The theme of war guilt in Bernard Schlink's, "The Reader".

Essay by davet41College, Undergraduate July 2003

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The Reader Bernhard Schlink Themes

War Guilt

One of the main ideas in The Reader is German war guilt - guilt felt by both the war-time generation and the post-war generation. The post-war generation, to which the author, Schlink, belongs, has struggled to come to terms with the war crimes committed by the previous generation. The novel begins with a sick Michael being comforted by the maternal Hanna. This is an obvious symbol for the idea that the post-war generation needs to confront the deeds of its predecessor before it can be free of a sense of collective guilt. The novel is clearly an allegory for the collective guilt of ordinary Germans.

Guilt is portrayed in the novel by a sense of numbness and isolation. Michael, along with the others at the trial, is numbed by the evils committed in his country's name. This numbness is a symbol of the way ordinary Germans try to distance themselves from the 'monsters' who could commit such acts.

After the trial, Michael suffers a fever and then is free of his numbness; this shows that confronting the past (as the trial did) is healthy for Germany.

A by-product of guilt is blame, and finding someone to blame is a way of lessening the pain of guilt. Hanna's crimes and the ensuing trial expose the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. Hanna deals with her guilt - she was part of a group of guards who refused to unlock a burning church, causing the deaths of many prisoners - by blaming her orders: "we had to guard them and not let them escape." Many war-time Germans blamed orders, politicians, mob mentality and ignorance. Similarly, Michael's generation blame their parents to escape any guilt: "We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the...