Coming to Grips with the Holocaust in “The Reader” ~ M. Blaha

Coming to Grips with the Holocaust in The Reader
By M. BlahaI recently read Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and watched the film adaptation directed by Stephen Daldry, and I found myself as conflicted as the main character and narrator, Michael Berg. The book offers more insight than the film because, since the story is told in first person narrative, it allows direct access to Michael’s thoughts. The movie certainly provokes the viewer to sympathize with Hanna when she is on trial and throughout the duration of her prison sentence. It does an excellent job of convincing the viewer that Hanna is the victim of uncontrollable circumstances that forced her into her position as an SS guard of a satellite camp of Auschwitz, but, unlike the novel, I think the film fails to properly convey the struggle Michael has in trying to understand her crime, while simultaneously having to condemn it. Hanna and a group of women stand trial for allowing three-hundred Jewish women to burn to death in a locked church that was bombed during the camp’s evacuation, even though these Jewish women were placed under their care and protection. In the novel, Michael clearly states that in trying to understand Hanna’s crime he is humanizing her actions, and making it impossible to condemn her crime. Perhaps Hanna does not deserve Michael’s understanding. Maybe condemning a crime leaves no room for understanding.

The courtroom scene has the most emphasis in both the novel and film, as it spotlights the question Hanna asks the judge during the trial, “What would you have done?” Hanna wants to know what she could have done differently. This question is very important when discussing the Holocaust and convicting those guilty of Nazi War Crimes. “What would you have done?” It’s easy to blame Hanna without considering the context of her situation, “Hanna had not decided in favor of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and fell into a job as a guard.” Hanna does not wake up one morning and decide to work in a Nazi concentration camp, containing women like animals as they await transport to their deaths. She only decides against a promotion and finds another job to support herself. Hanna’s decisions are all made for her own sake.

Most of our decisions are made for us, our families, and for the good of the people we know and love without thinking about how they affect other people. Humans are not capable of looking beyond their immediate relationships, unless they have a position that requires them to make decisions to benefit more people than themselves and the people they know directly. I recently watched a repeat episode of Law and Order: SVU that is an interesting example of how a decision a single member of a community makes, takes a heavy toll on the lives of other people in the area.

A little girl dies from contracting the measles because she is too young to receive the vaccination to protect her from the disease, which forces the SVU to search for the source of a possible measles epidemic. The source of the measles chain is a little boy old enough to receive the vaccination, but does not because his mother believes his natural immune system is strong enough to fight off the infection, which it does. The boy’s mother does not think her decision concerns anyone outside of her own family. Her research on vaccinations and the power the body has against fighting disease are the only things that inform her decision. Since her son’s immune system is able to fight the disease, she does not consider herself responsible for the death of the little girl; she is just trying to be a “good” mother to her son. The woman is arrested for the murder of the little girl. The episode shows that while the woman’s decision was best for her family, it was detrimental to society at large. We have privacy and freedom of choice, but there are certain rules that help society function, and if these rules are disobeyed, society will crumble. Her decision would be applicable in a small, sprawling area where the lives of people are more private, but not a densely populated area like New York City.

The Reader is concerned with whether one person knows what is best for another person. Is the law or the community at large able to define what is good for its individuals? Michael has information that can serve to give Hanna a lesser sentence, and disprove accusations the other women on trial blame her for. Michael knows Hanna is illiterate, and that to reveal this would be exposing a life-long secret she goes to great lengths to hide. Hanna simply accepts the accusations the other women make, because defending herself would force her to face the humiliation of her secret. Hanna’s illiteracy affects her entire life. She refuses the offer of a promotion at Siemens because she cannot read, and accepts a position as a guard where she chose prisoners to read to her “because she wanted to make their last month bearable before their inevitable dispatch to Auschwitz.” At the trial, Hanna is too concerned with keeping her illiteracy secret that she does not consider what it means to be exposed as a criminal.

Since Michael knows Hanna’s secret, he wonders if he has a responsibility to share this information with the judge.  Hanna does not try to defend herself, and she says things that constantly infuriate the judge, which compels Michael to want to help her; he wants to help the judge understand Hanna’s behavior, and, also, justify her behavior for himself.

In the novel, Michael’s father, who is a philosopher and lawyer, tells him that Hanna’s freedom and dignity must be considered in the situation, and he poses this question, “don’t you remember how furious you would get as a little boy when mamma knew better what was good for you? Even how far one can act like this with children is a real problem.” The movie does not emphasize this point as much as the book, but this question is important to keep in mind when considering Michael’s inner conflict. A person cannot place what other people say is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves because, as the father puts it, “it was no comfort to you [Michael] that your mother was always right.” In order for Michael to help Hanna, he has to address her about the matter and allow her to decide what she believes is best. Hanna needs to have “the last word;” doing it any other way would deprive her of her freedom and dignity, without giving her some promise of a future.

The movie focuses on Michael’s need to understand Hanna’s actions, and his struggle to come to terms with her crime because he loves her. The novel weaves Michael’s inner conflict into the struggle of subsequent generations trying to make peace with Germany’s Nazi past and the Holocaust.  Michael’s generation is exposed to films and literature about the concentration camps to the point that it is no longer a subject beyond imagination. Michael and other young people cannot rely on past generations to provide them with answers about Nazi atrocities, because their parents either committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen.

Coming to grips with a Nazi past was not just a generational conflict, because the children of the second generation, portrayed in The Reade,r did not know whether condemning their parents was enough. They would punish the guilty, but would continue to be “silenced by revulsion, shame and guilt.”

This generation needed to know how man could practice such cruelty toward other men, and, most importantly, how any group of people could choose to become victims without fighting back. In the novel, Michael ventures to the site of a concentration camp to experience it firsthand. He meets a man while hitchhiking, who explains that executioners do not hate the people they execute; execution just happens to be their line of work. The people that hated the Jews never directly killed them, but devised a plan that distanced them from the mass execution of the people they despised. The people who carried out the physical part of the extermination were indifferent toward the Jews, which made murdering them easier; it’s easy to discard something you have no emotional attachment to. The Jews, to the executioners, were a matter of such indifference that they could “kill them as easily as not.” It is numbness. Literature I have read about the perpetrators of Nazi crimes describes how difficult killing was at first, but after doing it over and over again, mass execution was all in a day’s work. This “numbness” is somewhat akin to the numbness that pervades the literature and other accounts of concentration camp survivors. A prisoner in Auschwitz who manages to survive for several months becomes accustomed to seeing death, and to doing whatever it takes to survive. Prisoners of the concentration camps began to exhibit selfish and indifferent behavior to the other inmates. However, prisoners of Nazi concentration camps were stripped of their humanity, and so their actions and behaviors became animalistic; morals cannot be applied to the victims of Nazi atrocities.

Perhaps we cannot judge people’s actions without considering their circumstances, but should a person’s circumstances make a difference in how we judge her behavior? It does not make a person’s actions any better or worse. Behavior is an independent faculty. It is influenced by circumstance and other social factors, but in the end, it needs to be judged separately. The law is designed to punish actions. The novel states that behavior has its own sources and is a person’s own, just as a person’s thoughts and decisions are her own.

The novel and film adaptation of The Reader, both question whether “law” is something that is actually written and obeyed, or whether it is something that “must be” obeyed – written or not – in order for society to function. So, what is law?


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