Have you ever thought about what life was like in Germany in the post World War II years? An entire nation of people had been mesmerized and brainwashed into hero worship of the devil Adolf Hitler, indoctrinated into the fantastical belief that they were the supreme Aryan race. They could do no wrong! And suddenly the war is over, Hitler is dead, and the nation is being held accountable for the atrocities – the murders – the holocaust. Official reports begin to surface internationally and concentration camp records are released. As time passes, the Nazi criminal war trials begin.
But for the majority of German citizens who are anxious to bury the past, life goes on. The Reader takes you inside Germany in the year 1958 as a young innocent 15 year old boy, Michael Berg, tells his story. After suffering from a long illness that has left him weak and vulnerable, Michael has the misfortune of being seduced by a 36 year old woman, Hanna Schmitz, a crude, common, uneducated woman; in fact, an illiterate product of the Nazi regime. Their unscrupulous affair lasts through a long hot summer and one day Hanna just disappears, leaving Michael tormented by lusty memories. At this point I was thinking that the main focus of the story was Hanna’s manipulative, abusive, immoral behavior and the corruption of a minor. I was ready to abandon the book as a trashy insignificant novel.
However, the story abruptly jumps ahead 7 years. Michael is in law school, and participating in a study group that evaluates the Nazi war trials and the legal interpretation of what constitutes guilt. Michael is astonished when Hanna resurfaces as a war criminal. She was a voluntary SS guard at the concentration camp in Cracow, Poland. (This is the concentration camp featured in Oscar Schindler’s story, Schindler’s List. Hell on earth!) Hanna is on trial for assisting in the mass murder of a multitude of Jewish women during the “death march” to Auschwitz as the war came to a close and Cracow was shut down. She is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
This book addresses a lot of weighty issues: illiteracy, child molestation, the holocaust, how the younger post WW II generation of German’s dealt with the guilt and shame, and the psychological phenomenon of “numbness” that befell anyone who attempted to scrutinize the Nazi horror. For attempting to tackle all these topics, I would have considered giving Schlink a 5 Star rating, but I had a problem with the final outcome. Schlink implies that Hanna’s illiteracy somehow absolves her of all responsibility for her actions. How could that be? She self-indulgently preferred joining the Nazi SS rather than admit her illiteracy! Regardless of the questionable level of guilt consigned to Hanna for her leadership role in the concentration camp mass murders, she was a voluntary SS guard at a camp where hundreds of thousands of Jewish women were tortured and slaughtered.
I also had a problem with the fact that Schlink sidestepped the issue of the illegality and immorality of having sex with a minor. Hanna was a child molester. She obviously reveled in preying on young, weak people and eagerly continued her abusive, immoral behavior after the war ended. Michael never held Hanna accountable for the fact that their sexual relationship left him emotionally scarred for life. I was appalled that Hollywood made this story into a movie and turned Hanna into a sympathetic character. I felt nothing but scorn for Hanna Schmitz. The one redeeming quality of the book is that the character of Hanna took on a life of its own – and in the end – she thoughtfully and judiciously adjudicated her own harsh penalty.
Rated 2 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish; books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.