The theme of war guilt in Bernard Schlink’s, “The Reader”
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One of the main ideas in The Reader is German war guilt – guilt felt by both the war-time generation and the post-war generation. The post-war generation, to which the author, Schlink, belongs, has struggled to come to terms with the war crimes committed by the previous generation. The novel begins with a sick Michael being comforted by the maternal Hanna. This is an obvious symbol for the idea that the post-war generation needs to confront the deeds of its predecessor before it can be free of a sense of collective guilt. The novel is clearly an allegory for the collective guilt of ordinary Germans.
Guilt is portrayed in the novel by a sense of numbness and isolation. Michael, along with the others at the trial, is numbed by the evils committed in his country’s name. This numbness is a symbol of the way ordinary Germans try to distance themselves from the ‘monsters’ who could commit such acts. After the trial, Michael suffers a fever and then is free of his numbness; this shows that confronting the past (as the trial did) is healthy for Germany.
A by-product of guilt is blame, and finding someone to blame is a way of lessening the pain of guilt. Hanna’s crimes and the ensuing trial expose the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. Hanna deals with her guilt – she was part of a group of guards who refused to unlock a burning church, causing the deaths of many prisoners – by blaming her orders: “we had to guard them and not let them escape.” Many war-time Germans blamed orders, politicians, mob mentality and ignorance. Similarly, Michael’s generation blame their parents to escape any guilt: “We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst.” Schlink obviously feels that those involved with the war have to face their complicity in the Holocaust before they can move on as a nation. Similarly, the post-war generation have to realise that the German society that gives them such a comfortable life is made up of ordinary people capable of real evil if the circumstances are right. Condemning their parents as monsters is not helpful – it’s dishonest. Michael eventually sees this as self-righteous and foolish: “How could one feel guilt and shame and at the same time parade one’s self-righteousness?” Michael feels that his generation should not only confront the deeds of their parents but also confront the problems in German society.
Hanna’s crime comes about because of her fatal flaw – conformity. She has grown up in a society that views adherence to societal norms as essential. During the trial Hanna readily admits her role in the deaths of the prisoners – due to her illiteracy, she admits much more than she should have – but she doesn’t seem to feel any real remorse. It is only later that she admits her crimes and suffers from guilt. She says the dead can call her to account: “Here in prison they were with me a lot. They came every night, whether I wanted them or not. Before the trial I could still chase them away when they wanted to come.” Hanna is humanised by her research into the Holocaust, her admission of guilt and her suffering, but she is not absolved by them.
The novel seems to be saying that Germans need to face the crimes of their country before they can be free of guilt. Michael chooses a career in law which will force him to grapple with moral issues at a level that actually affects people. Perhaps he wants to understand where Germany went wrong and try to change society where he can. It’s important that the survivor Michael tracks down in New York refuses to give Hanna absolution. Germany can never be absolved of the crimes of the Holocaust but it can seek out the reasons for its guilt and try to make the changes that ensure the conditions for evil are never again put in place.
At the very end of the novel Michael visits Hanna’s grave: “It was the first and only time I stood there.” This is a symbol of what post-war Germany can one day achieve – once they honestly confront their past, they can move on.