‘Who was the guilty?’
In Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 book The Reader, Michael Berg is 15 and suffering from hepatitis. When he throws up in the street one day on his way home from school, a woman brings him into her apartment and helps him to wash up. Later, he visits the woman, Hanna Schmitz, to thank her. He is drawn into an unusual love affair with Hanna who is his senior by almost a generation. Much of their time together consists of Michael reading aloud to Hanna (hence the book’s title, which is translated from the German Vorleser). When Hanna disappears following a misunderstanding, Michael is overcome with guilt and loss.
Years later, when Michael is part of a university seminar group attending one of the many Nazi war crimes trials, he recognizes Hanna in the courtroom, on trial with a group of former concentration camp guards accused of burning a group of Jews in a locked church building. During the proceedings, Michael realizes that Hanna is illiterate, and that this fact is more shameful to her than the murder of which she is wrongfully accused. Hanna chooses not to reveal her illiteracy (and neither does Michael). As a result, Hanna is sentenced to life imprisonment.
Years later again, to help himself through nights of insomnia, he begins to read his favorite books aloud into a tape recorder, and sends the tapes to Hanna in prison, thus re-establishing his role as vorleser with her. A strange bond between the two is continued in this way, until Hanna’s imminent release from prison 19 years later. In the face of Michael’s ambivalence towards her, and her own shame, Hanna commits suicide on the day before her release from prison. Michael makes a journey to New York to visit the daughter of one of the Jewish women who testified against Hanna and to bring her a small sum of money at Hanna’s request. The daughter doesn’t want the money, so it is, ironically, donated to a Jewish literacy society.
A haunting study
On the surface, this is a story about lost innocence, betrayal and shame, but at a deeper level it is a haunting study of post-WWII German guilt about the Holocaust. By the author’s own admission, the book asks, “Who is to blame for the Holocaust?”
During her trial, Hanna asks the judge (and by implication, all of us) on two different occasions the central question of the book: “What would you have done? Would you have done anything different had you been in my situation? Are you sure you would be more moral than I?”
Perhaps Hanna’s question is like asking, “Who killed Jesus Christ?” Historically, the easy answer has been “the Jews.” And the easy answer to “Who killed the Jews?” is “the Nazis.” Perhaps Schlink’s book is asking us to consider the real possibility that under certain circumstances any of us could have become a Nazi.
After reading this book, I experienced a profound sadness. I felt sorry for both Michael and for Hanna. Many with whom I’ve discussed the book had quite a different reaction. They consider Michael morally immature and Hanna an evil monster. My feeling was much more one of, “There but for the grace of God through Jesus go I.” After all, isn’t the answer to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” to be found in the Easter hymn Ah, Dearest Jesus: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee? Alas my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee. I crucified thee.”