How happy we were when a military postcard, or even better, a letter arrived from Reinach! He was stationed in the vicinity of Verdun. In one letter he once sent us each a snowdrop. He had picked them himself, and they were still fresh when they arrived.
(Life in a Jewish Family, Edith Stein; Chapter VII)
When an Imperial power launches an unprovoked war of aggression against its neighbour we do not necessarily expect the soldiers of the invading army to stop off in order to pick snowdrops and send them to the girls they left behind. In a world, though, where both military conscription and postal services exist such things will, nonetheless keep happening. And this regardless of whether the soldiers and the girls are on the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ side of history or of some kind of objective moral judgement.
Edith Stein was undoubtedly possessed of one of the finest of human intellects, easily fitting into the top 1% of human thinkers, and in 1914 as a philosophy student she would have been at the height of her mental powers. Nor could she be described as an evil person. Indeed under the name she adopted when she became a Carmelite nun, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she has been canonised as a saint by the Catholic Church. Yet in that fateful year of 1914 she saw nothing wrong with supporting her country, Germany, in its life and death war “...with jubilant cries of victory, we followed the progress of our army into France; we used coloured pins to mark the route on our big maps and awaited the day when ‘we’ would march into Paris“
Even if we are philosophers there are huge chunks of our lives, and of the norms of the society we inhabit, that we simply accept from the time of our childhood on up without examining them too closely. They just are. And when great big existential manifestations of the norm suddenly appear in our lives our priority is to deal with them, to find ways of making them liveable with. Analysing them can wait till after the crisis is over. Which in the case of a twentieth century world war is not going to be for some years.
It can be a difficult thing for those of us who have lived entire lives in societies which are stable and at peace to understand but in the midst of a catastrophic global conflict leading to massive death and destruction very often the concerns of ordinary folk are ordinary concerns. What to eat and when, which bus to catch, how to avoid getting caught in the rain, how to preserve the snowdrops somebody has sent to you through the post. One of Edith’s colleagues at the front, Kaufmann, was concerned not only about killing and being killed but also about falling behind in his studies “I attended Husserl’s major course on Logic during the first winter of the war. As this material was unfamiliar to Kaufmann, I then had it typed for him from my course notebook….This gift made Kaufmann so happy that not only did he thank me himself but so did his only sister Marta who obviously loved her elder brother very much.” (Chapter IX)
About a century later the feature length Japanese anime film In This Corner of the World (Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni) was released. It shows episodes from the life of Suzu a girl from the Hiroshima region of Japan. Beginning in 1933 when she was eight and ending in the late 1940’s during the American occupation when she was a young housewife. Mostly the film is about ordinary people trying to do ordinary things, but increasingly because of food shortages, military paranoia, bombing, strafing, injury and bereavement achieving the ordinary becomes an extraordinarily difficult feat. As a child Suzu sometimes drifted into a world of daydreams which could result in her getting lost as she wandered around without paying attention to her surroundings. Even adulthood and war doesn’t stop that sometimes happening. Like Kaufmann Suzu found that the stuff that inhabited her deepest being couldn’t be driven out of her simply through fear, hunger or stress. A war changes how you behave but it doesn’t necessarily change who you are (although it might.)
The thing that we see about Suzu and those around her is that they simply adapt to the degree that they have to in order to survive as individuals and families and to maintain the daily practices that make life worth living, from shared meals to smelling flowers. Edith and her friends and family did the same in the face of the constant flow of casualties back from the war zones and the blockade imposed on continental Europe by the British. Adaptability is humanity’s superpower. It is the reason that we can inhabit tropical jungles, deserts and arctic regions. We can cope because we can problem-solve. It is one of the fruits of possessing both consciousness and language.
If you are British, American, French or Chinese, you might think that the Germans and the Japanese ‘had it coming to them.’ If they experienced hardship, anguish and suffering in wars which they themselves had begun then so be it. And if neither Edith nor Suzu had had a hand in committing atrocities they were nonetheless in complete sympathy with the armed aggressions of their respective countries (one of the few times where Suzu displays extreme distress is after hearing the Emperor announce Japan’s surrender.) But that in itself, it might be argued, is simply another manifestation of human adaptability. The fact that almost everyone in a given society shares a set of assumptions and, therefore, tends to draw similar conclusions when faced with particular phenomena is surely a product of the necessary process we need to negotiate when sharing space with millions of other people.
To put it another way. If Edith Stein, having been brought up as a German, thought and felt like a German then why should that surprise us? If you are brought up as an American and think and feel like an American is that because America is objectively better than Imperial Germany? Or because you are objectively a more moral person than St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross? Or is it because each one of us from the moment our mothers give birth to us (only mothers can give birth) are sucking in not only the milk we are offered but the whole atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being. If you, from the outside looking in, see all that’s wrong about this atmosphere then fine, but what standpoint do you use to assess the only atmosphere you have ever inhabited?
We can say that sometimes it becomes necessary to resist aggression or to stand up against oppression, and that resisting and that standing-up may require the use of lethal force at times. But the necessity with which we cloak our actions does not diminish the humanity of those against whom we act. The people we bomb send snowdrops and lecture notes to each other through the post. Some of the people underneath the atom bomb that devastated Hiroshima were daydreamers in the process of getting lost. People who are wrong about things do not cease thereby to be people and so their experience of suffering and loss is not somehow less intense than our own. And if, notwithstanding, we are willing for a greater good to inflict such suffering and loss upon them then we should also be willing at least to unflinchingly acknowledge it for what it is and not pretend that it is somehow lesser because they are somehow lesser.
In our own less violent 21st century culture wars we sometime suppose that it is alright to inflict stuff on oppressors because they possess a privilege simply by belonging to the oppressor group that cushions the effect of anything we, the oppressed and their allies, might do or say to them. A writer for the Guardian newspaper, for example, described the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron as experiencing ‘privileged pain’ after the death of his disabled son on the grounds that rich, powerful people don’t really suffer. All I would say is this. Edith Stein as a German experienced ‘privilege’ in respect to the victims of the Second Reich’s imperialism. Edith Stein was also murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 because her ancestors were Jewish. The concept of privilege only takes you so far. The concept of regarding the humanity of others in all its fullness and complexity before you make any important decisions regarding them takes you an awful lot further.
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The picture is a still from the film In This Corner of the World