How The Reader Could Be Read And Interpreted Differently By Contemporary German And American Readers

The Reader (Der Vorleser) was written by Bernhard Schlink and published in Germany in 1995, and translated into English in 1997. The novel explores the theme of generational guilt (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) through the intimate affair between former concentration camp guard Hanna Schmitz and German teenager Michael Berg in post-war Germany. Mainly as a consequence of varying cultural perspectives the novel could be read and interpreted differently by contemporary German and American readers. However, an additional cause may be loss of meaing or cultural nuance in the translation of the work. According to an article in The Guardian, The Reader has sold 500, 000 copies in Germany, implying rather good reception. However, German reception is occasionally critical of Schlink’s approach to Hanna’s culpability for the deaths of 300 female prisoners in a locked church fire. He has been accused of revising and falsifying German history. As a consequence of Schlink’s employment of Michael and Hanna’s intimate affair in combination with her crimes, Jeremy Adler accuses Schlink of “cultural pornography” (Oltermann). 

The Reader, Adler says, is a historical simplification of the Holocaust and compels readers to empathize with perpetrators like Hanna. Despite this criticism, Schlink wrote, “I’ve heard [such] criticism several times but never from the older generation, people who have lived through [the Holocaust]” (Wroe). According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine, The Reader has greatly contributed to the retainment of the Holocaust in modern consciousness. These primarily negative receptions possibly stem from German historical sensitives; Nazism, the Holocaust, and World War II are very sensitive topics in Germany. Moreover, overall negative receptions seem to have misunderstood Bernhard Schlink’s purpose and message in writing the novel. This general misunderstanding seems to be fuelled by a number of unrelated fictional novels revising Holocaust or, Nazi history. Additionally, Schlink’s decision to portray Hanna as an intimate human being and a German citizen is regularly criticized as unjust. This is, according to Schlink himself, due to the critic’s oversimplification or artificiality of how such perpetrators should be portrayed as monsters, when in reality they appear like anyone else. 

A perspective that is possibly a result of newer generations that have not experienced ‘normal culpability’; the idea that the second generation were exposed to teachers, professors, priests, doctors, uncles etc. who participated in Nazi Germany. Perhaps, in addition, the idea that the gravity of their crimes does not match with the admiration and respect that was the relationship. At the same time, The Reader has sold 750, 000 copies in America according to The Guardian article. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine says, most criticism about the morality of Hanna came from Americans such as, Cythia Ozick. Ozick has criticised the novel as a “product… of a desire to divert [attention] from the culpability of a normally educated population in a nation famed for Kultur”. Evidenced by Schlink’s rather human portrayal of Hanna. However, this general view has been subject to its own criticism by other literates citing a scene where Hanna strikes Michael as evidence for her brutal, unsympathetic character who never fully recognizes or accepts criminal responsibility. Thereby, proving Ozick’s suggestion that Schlink’s aim is to have readers sympathize with Hanna – and by extension her fellow cohorts – implausible. 

Additionally, the film adaption of The Reader received similar criticism by Ron Rosenbaum, whose metaphorical goal, according to him, is to “exculpate Nazi-era Germans from Holocaust complicity” and crime guilt. Achieved by asking the reader to empathize with Hanna and her Nazi-cohort, and leading the readers to believe that ‘ordinary Germans’ were ignorant of the Holocaust. Furthermore, The Reader was referred to as “Nazi porn” in reference of the sexual exploitation of young Michael by Hanna, and a symptom of “Holocaust revisionism”, otherwise Holocaust denial (Rosenbaum). Simultaneously, American philosopher, Richard Bernstein has commented positively on the work as “arresting, philosophically elegant, [and] morally complex”. Similarly, author Suzanne Ruta has said the “daring fusion of 19th century post-romantic, post-fairy-tale models with the awful history of the 20th century makes for a moving, suggestive and ultimately hopeful work.” According to Schlink, Ozick’s misinterpretation of the novel likely arises from her lack of general German knowledge that academics, and not non-academics, presented an over proportionality in the Einsatzgruppen, or otherwise, the paramilitary groups of the infamous Schutz Staffeln (SS). Therefore proving Schlink’s alleged attempt to misinform readers, particularly when the novel was initially intended for the German public, as implausible. Additionally, Schlink disagrees with some of Ozick’s other reservations about the novel; that Hanna is too human and should be portrayed as a monster for her culpability in the deaths of hundreds of prisoners – saying that it is a perspective natural to an outsider. Most noteworthy, Schlink did not write nor intend the novel to be a Holocaust book, but a book on generational relationships; specifically between his generation and the older generation. Consequently, the majority of negative reception stems from a lack of contextual understanding of post-war Germany. 

In conclusion, though general reception by contemporary German and American readers may appear different. They are, for the most, part similar. However, the reasons for reception, particularly negative reception, differ between German and American readers. This has largely to do with the lack of contextual/cultural understanding that American readers have in comparison to German readers. Moreover, it must also be kept in mind that The Reader was translated from German to English, and therefore may have lost meaning or nuances particular to the German language that may have given subtle cues.

16 August 2021
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