English A1 – Standard Level
How The Reader by Bernhard Schlink challenges the stereotypical view of Nazi Germany through the character of Hanna.
Word Count for reflective statement: 399
Word count for essay: 1,499
Number of pages: 9
Work used: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Question: What have you learned about the text’s cultural and historical concerns and how this has developed your understanding of the text itself?
During the discussion, relevance to time and place was made, as it is an essential theme represented in the novel. Set in post war Germany, Bernhard Schlink purposely portrays the novel during this period as he attempts to give the reader an unbiased, interpretation free overview of the Holocaust. During this period, thoughts and judgements were vastly one-sided and ignorant, owing to the propaganda and censorship of information, subsequently shared with population. Ruth Franklin believed that this novel specifically targeted the generation Bertolt Brecht called the Nachgeborenen, translated to “those who came after”, as they struggled to come to terms with the past, Vergangenheitsbewältigung; I suggested this point.
Whilst Schlink was writing this novel, The Nuremberg trials were taking place, whereby the most important members of the political, military, and economic captaincy of Nazi Germany who schemed, conducted, and participated in the Holocaust were up for prosecution. This was seen as a critical moment as it pronounced a turning point between the traditional and concurrent international law as the majority of these individuals were either sentenced to life imprisonment or execution. In The Reader, Schlink makes us pity these individuals, portrayed through Hanna. We begin to sympathize with her as we become aware of her moral illiteracy and hear her reasonings, justifying her actions; she was simply following orders to protect herself from punishment. This links with her trial when she asks the judge “What would you have done?”, challenging not only the judge but also, the reader, into imagining our actions if we were placed in her same circumstances.
Bernhard Schlink published his novel in 1995, 6 years following the fall of the Berlin wall. Despite this being a triumphant moment and celebrative day for Germany, this did cause the population to reflect on the collective happenings of the past decades. Whilst some did identify the justifiable explanations for their countries’ actions, others remained entangled in this societal burden. Such is the case of Mr. Groning, a former Nazi, who blatantly took full responsibility for his wrongdoings, feeling great humility and remorse of his affairs, asking for forgiveness. Sharing this moral guilt, he affirms that the trial must decide whether he is thus, guilty legally. This exposes how not all individuals who assisted the Nazis during the Holocaust were monstrous human beings but, just ordinary people. We concluded that this is in essence, what the novel is about.
How The Reader by Bernhard Schlink challenges the stereotypical view of Nazi Germany through the character of Hanna.
The Reader written by Bernhard Schlink, is a parable portraying the predicaments of second generation Germans through the characters of Hanna and Michael. Schlink uses an allegory to craft the sexually exploitative affair between a former SS soldier and a fifteen-year-old boy. Schlink uses their relationship as a symbol of the hardship of the post-war generations when faced with the guilt connected with Germany’s past. The procedures and techniques the Germans imposed upon exterminating the Jews can stand alone to illustrate their horrific and inhumane nature which was what most likely birthed the Germans’ infamous reputation. Notwithstanding, it is arguable that our views could, to a certain extent, be flawed and one sided. Throughout this novel, Bernhard Schlink gives the reader an opportunity of free interpretation, presenting us with a perspective in which we hear both sides of the story, thus allowing us to come to an objective and indiscriminate conclusion.
Opening the novel, Schlink presents the readers with the stereotypical assumptions we would have of the Nazis: strong, powerful, aggressive figures, who regularly exercise dominance on those supposedly inferior to them. This is exactly how Hanna is first described, by Michael, during their first encounter. After Michael had thrown up and collapsed on the floor on the way home from school, Michael describes the help he receives as “an assault”. This being the very first reference made towards Hanna by Michael, we are given the impression that Michael is being cared for in a somewhat brutal and ferocious manner by a strong individual, as “assault” suggests that Michael is almost under some form of attack. Moreover, Schlink juxtaposes the literal meaning of the word, as “assault” is commonly connoted with negativity whereas in this sentence, it is used in a positive way as he was being “rescued”. This not only establishes a contrast yet, it also symbolises Michael’s confusion throughout this situation as he is being “seized” and “pulled through the dark”, introducing Hanna as hostile and aggressive.
Following this, we are introduced to the individual, referred to as “the woman”. The fact that she did not attempt to speak to Michael at no point during this situation reveals the stereotype of efficiency and discipline advocated by the Nazis throughout the decade whereby they solely give exact orders, resulting in no time being wasted. One example is when the woman shouts: “Get that one!”, ordering Michael to grab a bucket. The imperative verb “get”, depicts the woman’s sharp tone, contrasting with the silence which is evident during this whole scenario. Furthermore, the use of short sentences and monosyllabic words further emphasises the idea of efficiency which Nazi Germany inaugurated, as their propaganda greatly endorsed individuals to be punctual, strict, and uniform.
Yet, Schlink challenges all of these ideas of stereotypical Nazi Germany as the woman takes Michael “in her arms”, comforting him after she washes the vomit into the gutter, after realising that Michael was crying. This displays a complete contradiction of our expected stereotype. Here, the woman exhibits sympathy and affection towards Michael as opposed to handling him with violence and hostility. Following this, Hanna walks Michael home, walking “quickly… her decisiveness helped me to keep pace with her.”, stressing on Hanna’s need for efficiency and on her decisive persona, these, all consistent with the Nazi Germany stereotype.
