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Crime, Compassion, and The Reader
John E. MacKinnon
IN "WRITING AFTER AUSCHWITZ," Günter Grass describes how at the age of seventeen he stubbornly refused to believe the evidence arrayed before him and his classmates of Nazi atrocities, the photographs showing piles of eyeglasses, shoes, hair, and bones. "Germans never could have done, never did do a thing like that," he recalls thinking. And "when the Never collapsed," he and other young Germans were assured that they were free of responsibility. "It took several more years," Grass reports, "before I began to realize: This will not go away; our shame cannot be repressed or come to terms with." Later, he confesses that those of his age "belonged to the Auschwitz generation—not as criminals, to be sure, but in the camp of the criminals." 1
Although one would be hard-pressed to find a novel more dramatically different in style and narrative development than Grass's own dark, audacious fables, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader 2 nonetheless shares this fascination with the notion of collective guilt, in particular the burden of inheritance endured by Germany's "second generation." Set in a university town in the late 1950s, the novel tells the story of a high school student, Michael Berg, who falls in love with Hanna Schmitz, a woman twenty years his senior. Though capable of genuine concern and deep affection, Hanna is oddly secretive, often brusque and officious, occasionally given to cruelty and sarcasm, and prone to unpredictable fits of pique. She also has an endearing quirk: she likes Michael to read to her. Eventually, and without explanation, she vanishes from Michael's life. It is seven years before he sees her again, when, as a law student, he attends a trial of concentration-camp guards, one of whom is Hanna. She stands accused, along with four other [End Page 1] women, of serving at both Auschwitz and a satellite camp near Cracow, of being actively involved in the selection of prisoners for almost certain death, and of locking several hundred women in a church, where they burned to death during a bombing raid.
In light of testimony given at trial, Hanna's puzzling conduct, and his own recollections of their time together, it finally dawns on Michael that Hanna cannot read, that she was and remains illiterate. But while in retrospect this may explain certain episodes of frustration, incomprehension, and overreaction on her part, does it have any bearing on her guilt? What would Michael himself have done if similarly situated, and similarly limited? Thus, the story of Michael and Hanna serves as an allegory of the relation between the two generations of Germans, those who were Nazis, or who at least assisted or accommodated them, and the "lucky late-born." It is against this background that Schlink is able most searchingly to investigate questions of complicity, recrimination, and atonement.
As much courtroom drama as rite-of-passage tale, The Reader is also something of a philosophical investigation. According to Eva Hoffman, in fact, Schlink has managed to compose "a fictionalized essay . . . a kind of philosophical parable." For all the briskly evocative prose, she adds, The Reader "gradually acquires some of the severity of a legal or logical argument, in which propositions are set forth and then tested from various points of view." 3 In a recent article, Jeremiah P. Conway offers a sympathetic interpretation of the novel, attending in particular to the philosophical issues that it raises. Conway challenges Martha Nussbaum's claim that it is logically incoherent for us to feel compassion for one whom we hold responsible for a morally reprehensible act. 4 For in Hanna, he suggests, we have a compelling counterexample, a fit object of our compassion no less than our condemnation. And yet, Conway's challenge is grounded in an even more fundamental denial that The Reader is at all concerned to establish the circumstances of Hanna's life as mitigating her crime.
In what follows, I will argue that this interpretation is untenable...