Edith Stein and the power of empathy

Peter Salmon in Prospect Magazine:

In October 1943, Henrich Himmler gave two speeches in Posen, Poland. The Posen speeches, as they have come to be known, represent the first time a member of Hitler’s Cabinet had publicly articulated the Nazi policy of the extermination of the Jews. Himmler, the head of the SS, acknowledged that the task was not without personal difficulty—to see 1,000 corpses and remain “decent” was hard, he said, but the experience made those who carried out the exterminations “tough.” What about the killing of women and children? According to Himmler, they needed to be exterminated because they might become—or give birth to—avengers of their fathers. In the end, he said, “the difficult decision had to be made to have this people disappear from the earth.” Empathy, while a natural human response, needed to be set aside.

A year earlier, 51-year-old Edith Stein had been one of those disappeared by the Nazis on 9th August. Born Jewish, she was one of the remarkable women who had become part of the first followers of the new philosophy of phenomenology. She received her doctorate at the age of 25 and became, along with Martin Heidegger, one of Edmund Husserl’s teaching assistants and closest intellectual confidantes. Her doctoral thesis tackled one of phenomenology’s most pressing questions: it was called On the Problem of Empathy. For Stein, “the problem of empathy” was more than a theoretical subject: it guided her brief life in unexpected ways—killed for being Jewish, she was at the time of her death a Catholic nun. Too often overlooked as a thinker, she is now one of the six patron saints of Europe known as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

More here.