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  • Ishant Kumar Sharma

The Reader: A Maze of Guilt and Morality

Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing” – Hannah Arendt[i]

Socio-legal apparatus has long dealt with the questions surrounding those guilty of transgressing the boundaries set by society. Innumerable laws, statutes, and works of literature ranging from philosophical to analytical  have dealt with them. In this context, ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink comes as a unique read as it moves beyond the obvious and seeks to inquire of metaphysical guilt. Bernhard Schlink grew up in a post-war Germany, where generational divide and accommodation were at the heart of his generation’s association with the Nazi past. He served as a professor of public law and the philosophy of law at Humboldt University and judge on the Constitutional court of  federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia.[ii] He also published several works of literature, including ‘The Reader’, which is a painful legacy that has marred the conscience of the German nation ever since the horrors of the holocaust became public knowledge.

The Reader comes out to be a reflection of post-holocaust times in Germany during the ‘60s. The entire novel is divided into three parts. The first part unpacks a very intense adolescent love affair between 15 years old Michael Berg and the adult protagonist Hanna. Michael falls sick in the street one day and is helped by Hanna. After having recovered, he visits her out of gratitude for having helped him. This visit turns out to be the beginning of a long summer engagement between the two. The two indulge in bathing, making love, and reading as a daily ritual. The association of the two snaps as Hanna moves away rather suddenly and unexpectedly leaving Michael in limbo about their bond.

The second part delves into a far deeper and philosophical side of the novel. Michael becomes a part of a seminar group and attends a trial related to concentration camps while in college. At the trial, he sees Hanna again as one of the accused. He discovers that it was Hanna’s illiteracy that had governed his association with her. . Moreover, Hanna, ashamed to accept her illiteracy, offers a very weak defence at the trial and hence, is sentenced indiscriminately. His relationship with Hanna, and his inability to understand her, plagues Michaels’s adulthood. It is compounded by the fact that his generation had to engage with the Nazi past, and contemplate their place in it.

The third part opens up with Michael having a short-lived unhappy marriage.  He chooses to be a legal historian after college. Michael now begins to navigate through the much larger aspects of his past. He ponders over the complex reality of what one perceives to be true and just.  Eventually, he gets in contact with Hanna and starts recording tapes for her. Meanwhile, in prison, Hanna, at last, learns to read and write. Michael agrees to take charge of her after she is set free from the prison. Just before being released, Hanna commits suicide.  She leaves her life’s savings to Michael, to be given to a camp survivor who testified against her. Michael donates the amount to a Jewish organization in Hanna’s name on the suggestion of the camp survivor. Later, he visits Hanna’s grave for once and all.

The Reader, and many other works on the holocaust, have been interpreted as just seeking to settle the accountability for Nazi crimes. However, this novel is also about the remembrance of history, especially by the succeeding generations. Michael stands in for millions of citizens who follow the eras marred by bloodbath and violence. A moral dilemma  haunts them about their association with those accused or complicit in crimes against humanity. This dilemma for Michael comes off when he says, “and if I was not guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal’[iii]. Beyond documenting the obvious histories of facts and figures, Bernhard’s work puts forth the tormenting and complicated task of navigating through the role of memory in understanding history. Michael’s memories with Hanna cloud his judgment and stop him from not condemning Hanna enough for her crimes. He couldn’t suppress his memories and see Hanna as she now stood before him- just another perpetrator of Nazi crimes. This points to the role memories play in our acceptance of the truth. It is also not just the acceptance but the framing of our version of the truth, that relies entirely on our experiences and memories.

The Reader also delves into some hard-hitting questions about our legal systems. Hanna’s questioning of the judge about what he would have done as a camp guard brings the reality, that for thousands of folks like Hanna there existed no real alternative, to face. Morality and ethics evaded the entire German society under Hitler. Then how appropriate and justified was it to put just a few hundreds or thousands on trial for the collective guilt of the whole society? Does this make some less culpable?  Do the atrocities that transpired in the concentration camps constitute the only crimes in Nazi Germany? How do we legally deal with the ordinary order of life that made concentration camps a reality? If Third Reich was a legal entity, how could actions undertaken then be unlawful now? How far can we stretch the concept of retroactive justice? Was the way Germans decided to sentence and punish a few from amongst them a way to cover-up their conjoint illiteracy at being humans? Were international criminal tribunals set up after the Rwandan genocide or the Yugoslavian ethnic cleansing similar easy attempts by our criminal justice systems to start soothing the morally hurt conscience of our societies? These troubling questions are left to be debated internally by the readers.

