The Reader by Bernhard Schlink: Holocaust and conflict of generations

Leia a versão em português aqui.

The Reader (or originally Der Vorleser) is a German novel written by the law professor, and Judge, Bernhard Schlink. In 2008, it was successfully adapted to film by Stephen Daldry, totaling five Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Actress), among other awards and nominations.

The action is unfolded in the 1960s and addresses the problem of the Holocaust by confronting the generation of Hitler’s National-Socialism (or Tätergeneration) and the generation of the post-Second Great War the Nachgeborenen.

The author knows in advance that he is dealing with a controversial subject and seeks to do so in a subtle way, forcing a different reflection on the Holocaust through the intimate relationship of the character Hanna Schmitz (played in by Kate Winslet, who won the 2009 Oscar for her performance), a 36-year-old train collector, and Michael Berg, a 15-year-old student, played as a young man by David Kross and as an adult by Ralph Fiennes.

The Plot

During the story, Hanna Schmitz is accused of allowing a group of Jews to burn after being trapped during a church fire. At the time, Schmitz was one of the guards of the SS (abbreviation of Schutzstaffel), a paramilitary organization linked to the Nazi party and responsible for the concentration camp, thus being accused of not unlocking the church doors, causing the death of the group. With the context, a constant tension between the two generations is developed, resulting in the difficulty of the younger ones to understand certain behaviors of their ascendants.

It is within this framework that the purest feelings emerge, such as love that makes us believe in the hope of a better future, as opposed to the feelings of judgment, prejudice, and condemnation that penalize the actions of the past, perhaps as a way of predicting future behavior.

Through the relationship between Hanna and Michael, the author explores ways of dealing with the obscure past of German national history, this approach is called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which in free translation into English can be understood as “reconciliation with the negative past”. The author also seeks an explanation for how current generations deal with the event, as memory and guilt begin to fade along with the physical disappearance of witnesses.

The novel has been discussed in the media and studied in academic circles, as we also did at the University of Aveiro (where I did my research), especially for its historical and timeless importance. However, it is worth mentioning that the work is much criticized because it is seen by many as an attempt to justify the culprits of the Holocaust. For example, Jeremy Adler condemns the book by stating that it is “The Art of Generating Compassion for Murderers” (Ramalheira, 2015). In effect, Bernhard Schlink is accused of creating a plot to make the public feel in somewhat empathetic towards the character Hanna, who was an SS guard in a Nazi concentration camp.

Through Michael, the author transforms the next generation into victims of the actions of the previous generation, as if asking for the acquittal of both. Paradoxically, the novel portrays a tragic event of German history (which unfortunately cannot be changed) and the generation of Michael, who experiences persecution and suffers from the remnants of the Holocaust, even though they had no intervention in it or fault.

Thus, reading the book raises several important dilemmas for any reflection on the subject. For example, is it preferable to preserve memory or opt for forgetting? How to use the past to correct future problems, as well as what steps to take to avoid repetition?

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader gains actuality, especially if we look closely at the signs of the Mediterranean refugee crisis and the growing political radicalization in several countries. This is seen at the recent pro-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. It can be concluded that similar phenomena may be imminent (Ramalheira, 2015).


In between the lines of the plot

In The Reader, Bernhard Schlink confronts generations of war and postwar, through an intimate relationship between Michael and Hanna. Hanna has two secrets she hid from Michael: her past as an SS guard and her illiteracy.

The author seems to use the fact that Hanna is illiterate to justify her actions in the past, showing through Michael that if she knew how to read and had access to the books, she could eventually have become a more sensitive and conscious human being. This would make her a more difficult person to be instrumentalized by Hitler’s National Socialist machine.

Moreover, the pragmatism and the tendency to execute orders with zeal, and without question, which she demonstrated at the trial in court when faced with the question: Why did you commit the crimes? In fact, Hanna had not been instructed to think, only to perform. In contrast, the author shows in the dialogues of law students with his teacher, that knowledge leads to greater social awareness and internal questioning of good and evil. It may not be involuntary on the part of the author, the fact that Hannah committed suicide when, at last, she learned to read and write. In fact, perhaps after this process, Hanna finally became aware of the evil she had done.

Regarding this, the literary researcher Kim Worthington refers in an article, published by Comparative Literature, that Bernhard Schlink is condemned by some and praised by others for seemingly showing the literary traditional humanist canon as middle education and therefore a degree of self-consciousness which leads Hanna to the guilt of her past actions.

