The next time Michael sees Hanna, it is in a courtroom at a trial concerning the concentration camps. Michael’s professor at university is researching the Nazi past and decides to make the trial the focus of his seminar. The students consider themselves “radical explorers” of the past, zealously committing themselves to uncovering the horrors of the Nazi regime.
Michael and his fellow law students become deeply concerned with the crimes of the previous generation in Germany’s recent past.
Not only do the students condemn camp guards and enforcers, but they also condemn “the generation that had been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945.” Many in the generation preceding Michael’s had been involved in the Third Reich, some as army or SS officers, and others as government officials or judges. Michael recalls, “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.”
Guilt, to Michael and his classmates, must be assigned not only to direct perpetrators of crimes but also their accommodators and bystanders. That these people comprise the previous generation, and thus the generation of the students’ parents, indicates a deep generational conflict over how to deal with the country’s Nazi past.
Michael’s class becomes known as “students of the camps.” Reflecting back on his zealousness, the narrator views their behavior as “repulsive.” They became convinced that it was their responsibility to make others aware of the horrible atrocities of the Nazi regime: “Even when the facts took our breath away, we held them up triumphantly. Look at this!” As time moves forward, Michael becomes more and more engaged with the horrors he discovers in his class and enthusiastically takes part in the class’s fervor.
The students’ belief that they must unearth images of Nazi horrors speaks to the novel’s use of the image as both historical record and a kind of voyeurism—a way of preserving the past, but also a way of detaching oneself from it and “othering” it.