The primary concern of the novel is guilt about the Holocaust. Examining the role of guilt in post-war Germany, The Reader presents guilt as a pervasive and inevitable force. An important motif running throughout the story is the question of who must be held responsible for atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Michael and his generation lay blame on not only the Nazi perpetrators but also the bystanders — the previous generation who looked the other way, either by their inaction during the Holocaust or by accepting Nazi sympathizers and perpetrators back into society after the war. However, Michael also holds responsible his own generation for having accepted their parents, some of whom worked for Hitler’s regime and many of whom were bystanders. Filial love, Michael believes, “made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes.” That he identifies love for the previous generation as a kind of complicity speaks to the long-lasting role of guilt in a nation’s history. For Michael, this guilt becomes a collective national inheritance passed down from generation to generation, an unavoidable “German fate.”
Schlink portrays guilt as both destructive and necessary. Guilt is destructive in that it creates inner conflict as well as conflict within relationships and across generations. The guilt arising from the Holocaust causes Michael’s generation to be torn between love for their parents and the moral obligation of condemning them for their complicity. Another example of guilt’s destructive power is the damage that Michael’s guilt over disavowing Hanna inflicts on him. Michael’s resulting decision “never to take guilt upon [him]self or feel guilty, never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose” closes him off emotionally, sabotaging his relationships with others. Yet however destructive guilt may be, it also motivates people to take responsibility for their actions, to recognize mistakes and wrongdoing, and to avoid them in the future. For example, the collective guilt that Michael’s generation inherits from the Holocaust is what drives them to acknowledge and condemn Nazi war crimes. After his marriage fails, Michael feels guilty for the negative impact of his divorce on his daughter, motivating him to become more open in his relationships. That the novel presents both positive and negative consequences of guilt suggests that guilt must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility — responsibility not only to own one’s mistakes and wrongdoing but also to accept guilt in a way that is productive. Essentially, Schlink is arguing that Germany must face and deal with its Nazi past in order to move forward.
But even as Germany must accept guilt and deal with its Nazi past productively, absolution for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust is seemingly impossible. At the end of the novel, the Jewish woman in New York — the only remaining survivor of the church fire in which Hanna was complicit — refuses to accept Hanna’s money, because to do so would be to grant her absolution, and thus to relieve a Nazi criminal of responsibility. The woman’s inability to forgive Hanna suggests that some crimes are so heinous that they cannot be forgiven or atoned for. The guilty must always remain in a state of guilt, because to forgive would be to allow the guilty to forget their guilt and their victims. Though Hanna is already dead by the time Michael meets the woman, the woman’s refusal to grant Hanna absolution suggests that even the dead cannot be forgiven for such crimes.
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust ThemeTracker
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Quotes in The Reader
I asked her about her life, and it was as if she rummaged around in a dusty chest to get me the answers. She had grown up in a German community in Rumania, then come to Berlin at the age of sixteen, taken a job at the Siemens factory, and ended up in the army at twenty-one.… She had no family. She was thirty-six. She told me all this as if it were not her life but somebody else's, someone she didn't know well and who wasn't important to her. Things I wanted to know more about had vanished completely from her mind, and she didn't understand why I was interested in what had happened to her parents, whether she had had brothers and sisters, how she had lived in Berlin and what she'd done in the army.
I never found out what Hanna did when she wasn't working and we weren't together. When I asked, she turned away my questions. We did not have a world that we shared; she gave me the space in her life that she wanted me to have. I had to be content with that. Wanting more, even wanting to know more, was presumption on my part. If we were particularly happy with each other and I asked her something because at that moment it felt as if everything was possible and allowed, then she sometimes ducked my questions, instead of refusing outright to answer them.
I know that even if I had said goodbye to my memory of Hanna, I had not overcome it. Never to let myself be humiliated or humiliate myself after Hanna, never to take guilt upon myself or feel guilty, never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose — I didn't formulate any of this as I thought back then, but I know that's how I felt.
I adopted a posture of arrogant superiority. I behaved as if nothing could touch or shake or confuse me. I got involved in nothing, and I remember a teacher who saw through this and spoke to me about it; I was arrogantly dismissive.
It was evident to us that there had to be convictions. It was just as evident that conviction of this or that camp guard or enforcer was only the prelude. 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, was in the dock, and we explored it, subjected it to trial by daylight, and condemned it to shame… 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.
After a time I thought I could detect a similar numbness in other people.… The effect was strongest on the judges and the lay members of the court. During the first weeks of the trial they took in the horrors — sometimes recounted in tears, sometimes in choking voices, sometimes in agitated or broken sentences — with visible shock or obvious efforts at self-control. Later their faces returned to normal; they could smile and whisper to one another or even show traces of impatience when a witness lost the thread while testifying. When going to Israel to question a witness was discussed, they started getting the travel bug. The other students kept being horrified all over again. They only came to the trial once a week, and each time the same thing happened: the intrusion of horror into daily life. I, who was in court every day, observed their reactions with detachment.
