacular began much sooner than Nazis. The Oxford English Dictionary records metaphorical use of this word as early as 1945 to describe “someone intolerant or unduly coercive.” The term Nazi would follow suit, re-entering the common lexicon by the 1980s as shorthand for “people who are unbendingly and unfeelingly strict about something.”
Over the course of recent decades, Nazi (often spelled with a lowercase n) worked its way into everyday speech. A nazi became a figure of speech for anyone seen as extremely authoritarian. This use of nazi in that sense dates back to at least the 1950–60s, with self-styled surf nazis admitting their fanaticism for the waves. A grammar nazi is obsessively strict about formal rules of “grammar.” The phrase is recorded on a Usenet forum as early as 1990, five years before the TV sitcom Seinfeld featured its domineering Soup Nazi character.
It must be said that many people find the everyday use of these words (and especially that of Nazi) to be awkward at best and extremely insensitive at worst. Regardless of how strict or unyielding someone might seem, you might want to think twice before hurling the term fascist or Nazi at them at a time when many people are on edge about authoritarianism. Then again, if you encounter an actual fascist or Nazi … we’re not going to stop you from letting the insults fly.