In the preceding chapter, we are given a description of Hanna’s apartment, located on Bahnhofstrasse. The building itself, compared to the others, is portrayed as being grand, opulent, and almost too big to conform to the size of its neighbouring buildings. The apartment building, “dominated the whole row”. In regards to its decor, the front door was “flanked by pillars” with “one lion looking up Bahnhofstrasse while another looking down”. These descriptions give us the impression that, the residents living in it are relatively dominant and grand. This idea is further reiterated through the buildings bold decorations such as the “pillar” and “lion”, an animal symbolised for its strength and superiority. Based on the information given along with Hanna’s location of residency, we would assume that Hanna pursues an occupation of high office. Ironically however, it is revealed to us in Chapter 6 that Hanna works as a tram conductor, as opposed to a job of higher status or importance, which we would so expect. This introduces the idea that the stereotype is solely superficial.
Further, Hanna’s illiteracy plays a large role in challenging the Nazi stereotype. As mentioned, the Nazi’s broadcasted organisation, order, and intelligence, factors which made them appeal to the rest of the world as all round powerful and authoritative figures in society. Despite this, when Schlink presents us with Hanna’s story, who happens to be illiterate, this exposes to us how we only see what is on the surface of these individuals, ignoring their background and story. Hanna’s illiteracy not only makes us pity her, it comes off as an excuse or just explanation for her actions. Her inability to read has lead her to turn down promotions, forcing her into jobs which to her, are “idiotic”, eventually becoming an SS guard, and thus becoming part of the murderous Holocaust. Hanna’s illiteracy has caused her numerous inconveniences: limiting her options and life choices. Yet, Hanna’s shame of it is what ultimately ruins Hanna herself the most, as it drives her towards accepting erroneous accusations, leading to her false confession and jail sentence. Essentially, we see Hanna as a victim of her unfortunate circumstances rather than a Nazi brute, who thrives on killing those of a weaker status.
During the trial in Part Two of the novel, Michael presents a summary of the court scene regarding the night of the fire, where 300 Jewish women died under the ostensible protection of Hanna and the SS guards who refused to open the Church doors. When Hanna was asked why she hadn’t unlocked the doors, her excuse was that she “didn’t have any alternative” and did not want to risk opening the doors, as the prisoners could’ve “tried to escape…”. This reveals how everybody in society was driven by fear of a higher authority and where stepping out of line could result in punishment or death. Indirectly, this turns the blame away from Hanna and presents her as vulnerable, which again, contrasts the Nazi stereotype.
During the post war trial, by Hanna asking the judge “What would you have done?”, we as the readers are single handedly being pointed at and questioned, making us think twice about our current opinion on the Nazi Germans, challenging their stereotype further. Moreover, because Hanna questions the judge reveals that Hanna is in actual fact not as decisive as Schlink has had us believe until now. This is one of the most significant and pivotal moments in the novel as we are forced to reflect on how we ourselves would’ve reacted during this period.
Through Schlink’s novel, we are given an insight to Hanna’s background, her timeline, and provides justified explanations as to how she was lead down the wrong road. Reading this novel, ours eyes are opened and exposed to the reality of Hanna’s unfortunate situation, allowing us to realize that perhaps not all of the individuals working for the Nazi regime were cruel, heartless human beings.
The Reader is one of Schlinks’ most vehemently criticized novels, mostly for the idea of using Hanna’s illiteracy as a scapegoat, seen as almost explaining and excusing her actions. Even though Schlink does present this side of the argument, he also presents the other side. He makes it clear in the final part of the novel, through the voice of the Jewish survivor of the church fire, that Hanna’s doings were ultimately unpardonable. Despite Hanna’s generous donation of “7,000 marks in the bank” which was to be given “to the daughter who survived the fire in church with her mother”, it is questionable as to whether we should, “grant Frau Schmitz her absolution”. The Jewish survivor is one example of how Hanna affected individuals’ lives in an undesirable way. Not only did Hanna mark the lives of the Holocaust prisoners, Hanna scarred Michael for life. Her influence upon him was so great, it came to an extent where he was never truly able to move on. We can see this through his unsuccessful marriage which was short and “ended unhappily”, so much so he decided to never marry again. Her brutality is therefore, reaffirmed at this point.
Throughout the novel, Hanna’s illiteracy serves as a metaphor, exposing the ignorance of her generation towards the reality and horrors of the Holocaust. Schlink has mirrored our perceptions of the Nazi stereotype through the character of Hanna, using symbolism to force us to look at the actions of the past from distinct angles, granting us to come up with our own personal judgement. Yet, as the Jewish survivors’ final judgement of Hanna was that she was “truly brutal”, this ultimately suggests that the overall presentation of the Nazi stereotype still lives on as being negative.
Schlink, Bernhard. The Reader. Trans. Carol Brown Janeway. London: Phoenix, 1998.