Beyond banality: deception, Eichmann and evil

The Brisbane and Melbourne campuses recently hosted more than 140 highly engaged attendees at the 2023 Simone Weil lecture on Human Value. 

In this year’s lecture, ‘Beyond banality: deception, Eichmann and evil’ Associate Professor Matthew Sharpe spoke of how the idea of the banality of evil has passed into popular understandings of the great state-based crimes of the 20th Century. 

Hannah Arendt coined the idea as a theory to explain the apparently mundane thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, the principal Nazi bureaucrat involved in scheduling trains to the death camps in the Holocaust, when he was brought to trial in 1961 in Jerusalem. 

Arendt's account suggests that the Nazi war criminals were not ideological fanatics, but ordinary modern men, dehumanised by bureaucracy. 

However, Associate Professor Sharpe argued that testimony and writings from Eichmann whilst he was still at large with Nazi emigres in Argentina, shows clearly that Eichmann was a Nazi true believer, who continued to endorse the extreme antisemitism of his ideological training. 

Starting from these observations, the lecture raised the questions surrounding the place of deception, first in the ways that the Holocaust was carried out (deception of the victims, then denial of the crimes and of culprits' responsibility), but more widely, of how we should understand the sadly proven human propensity to visit atrocities on other people(s).

You can read more in “Is it time to reconsider the idea of ‘the banality of evil’?


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