An Empathy Towards The Nazis In The Reader By Bernhard Schlink
Bernhard Schlink used his novel The Reader as a way to create a feeling of empathy towards the Nazis in the Holocaust. Hanna Schmitz is portrayed in the novel through her lovers eyes Michael who is often conflicted about her. Hannah is 36 years old; she is a streetcar conductress and a former participant in war crimes as a former Nazi prison guard. Michael falls in love with Hanna after they sleep with each other for the first time. Hanna and Michael have a very toxic relationship, since she is twenty-one years older than him, she is very dominant and also dismissive towards him. When Hanna and Michael would fight, she would refuse to take any blame and thus bullying Michael into holding himself responsible for the misunderstanding. Hanna is very vague about her past and emotionally very closed off and this is because she is desperately trying to hide her most shameful secret which is, she is illiterate. Schlink isn’t blunt about his empathy towards Nazi’s, because it’s a very uncomfortable thing. He is able to place certain hints throughout the complicated love story that eventually lead the readers to feel considerate towards the Nazis as well.
Hanna and Michaels relationship goes through many stages throughout the book. Stage one of their relationship is very sexual and personal affair, it’s very revolved around being intimate with each other physically but not emotionally. Stage two the relationship starts to grow and they both become more emotionally invested and Michael starts reading to Hannah because she claims “You have such a nice voice, kid, I’d rather listen to you than read it myself” (Schlink, p.42), but later we come to find out she was indeed just covering up her white lie that she was illiterate. Stage three of their love affair is when Hanna is brought to trial for her participation in war crimes and their relationship is ended. The main theme that is seen very clearly through their relationship is Michaels inability to stand up for himself and continually be submissive due to his immense fear of losing Hanna , “Then when I proceeded to get bad-tempered myself and we started a fight and Hanna treated me like a nonentity, the fear of losing her returned and I humbled myself and begged her pardon until she took me back. But I was filled with resentment”. The audience doesn’t feel sympathy towards Hanna during the first two phases because she seems to be using her power of age and sexual dominance to take advantage of young Michael.
Hanna’s illiteracy is revealed to the readers during the trial phase, at first, she denies that she wrote the report regarding the burning church who had a lot of prisoner Jews who could’ve lived if the Nazi guards including Hanna would’ve unlocked the door. The other Nazi defendants point the finger at Hanna and claim she wrote the report all by herself;
“You!” The other defendant pointed at Hanna.
“No, I didn’t write it. Does it matter who did?”
A prosecutor suggested that an expert be called to compare the handwriting in the report and the handwriting of the defendant Schmitz.
“My handwriting? You want my handwriting?…”
The judge, the prosecutor, and Hanna’s lawyer discussed whether person’s handwriting retains its character over more than fifteen years and can be identified. Hanna listened and tried several times to say or ask something, and was becoming increasingly alarmed. Then she said, “You don’t have to call an expert. I admit I wrote the report” (Schlink, p.129).
When Schlink reveals Hanna’s illiteracy, the empathy comes along as well and the feelings of anger towards her past actions are suddenly justified. When Michael and Hanna go on a little getaway in Amorbach for the holiday and one morning Michael get’s up early to go get breakfast and he leaves Hanna a note on the bed side table.
“Good Morning! Brining breakfast, be right back, “or words to that effect. When I returned, she was standing in the room, trembling with rage and white-faced.
“How could you go just like that?”
I put down the breakfast tray with the rose on it and wanted to take her in my arms. “Hanna.”
“Don’t touch me.” She was holding a narrow leather belt that she wore around her dress; she took a step backwards and hit me across the face with it. My lip split and I tasted blood. It didn’t hurt. I was horrorstruck. She swung again.
But she didn’t hit me. She let her arm fall, dropped the belt, and burst into tears. I had never seen her cry. Her face lost all its shape (Schlink, p.55).
On this journey before the audience realize Hanna’s secret this seems absurd through Michaels point of view. He was being very sweet and going to get breakfast and flowers for her when she woke, and she hits him and makes him feel terrible. Once her illiteracy is revealed there is a whole other take on this situation where Hanna’s violent action is justified. Once Hanna’s problem is understood so is the situation, Hanna felt helpless because of the lack of information given. She was probably very embarrassed that she couldn’t read his note and then the rage came because people are very sensitive about their insecurities and especially Hanna because she wanted to take this secret to the grave. Granted at this time Michael had no way of knowing Hanna couldn’t read his letter but readers can relate and sympathize with Hanna in this situation because everyone knows how painful and infuriating it can be when people use your insecurities and weakness against you intentional or not.
