In her book A History of God, Karen Armstrong notes that atheistic ideologies can lead to atrocities as readily as theologies. But then she smears Nietzsche by repeating the falsehood that he was somehow an inspiration for Nazism, and that his atheism somehow contributed to Nazi atrocities. The accusation is an insult not just to Nietzsche but to the victims of the Holocaust.
Like Hegel's, Nietzsche's theories were used by a later generation of Germans to justify the policies of National Socialism, a reminder that an atheistic ideology can be just as cruel a crusading ethic as the idea of "God."
Now, I don't doubt the last bit. If you think in apocalyptic terms, it doesn't much matter whether you think you have a personal God on your side or whether you "just" think you are doing the will of History or some kind of impersonal Providence - or some other abstraction that mandates your actions. An apocalyptic, all-encompassing ideology can drive people to commit atrocities whether or not the ideology is theistic. All such ideologies, theistic or otherwise, have the potential to drive their followers to horrible conduct that is deemed to be justified and necessary. Various non-theistic forms of revolutionary communism have been like this. Unfortunately, the greater the technological power that can be employed in the service of such a worldview, the larger the scale of atrocities that its followers can commit.
All the same, Nazism, unlike revolutionary communism of the Marxist-Leninist varieties, was never an atheistic system. Whereas Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others may have thought they were somehow doing the work of History, the Nazis were convinced that they were doing God's work. Whatever the Nazi leaders may have picked up from Nietzsche, it wasn't his atheism. Indeed, atheists were among those whom the Nazis hated. Moreover, Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic; he was contemptuous of anti-Semites. But the most horrifying of the Nazi actions - the death camps that were used to kill millions of Jews and others in the most cruel and atrocious ways - were a result of the extreme anti-Semitism pervading Nazi thought. Wherever the Nazis got this from, and it's not that hard to guess, it wasn't from the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche.
There's something repellent about these sentences in Armstrong's A History of God, something sinister in the way they gloss over the complexity of events to create an impression almost the opposite of the truth. The anti-Semitism of the Nazis did not come from Nietzsche's thought and had nothing to do with Nietzsche's style of atheism. Yes, there can be apocalyptic, comprehensive belief systems that are non-theistic, and which lead to atrocities, but Nazism was never such a system, and nor was Nietzsche's own (relatively unsystematic) thought. There can, of course, also be peaceful forms of religion that are not likely to commit atrocities. As far as I'm aware, no Quaker has ever massacred helpless victims in a ditch or burned them alive, or tortured them with insanely cruel instruments. For any atheist to deny this would be churlish.
There are many sensible things that could have been said in the vicinity of the passage I've quoted from Armstrong, but she doesn't say those things; and when she tries to make a point of her own, she does it over the cruelly abused bodies of Nazism's victims, all the millions of them.
I'm sure there's a name for what Armstrong is doing here, but if so I can't think of it. It's something worse than intellectual dishonesty, something more callous than ordinary cynicism. It can't be simple clumsiness. Maybe you can think of what it should be called ... better, at least, than I can. A passage like that makes my jaw drop. It leaves me more or less lost for words. Whatever it's called, this sort of writing has a peculiar nastiness about it, a kind of oblivious cruelty. It's not the sort of passage you'd look for from the high priestess of religion as compassion.
Or maybe it is.