Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Reader

Hanna Schmitz had an affair with the young boy Michael Berg in the early years of post-World War II Germany. She often asked Michael to read to her. One day, she disappeared without a trace.

Years later, Michael found out she was accused of committing hideous crimes as a guard in a concentration camp. There was little doubt that Hanna was a guard at the camp. But there were considerable uncertainty as to how much of the crimes were committed by Hanna. As the trial went on, her behaviour in the trial became rather odd. At one point, she admitted to writing an important report that would confirm her guilt, rather than to submit a signature specimen to clear herself. While it was obvious to Michael that she could not have written the report because she could not read nor write. It appeared that she was too ashamed to admit that she was illiterate.

Later Hanna was sentenced to a long sentence. Michael sent her recordings of book readings, and Hanna learned to read and write. But Michael refused to visit her. On the day before she was to be released, Hanna killed herself.

I have to admit that I do not quite understand the book. But I was struck by how deeply the Germans felt their collective and individual guilt during the war. It is obvious that many of them felt ashamed of it, wanted to find out what happened and why so many of them behaved in such despicable ways.

In contrast, such reflection had been almost completely lacking in Japan. Why is this strong contrast? Could it be related to the strongly Christian faith and culture in Germany?


Liu Yunxia said...

I read more of a personal embarassment out of it. I didn't get much about guilt of war crimes out of it.

StephenC said...

Perhaps we understand the book a bit differently. In fact, my impression of post-war Germany is not a result of reading the book alone. It is a general impression of how they handle the trials, the multitude of books, articles, movies, newspaper articles, ...

There is a strong sense of reflection of how and why people behaved in it. Whether the individual was responsible if it was an order from the government, how much should an individual resist an unjust order from the authority. That sort of thing.