The Reader

What would you have done? Twenty years later I am reading “The Reader”, a Holocaust novel. Comprehensive spoilers.

A woman joined the SS, and became a camp guard. The inmates were marched west to escape the advancing Russians, and locked into a church. When the church was bombed and caught fire, the guards would not open the door so all but two inmates burned to death.

The novel never has a character answer the question. The woman asks the judge, whose reply is dreadful. Surely he must have thought about it. He could have simply refused to answer. He said,

“There are matters one simply cannot get drawn into, that one must distance oneself from, if the price is not life and limb.”

Well, yes, of course, the woman is guilty, but that wasn’t the question. She is lost in thought. She asks herself, “Should I not have joined up?” She does not know.

“Were you afraid if they escaped you would be arrested, convicted, shot?” Her response is, “We were responsible for them.” In other words that she does not use, it was her duty to stop them escaping. Yet, fleeing west, the Reich was collapsing, and Hitler would only survive a few more months.

She joined the SS because she was going to be made a supervisor at the Siemens factory, and it would have come out that she was illiterate. That terrified her. There were five guards, confused, frightened women, with no idea what to do, and at the trial she assumes responsibility, rather than be found out as illiterate. It is a greater shame to her to be illiterate than to be a Nazi murderer.

There are useful notes on motivation. It’s called “shadow motivation”, I heard, after I noticed I find what I want when I see what I do. Bernhard Schlink, the author, puts it this way: “But behaviour does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behaviour, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions.”

The woman, Hanna Schmitz, seduces the narrator, Michael Berg, when he is fifteen and she is 36. She is kind to him, he notices her physical attractiveness, he goes to see her, she grasps his erection. After, he cannot form a sexual relationship with women his own age. At the end, the Jewish survivor points this out. After his divorce, Michael admits to himself that any woman he has must resemble Hanna for things to work between them.

He wants convention. “She would behave normally, I would behave normally, and everything would be normal again.” When she comes out of prison, he finds a flat for her, and wants to be respectable. I have noticed this in myself. However I think such convention, without the mutual love and loyalty of being a couple, was unbearable for her.

He barely mentions his mother, and his relationship with his father is distant. He is numb. I am not numb, any more, not completely. I am in my body. (Not everyone is.) I am in touch with some of my emotions. It is not clear that he is.

What would I have done? Ones life unfolds from small changes to big ones. She might have seen that the Jews were oppressed, and found opportunities to resist, until she was murdered herself. She did not have to join the SS.

I thought of an eye-catching first line for this post: “My father never saw the people he killed”. Well, he was thousands of feet up in the air, raining bombs on them. It was his duty. He was one of a team of seven, in a Lancaster, in a squadron of many planes. It’s a good first line to catch attention, but to use those acts for that purpose is dishonourable. What would I have done? If I wasn’t in the Lancaster, it would be for “lack of moral fibre” rather than conscientious objection. I did not hear conscientious objectors admired until my thirties. Conchies were cowards. I was not given the moral framework to resist, and don’t think I could have worked it out for myself.

I feel sadness for Hanna. I want to find absolution for her. I go back over the start of the- “relationship”, Michael calls it, to see. I read over the incidents, and find her culpable. I did not consider she harmed him, until it was stated baldly at the end, even though throughout the book he talks of his difficulties with women. There are questions for discussion, not a thing you often see in a novel. “Does Hanna engage your sympathy at any point after you found out that she was a camp guard?” Yes. All the time. This may be unusual.

In my own life I find some admirable acts, but I don’t think I could point to anything as heroic. I know that my rational understanding of what is or is not shameful does not match completely with what shames me. The choice Hanna made was to join up, and she did that to avoid her illiteracy being revealed.

Sometimes, I see the chance to do something I consider worthwhile. Sometimes, I take that chance. If I don’t judge others, this is not necessarily virtuous. “Who is ‘The Reader’ of the title?” ask those questions. Michael reads to Hanna, by the end she has learned to read, but for me The Reader is me.

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