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Apr 2009 Journal

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Rereading The Reader

Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel Der Vorleser (the term means someone who reads aloud to someone else) has been a huge international success, translated into some 39 languages, topping the New York Times bestseller list, and receiving the ultimate accolade of nomination by Oprah Winfrey. Sales of The Reader will doubtless derive a fresh boost from the film version, which was reviewed in our March issue. The original text of the novel is markedly superior to the film screenplay by David Hare, whose clunking style and evident lack of familiarity with the Germany of the 1960s do not do justice to the sparse, cool prose of the book, which is interspersed with more reflective and lyrical passages.

The reason for this Holocaust (or, more correctly, post-Holocaust) novel’s success is not hard to find: it lies in the acute, psychologically and emotionally convincing portrayal of a teenage boy’s affair in the late 1950s with an older woman who turns out to have been a concentration camp guard. The boy, Michael Berg, grows up to become the middle-aged man who narrates the novel; through his narration we are skilfully induced to perceive the way in which his emotional development has been stunted by his affair with the woman, Hanna Schmitz, and by her abrupt departure from his life. Reading plays a singular role in their relationship: she so enjoys his reading aloud to her that it becomes part of the regular ritual that precedes their lovemaking. He becomes her Vorleser.

The novel uses a private, intimate relationship as the springboard for an analysis of the ever-troubled question of post-war Germany’s relationship with its Nazi past. The key to Hanna Schmitz’s behaviour lies in her shame at her illiteracy. As we gradually realise, it is her illiteracy that causes her to become a camp guard. Offered promotion in the Siemens factory where she is working in 1943, she prefers to leave rather than take a job that would expose her illiteracy; jobless, she is recruited by the SS. The pattern repeats itself in a small German university town (identifiably Heidelberg) some 15 years later, when she meets Michael: offered promotion to an office job, she abandons her existing position as a tram conductor and disappears, with not a word to the lover whose life she thereby permanently damages.

Michael goes on to study law. Some years later, at a trial of former concentration camp guards, he is dismayed to recognise Hanna among the accused. Unable to read any of the documents relating to the trial and the charges she is facing, she is ill equipped to defend herself. The trial focuses on an incident at the end of a death march: the surviving female prisoners were locked overnight in a church and, when this caught fire during an air raid, the guards failed to unlock the doors, leaving the women to burn to death.

Hanna’s refusal to betray her illiteracy reaches its highpoint in her damaging admission that she was the author of a report on this incident, an admission that is patently false, given that she can neither read nor write. Once again she conceals her illiteracy, but at the price of incurring a sentence of life imprisonment (the other accused get off lightly). The novel then recapitulates the theme of Vorlesen: Berg sends the imprisoned Hanna tapes on which he has recorded novels and poems that he has read aloud, thus eventually enabling her to learn to read. Many years later, he visits her in prison, and they become reacquainted. By now an old woman, she petitions successfully for early release, but commits suicide on the eve of freedom.

Schlink depicts his woman camp guard as a human being. He presents us with a normal, plausibly flesh-and-blood woman who is far removed from such monstrous figures as Ilse Koch, the notorious ‘Beast of Buchenwald’, or Irma Grese, executed in 1945 for crimes committed at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, or Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, a camp guard at Majdanek who was discovered living in New York and whose trial in the 1970s revealed acts of dreadful cruelty.

Hanna is - her illiteracy apart - an ordinary working-class woman, the course of whose life takes her to Auschwitz as a perpetrator, but without conscious intent; she is no deranged psychopath or sadist, but the kind of person one might encounter any day on the street. Professor Bill Niven of Nottingham Trent University has argued, on the basis of certain surface similarities in their stories, that Hanna is modelled on Ilse Koch, but this overlooks the fundamental difference between the two, deriving from the way in which Schlink has conceived his character.

However, anyone reading Der Vorleser from a Jewish point of view may well have serious reservations about the novel. Astonishingly, Schlink contrives to depict a Nazi concentration camp guard who is condemned to life imprisonment without, apparently, ever having committed any major crime. Hanna first worked at Auschwitz, but we learn almost nothing about what she did there. She then spent some months at a work camp near Cracow, where her most sinister activity was to have young and delicate women prisoners come to her room at night, before they were ‘selected’ to be sent back to Auschwitz and gassed; it transpires at her trial that she had the women read aloud to her - a blow to the watching Michael, their unwitting successor, but hardly a serious crime.

On the death march, Hanna’s crime, that of failing to unlock the doors of the burning church, was one of omission rather than commission. The women who died there fell victim to an Allied air raid, in a rather unfortunate parallel to Goebbels’s propaganda image of the British and American air forces as ‘terror bombers’ raining death and destruction on innocent people in the Reich. Finally, Hanna is plainly innocent of the detail that seals her fate, her alleged authorship of the report on the incident. It would have been more credible if Hanna and her fellow guards had, for example, themselves set the church on fire, or if they had callously killed their prisoners off in some other way. As it is, a former camp guard emerges almost as the victim of a miscarriage of justice - a deplorable piece of unmerited exculpation that is hard to swallow, even in a work of fiction.

A second cause for unease is the use of the Holocaust as a mere backdrop to the troubled psychological and emotional development of a young German growing up in the Adenauer years. Professor Jeremy Adler of King’s College London has criticised Schlink powerfully for creating sympathy for the perpetrators rather than the victims, in an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung of 20 April 2004 entitled ‘Die Kunst, Mitleid mit den Mördern zu erzwingen. Einspruch gegen ein Erfolgsbuch’; Adler accuses Schlink of engaging in a ‘sentimental falsification of history’.
But the prime object of our sympathy is surely the narrator, Michael Berg, whose life has been ruined by Hanna Schmitz. On this reading, it is a young German of the post-Holocaust generation who becomes the principal victim of the former camp guard, not her Jewish victims during the Holocaust. One reason why Der Vorleser has proved so popular with schoolteachers is that their students easily identify with Michael and quickly understand how badly he has been damaged emotionally by the affair with Hanna. But what of the damage done by Hanna to the Jews in her charge, damage that would clearly have been of an altogether different order of magnitude?

Jews, as victims and survivors, play only a peripheral part in the novel. The two Jewish survivors of the fire in the church are known only as ‘The Mother’ and ‘The Daughter’, designations that strip them to some extent of their individuality; they remain outside that realm of human society within which the narrator moves with some measure of easy familiarity, permanently stereotyped by their origins and their experiences in the camps as representatives of ‘the Other’. The few pages towards the end of the book that describe the middle-aged Michael’s visit to the ‘Daughter’ in New York are among the novel’s weakest (though better by far than the corresponding passage of the film).

The sufferings of the Jews under Nazism are made to take second place to the emotional disruption caused to the post-war generation of Germans by the legacy left them by the previous generation, a disruption that cannot begin to compare with the almost unimaginable scale of the misery caused by the Holocaust. Schlink’s depiction of the sad plight of Michael Berg’s generation comes, when set alongside the Holocaust, perilously close to self-pity, to that narcissistic self-absorption so characteristic of post-war Germany’s attempts to come to terms with the burden of its recent history. Look, the novel seems to cry, we are the victims too! See how we suffer for our parents’ crimes! See how our delicate psyches have been wounded by the aftermath of the Holocaust! Oh, the poor things.

Anthony Grenville

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