After the trial, Michael spends most of his summer and winter semester studying at the library or at home, avoiding or brushing off acquaintances. His feeling of numbness remains, and he moves away from home to rent a room. Despite Michael’s aloofness, his classmates invite him on a ski trip and he accepts. Though he is not a skilled skier, he purposefully risks falls by attempting to ski more difficult slopes. Because he doesn’t feel cold, he neglects to protect himself from the weather and has to be brought to a hospital for a fever.
Just as he distanced himself from friends after Hanna left him, Michael distances himself from classmates and acquaintances after Hanna is imprisoned. That Michael purposefully puts himself in harm’s way indicates that he no longer views his life or himself as important, suggesting a disconnection from himself similar to that of Hanna.
When Michael returns from the hospital, the numbness disappears and “all the questions and fears, accusations and self-accusations, all the horror and pain that had erupted during the trial and been immediately deadened were back.” The narrator believes that his numbness had to overwhelm him physically in order to let go of him psychologically. By the time Michael finishes his studies and begins clerking with a judge, the student movements in Germany have begun. Though he is aware of the students’ calls for university reforms, protests against the Vietnam War, and most importantly, their struggle to deal with Germany’s Nazi past, Michael does not take part because he still feels disconnected from the other students.
Michael regards his numbness as an illness that passes with his fever. Yet though he is no longer numb, Michael still feels disconnected from his peers, many of whom are taking part in the student protests against the continued presence of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in universities and government. Because of his relationship with Hanna, he doesn’t feel as morally sure of himself as someone who is totally non-complicit in the Holocaust, and thus able to judge those who are.
The narrator then proposes that the struggle to come to terms with the Nazi past “was not the reason for the generational conflict that drove the student movement, but merely the form it took.” Though every generation seeks to free itself in some way from their parents, the previous generation’s expectations were especially “nullified” by their moral failures during the Nazi regime. The narrator notes that this issue even affected children with morally unobjectionable parents: “For them, coming to grips with the Nazi past was not merely the form taken by a generational conflict, it was the issue itself.”
For Michael’s generation, dealing with the Nazi past was both the form of generational conflict—in that his peers struggled with their parents’ past—and the issue itself, in that this struggle caused moral conflict between generations. For example, Michael’s condemnation of his parents as complicit, despite their blamelessness, is itself a source of more generational conflict.
For Michael’s generation, collective guilt was “a lived reality.” The fact that after the war, Jewish graves were still being vandalized with swastikas and that former Nazis were still involved in government and universities contributed to the students’ collective guilt. The narrator reflects that “pointing at the guilty parties” for these acts helped to alleviate, if not the students’ shame, at least their suffering of shame.
The continued presence of German anti-Semitism and the accommodation of former Nazis in society is a source of collective guilt for the students. The narrator represents their “pointing” at the guilty not necessarily as a moral obligation but as a way to relieve their own shame.
However, Michael feels that he has no one else to blame, especially not his mother and father, whom he is now embarrassed to have condemned during his concentration camps seminar. Michael realizes that the only culpable person that he knows personally is Hanna, and that he must “point at” her. But if he points at her, he must also point at himself, as he had chosen her and loved her. Michael tries to rationalize his love by comparing it to the innocence of filial love, but then decides that love for one’s parents is the only love that can be excused.
Unlike his peers, Michael is unable to point at anyone but Hanna and himself. He believes that he is guilty because he loved Hanna, and is therefore complicit in his crimes. Unlike his peers, who despite their love for their parents, did not choose them, Michael chose to love Hanna.
Yet Michael then assigns guilt even to filial love, pointing to the supposed incompatibility of feeling guilt with his fellow students’ “parad[ing] [of] one’s self-righteousness.” The narrator wonders if the students’ “dissociation” from their parents is “mere rhetoric” hiding their own complicity for loving their parents. Though Michael does not receive comfort from the thought that his pain for loving Hanna was “a German fate”, albeit one more difficult to avoid than others, he reflects that “it would have been good for [him] back then” to have been more integrated into his generation.
Michael’s claim that even filial love may be subject to guilt is perhaps a way for him to alleviate his own feelings of guilt – though he cannot point at his parents, he can point at his peers. However, Michael envies them all the same, as his guilt over loving Hanna makes him feel disconnected from his generation. Nevertheless, that he identifies his pain as “a German fate” indicates the shared nature of guilt among the entire nation, of which he is still a part.