The novel presents the inability to read as a form of dependence. Hanna’s illiteracy controls her entire life because every decision she makes is based on it. Her incapability to read or write she is forced to decline job promotions and go find other jobs and start from the bottom again. Not only does Hanna’s illiteracy limit her life choices, but her shame for being illiterate pushes her to make certain choices to keep it hidden. These choices she makes is her decision to work as a Nazi prison guard and take full responsibility in court to have written the report regarding the burning church. These decisions lead to very bad outcomes. It’s not as clear for the strength of hatred against Nazi’s if they were forced into their positions due to their own helplessness disabilities that held them back in life. Hanna probably didn’t want to kill the young girls who read to her in her in the camps, but she couldn’t let her secret be revealed due to embarrassment and insecurity. Schlink makes people see the Nazi’s as victims now and that they also deserve sympathy because they had no idea what they were really doing they just followed orders. Nazi’s are now seen as actual people who have faults and they’re not seen as the monsters they are and that’s a dangerous line to cross.
Hanna’s illiteracy also reflects the ignorance of her generation during the Holocaust. Michael realizes during the trial the massive amounts of energy Hanna put into hiding her illiteracy could’ve been applied to learning how to read and write. Rather than facing the problem, Hanna chooses for most of her life, to hide it leading her to work for the SS. She seems unaware of the untold harm she is inflicting on others. Similarly, those of Hanna’s generation who turned a blind eye on the Nazi’s and mass genocide could’ve spent their energy trying to fight Hitler and save the Jewish people and other prosecuted groups, but instead they agreed to be selfish and either directly or indirectly mass murder without considering the significance of their decision. If Hanna would’ve confronted her disability of not being able to read or write, she could’ve worked hard at it to overcome this dilemma but instead she lived in fear and avoided It and sent countless innocent women to the gas chambers. If the generation who was apart of the Holocaust would’ve faced their fear and stood up for the innocent Jews, and other persecuted groups they could’ve saved millions of lives, but people tend to live in fear and take the most comfortable way out no matter the consequences.
The Reader is very focused on the idea around guilt. Michael and his peers viewed their parent’s generation as very shameful people because they stood by and allowed the Holocaust to happen. Michael is facing an internal struggle because he doesn’t have the right to condemn his parents or anyone from that generation because then he would be condemning Hanna as well, the woman he loved. Michael is faced with the question of how you love someone who did such horrible things and the answer is excuses. Michael makes countless excuses for Hanna throughout the novel especially when he is in the courtroom watching Hanna on trial.
“No Hanna had not decided in favor of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and fell into a job as a guard. And no, she had not dispatched the delicate and the weak on transports to Auschwitz because they had read to her; she had chosen them to read to her because she wanted to make their last month bearable before their inevitable dispatch to Auschwitz. And no, at the trial Hanna did not weigh exposure as an illiterate against exposure as a criminal. She did not calculate, and she did not maneuver. She accepted that she would be called to account, and simply did not wish to endure further exposure. And if I was not guilty because one can not be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal” (Schlink, p. 133-134). Michael was making excuses for Hanna because he had no right to love her after all the horrible things, she did but he convinced himself that the things she did weren’t that bad, and she was just helpless by being illiterate and never really knew how much pain she was causing. I believe Michael always loved Hanna even when she was in prison and he sent her tapes of him reading out loud and love makes people do crazy things. The novel ends by Hanna hanging herself in prison. Michal is going through Hanna’s stuff with the warden and he finds her reading material “I went over to the bookshelf. Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery- the literature of victims”. It is a bold take that Hanna learned how to read and then read the testimonies of holocaust survivors and was faced with an overwhelming amount of guilt and shame that ultimately lead to her taking her own life. I think the author wrote this just so the readers felt sympathy for Hanna an Nazi’s because once they realized what they had done they were so hurt and suddenly deserved empathy.
The Reader is a wonderfully written novel of feeling sympathy for Nazis through a complex love affair. Schlink was able to slowly introduce the audience into seeing Hanna and other war criminals as people who had their own problems and reasons for participating in mass genocide. He was able to give Nazi’s human like qualities that people could sympathize with, thus being like Michael and making excuses for the horrible crimes they committed. I think this is a dangerous book because people should not be empathetic towards people who partook in mass genocide because then it lessens the extremity and sadness of the Holocaust as a whole. Nazi’s are monsters not people.
- Schlink, Bernhard, and Carol Brown Janeway. The Reader. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017.
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