Hanna’s late moral education was suggested by the fact that she committed suicide the day before her eventual release from prison and apparently seeks to make amends to her surviving victim through a posthumous monetary donation. “Literary literacy is one of the most effective antidotes against manipulation and totalitarianism” (Ramalheira: 2017) because literacy allows us to learn to read between the lines and to analyze the world around us so that we do not allow ourselves to be led by populists.

Likewise, Jan Assmann and John Czaplicka concluded in an analysis for the New German Critique that the collective cultural memory, with all its traumatic events, allows the society in question to build its future.

The law student, with obvious autobiographical traits, is aware of the evil that Hanna has generated, but as he lived an intense love story with her, he has a hard time hating her. That is why he helps her, even in prison, to continue her literacy process, given that, he had the confirmation that Hanna was illiterate in court.

In the book, Michael felt guilty for having loved a criminal when he was finally convinced of Hanna’s involvement in the Holocaust. These feelings are present throughout the novel which revealed yet another impossible love. Being a law student (therefore, an element of society with influence in Justice), his problem of conscience was intensified even more. Thus, he attends Hanna’s trial and tries to find the justifications for such acts in a final attempt to understand the involvement of that generation in the Holocaust. Even after Hanna committed suicide, Michael continues to feel uneasy and somehow carrying the blame of her generation.

In this way, it is understood that history fits the process of overcoming the past, in German Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which is this process of learning with the past. That’s because, during the story, we see how Michael goes through the process of trying to understand why Hanna acted like this. This is the process by which the German second and third generation (Nachgeborenen) had to go through while trying to understand the cause and involvement of their families in crimes arising from World War II.

In the same way, we can say that the author, also goes through this process by writing the book, being himself part of the second generation. The aim of the Germans of the second and third generation was to find a way to deal with the guilt of recent history, which includes honestly admitting that the past really existed and trying to remedy mistakes as much as possible.

Confronting the Past

In summary, from the analysis of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and some authors’ opinions, it is noted that the Holocaust is still a latent issue in German society, with which subsequent generations are being confronted in a more rational and less obscure way.

The theme is too complex, based on a political and military conflict, it has social, economic and cultural implications, among others. The contributions to its comprehension come from the most diverse areas, including literature, as we have observed here.

The generality of the rhetorical questions presented by the author through Michael’s inner monologues remains unanswered. They reflect the questions of their entire generation and aim to raise perplexities.

In addition, the answer always depends on the perspective of analysis. If on the one hand, some of the Germans seem to want to forget the subject and move on. On the other hand, the Jews intend to continue the debate, since they were the ones that suffered more with the Holocaust.

Despite the doubts that the book raises, a certainty emerges from reading it and the different authors: education and culture lead to a greater social awareness.

Note: I would like to thank Professor Ana Maria Ramalheira (University of Aveiro) for her contribution and guidance during the writing of this essay.

*Ana Leite, graduated in Languages and Publishing Studies by the University of Aveiro. Executive director of Ponteditora, scientific publishing house for the Portuguese language.

More about Ana Leite:


ASSMANN, J. & CZAPLICKA, J. Collective Memory and Cultural Identity. New German Critique, n.65, 1995, p.125-133. Disponível em:

RAMALHEIRA, A (2015). A iliteracia moral e política no Terceiro Reich e o trauma da memória do Holocausto na geração do pós-guerra – Der Vorleser [O Leitor] (1995) de Bernhard Schlink. Revista Forma Breve. Aveiro, n.12, p.371-388, 2015. Disponível em:

RAMALHEIRA, A. A literacia literária é um dos antídotos mais eficazes contra a manipulação e o totalitarismo (online), 2017. Disponível em:

SCHLINK, B. O Leitor, Lisboa: Edições ASA, 2009.

SOBOTTKA, E.; RIBEIRO, A.; ARENARU, B.; A modernidade como desafio teórico: ensaio sobre o pensamento social alemão. 1st ed., Porto Alegre: EDIPUCRS, 2008. p. 318.

WORTHINGTON, K. (2011). Suturing the Wound: Derrida’s “On Forgiveness” and Schlink’s “The Reader”, Comparative Literature, Eugene, v.63, n.2, p.203-224, 2011. Disponível em:

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