“The Reader” by the German writer Bernhard Schlink is a slim work. In a narrative of a mere 224 pages, thinly cloaked as a love story, the writer takes all Germans--both pre- and post WWII generations--to task for the crimes of the Holocaust.
The story begins when a young boy becomes ill on his way home from school. A woman helps him. He’s a good boy, from a nice family, living in a nice home. Once recovered, and at his mother’s urging, he takes flowers to the woman who helped him when he became ill. Thus begins the May-December romance between 15-year-old Michael Berg and 35-year-old Hanna Schmitz.
Let’s look back at the day of the rescue, the day Michael vomits at Hanna’s doorstep. He is ill, wretched, miserable, and embarrassed. She assesses the situation and takes charge. The assistance she offers is decisive and efficient, accomplished as effortlessly as the “Anschluss” of Austria. Or, in the author’s words, “When rescue came it was almost an assault.”
The young Michael, whom Hanna calls “the kid,” has never known a woman like her. Hanna is clearly from a different social class than his own family and friends. She is uneducated, works at menial jobs, and lives in a shabby, but clean apartment. Hanna makes no effort to seduce, yet beneath her stern exterior, she is oh so seductive. And like his parents, Hanna is emotionally unavailable. The pleasures she offers come on her own terms. As the relationship unfolds, he is at a loss to explain the times when her cool demeanor gives way to irrational outbursts. Warning signs of a troubled psyche to be sure, but there is no arguing with Hanna’s anger; there is only acquiescence. “The kid”--eyes on the prize—submits.
Which young man or--if we accept the metaphor of Michael Berg as a stand-in for the German people--which country in the throes of infatuation heeds such warning signs? Smitten with a Fuehrer who would lead them away from wretchedness, who would turn shame to triumph, the German people submitted as eagerly as young Michael did. Thus, “the kid” traded away the innocent pleasures of his youth for the guilty secrets of adulthood, as willingly as Hitler’s Germans surrendered their innocence for a taste of sin.
Then one day it’s over. Hanna is gone, and Michael will never again find another woman who is able to take him to such heights of passion or depths of despair. The end of their affair is a shock to him, just as the end of the Nazi regime must have been a shock to the German populace. Abandoned by their Fuhrer, who escaped into death, they’re left alone to explain their mad dream of the Third Reich and to face the accusing eyes of the rest of the world.
Michael and Hanna meet again when he’s a law students sent to observe the trial of Auschwitz prison guards. She is one of them. During the trial, Michael discovers the secret she’s kept all her life, a secret she’s too ashamed to reveal. This secret will not absolve her from guilt, but decrease her lifetime sentence to a mere few years. Yet she keeps silent, as does he. Whose secret is he protecting? Hanna’s or his? Just as his father kept silent about his role during the Nazi regime, Michael, who, by his actions as a boy linked his life to hers, now keeps silent as well.
As an adult, Michael Berg comes to exist in a state of emotional suspension. He says, “The worst were the dreams in which a hard, imperious, cruel Hanna aroused me sexually; I woke from them full of longing and shame and rage. And full of fear about who I really was.” What an awakening it must have been for the German people when the dream was over, the truth revealed.
In the end, neither Hanna’s imprisonment nor her death, like the death of Adolf Hitler, can atone for the silence of two generations of Germans. I applaud Bernhard Schlink for breaking that silence with his excellent novel, “The Reader.”