Bernhard Schlink also delves into the philosophy of law in The Reader. The Greek epic Odyssey, is taken as a reference to bring forth the illusion about the history of law and its ‘progressive’ development. The belief that “a good order is intrinsic to the world, and that therefore the world can be brought into good order”[iv] has guided the role of law in human society. This belief is challenged by the author by an alternate image of the course that legal history took- an image where despite all its transformations and interpretations the original starting point is legal history’s goal, much like Odyssey which is told to be a story of futile and successful motion both.  

The Reader revolves around the fact that Hanna was illiterate. It is her shame at being illiterate that not only drives her away from Michael but also defines her association with him. She also rejects a promotion at Siemens and chooses to be a camp guard. She accepts the culpability for writing a report about the accident during her time as a camp guard to avoid giving out a writing sample required to prove her innocence. Thus, at the trial, she accepts to be exposed as a Nazi criminal, rather than as illiterate. Hanna’s literal illiteracy speaks of the moral illiteracy of the German people. Further, Michael speaks of a numbness that overtook him and others who had to deal with the Nazi past. He also mentions how not only survivors but perpetrators too went numb to all that transpired around them. “…the gas chambers and oven become ordinary scenery, the perpetrators reduced to their few functions and exhibiting a mental paralysis and indifference.”[v] Hanna’s illiteracy metaphorically points towards the inability of the Germans to grasp the horrors that this numbness unleashed.

Hanna’s Nazi past is problematic for Michael to deal with as he is the only person aware of her true motives for acting the way she did. She chose to be convicted to keep her illiteracy a secret and let actual culprits move away without accountability. The relationship between the two is symbolic of the eternal emotional and moral struggle that the succeeding generations find themselves entangled in. This tussle is reflected when Michael says, “Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious and unrecognized pain?”.[vi]

Despite the hatred and contempt that Michael’s generation had for their parents, they couldn’t dissociate themselves from the burden of guilt about the Nazi past. It is manifested by Michael’s futile attempt at confronting his philosophical father. Michael points to this dissociation as a means to comfort their suffering because of the shame they had to face.  The complex maze of emotions and actions. The ever-lasting quest to seek accountability. It is these churnings of human existence and its follies that the readers face.

Amidst other themes like holocaust, moral culpability etc., the effect of childhood trauma is overlooked as one of the major themes of the novel. Michael’s relationship with Hanna involved being gaslighted and sexual manipulation/abuse of his teenage feelings. It leaves an indelible emotional and mental scar on him. Michael fails to connect emotionally or even physically with women later in his life. He looks for Hanna in all his associations with women; be it his girlfriends or wife. Even in his adulthood, he couldn’t understand, leave alone overcome, suppressed emotional and mental agony that he had to endure. These teenage experiences, not only affect his relationships; but also numb his agency to perceive other larger ideas of life. For him, the generational conflict did not just take the form of disgust towards his parents but was twisted and complicated by his teenage experiences. The form of subtle abuse at the hands of Hanna gets hidden away behind the romanticism and other emotions attached to a relationship. Bernhard failed in bringing forth this aspect in a strongly worded and convincing manner. 

This ordinary story dealing with not-so-ordinary circumstances shall make people pause and reflect internally for generations to come. The Reader doesn’t provide you answers or mechanisms to deal with the layers of guilt and trauma that mark our lives. It just serves as a harsh reminder of all that one must endure as one single part of the collective whole.  


[i] Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, 162 (1972).

[ii] German bestselling author Bernhard Schlink turns 75, DW, available at, last seen on 08/08/2021.

[iii] Bernhard Schlink, The Reader, 133, (Orion Books Ltd., 1998)

[iv] Ibid, at 179.

[v] Ibid, at 101.

[vi] Ibid, at 36.

This book review has been authored by Ishant Kumar Sharma, a student of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab


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