"Did you not know that you were sending the prisoners to their death?"
"Yes, but the new ones came, and the old ones had to make room for the new ones."
"So because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?"
Hanna didn't understand what the presiding judge was getting at.
"I ... I mean ... so what would you have done?" Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.
I was oddly moved by the discrepancy between what must have been Hanna's actual concerns when she left my hometown and what I had imagined and theorized at the time. I had been sure that I had driven her away because I had betrayed and denied her, when in fact she had simply been running away from being found out by the streetcar company. However, the fact that I had not driven her away did not change the fact that I had betrayed her. So I was still guilty. And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.
When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real…. We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reissued until the 1980s, and in the intervening years they disappeared from publishers' lists. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one…not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into clichés.
“You're right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred. But executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same. Because they're ordered to? You think they do it because they're ordered to? And you think that I'm talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey?” He laughed sarcastically. “No, I'm not talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under orders. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening him or attacking him. They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.”
I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks — understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.
I don't know if Hanna knew how she looked, or maybe she wanted to look like that. She was wearing a black suit and a white blouse, and the cut of the suit and the tie that went with the blouse made her look as if she were in uniform. I have never seen the uniform of the women who worked for the SS. But I believed, and the spectators all believed, that before us we were seeing that uniform, and the woman who had worked for the SS in it, and all the crimes Hanna was accused of doing.
I had no one to point at. Certainly not my parents, because I had nothing to accuse them of…. But what other people in my social environment had done, and their guilt, were in any case a lot less bad than what Hanna had done. I had to point at Hanna. But the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her. Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her. I tried to tell myself that I had known nothing of what she had done when I chose her. I tried to talk myself into the state of innocence in which children love their parents. But love of our parents is the only love for which we are not responsible.
I don't know what I would have done if a professor of legal history had not offered me a research job. Gertrud said it was an evasion, an escape from the challenges and responsibilities of life, and she was right. I escaped and was relieved that I could do so…. Now escape involves not just running away, but arriving somewhere…. Doing history means building bridges between the past and the present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides. One of my areas of research was law in the Third Reich, and here it is particularly obvious how the past and present come together in a single reality. Here, escape is not a preoccupation with the past, but a determined focus on the present and the future that is blind to the legacy of the past which brands us and with which we must live.
I also read books I already knew and loved. So Hanna got to hear a great deal of Keller and Fontane, Heine and Morike. For a long time I didn't dare to read poetry, but eventually I really enjoyed it, and I learned many of the poems I read by heart. I can still say them today.
Taken together, the titles in the notebook testify to a great and fundamental confidence in bourgeois culture. I do not ever remember asking myself whether I should go beyond Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann, and Lenz, and read experimental literature, literature in which I did not recognize the story or like any of the characters. To me it was obvious that experimental literature was experimenting with the reader, and Hanna didn't need that and neither did I.
But why should I have given her a place in my life? I reacted indignantly against my own bad conscience at the thought that I had reduced her to a niche. "Didn't you ever think about the things that were discussed at the trial, before the trial? I mean, didn't you ever think about them when we were together, when I was reading to you?"
"Does that bother you very much?" But she didn't wait for an answer. "I always had the feeling that no one understood me anyway, that no one knew who I was and what made me do this or that. And you know, when no one understands you, then no one can call you to account. Not even the court could call me to account. But the dead can. They understand. They don't even have to have been there, but if they were, they understand even better."
Only occasionally, when I was driving my car, or when I was in Hanna's apartment, did thoughts of it get the upper hand and trigger memories. I saw her on the bench, her eyes fixed on me, saw her at the swimming pool, her face turned to me, and again had the feeling that I had betrayed her and owed her something. And again I rebelled against this feeling; I accused her, and found it both shabby and too easy, the way she had wriggled out of her guilt. Allowing no one but the dead to demand an accounting, reducing guilt and atonement to insomnia and bad feelings — where did that leave the living? But what I meant was not the living, it was me. Did I not have my own accounting to demand of her? What about me?
I told her about Hanna's death and her last wishes.
"I suppose because you are the only survivor."
"And how am I supposed to deal with it?"
"However you think fit."
"And grant Frau Schmitz her absolution?"
At first I wanted to protest, but Hanna was indeed asking a great deal. Her years of imprisonment were not merely to be the required atonement: Hanna wanted to give them her own meaning, and she wanted this giving of meaning to be recognized. I said as much.
She shook her head. I didn't know if this meant she was refusing to accept my interpretation or refusing to grant Hanna the recognition.