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Victimization of Germans in the Novel Der Vorleser

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Victimization of Germans in the novel Der Vorleser

Bernhard Schlink's novel Der Vorleser, has since its first publishing in 1995 become an international bestseller. The story of a fifteen-year-old boy having a love affair with a grown up woman, who turns out to be a Nazi perpetrator later on in the novel, was described as "beautiful, disturbing ... [such that] ensnares both heart and mind" by Los Angeles Times . This statement, however, does not fully encapsulate what the book has to say, as it only superficially brushes on the themes of the novel.

Though set in a framework of a passionate and, because of the age gap between Michael and Hanna, maybe somewhat disturbing love story, Der Vorleser predominantly deals with the trauma and suffering of the so-called second generation Germans, who had to face the immensely hard and painful task of coming to terms with the Nazi past of their fathers. Thus Schlink's novel is not only a book that "speaks straight to the heart" , but also "makes us think ... about things we would rather not think about" , and provokes criticism and the need to interpret it this way or another.

Omer Bartov sees Der Vorleser as a book that "is about Germany as victim, [...] even the murderers themselves are victims, and those they ultimately victimize are the next generations of Germans. It is a German fate" . In my essay I will discuss to what extent, in my opinion, this statement is true about the novel, and how it relates to the main characters - Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz.

The concept of German victimhood was part of the recreation process of German national identity after World War II. Germans were to be seen as the "victims of war, of Hitler, of expulsions by the Poles and Czechs - and also of Stalinism and socialism after 1945" as Bill Niven puts it in the introduction to Germans and Victims. However, while Niven's explanation serves well to shed light on how to understand the idea of Germany as victim in general, and apparently to support Bartov's claim, in the context of Der Vorleser, it seems that it is taking this concept a little bit too far. Schlink in his novel is concentrating specifically on the suffering and victimhood of the second generation Germans, who suffered, because "mit der Liebe zu den Eltern die Verstrickung in deren Schuld unwiderruflich eingetreten war" (p. 163).

In the book, this second generation and its problems of coming to terms with the deeds of the generation of "Täter, Zu- und Wegseher, Tolerierer und Akzeptierer" (p. 162) of the atrocities of WWII and Holocaust, is personified in Michael Berg and his love for the former concentration camp guard Hanna Schmitz. As the post-war generation of Germans struggled with, and were victims of their shame for their love to their parents, which carries with it the feeling of being an accomplice in the parents' generation's crimes, so Michael struggles with and is the victim of his shame for his love to Hanna, who, as he learns, as a concentration camp guard, let a group of prisoners burn to death. His shame is all the heavier on him, because as he says "die Liebe zu den Eltern ist die einzige Liebe für die man nicht verantwortlich ist" (p. 162), but his case is different, because he chose Hanna.

Hanna, on the other hand, even though a Nazi perpetrator, i.e. a murderer, is portrayed as a victim as well, namely a victim of circumstances. She is illiterate, and the shame for her handicap drives her to make choices that enable her to conceal it - thus she ends up being an SS guard. Her illiteracy also disadvantages her greatly at her trial, which puts her in the role of a victim of the post-war justice. At the same time however, Hanna is victimizing Michael, not only in the respect of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, but also in his love life following their relationship. Michael can not detach from her, he "[hatte] die Erinnerung an Hanna zwar verabschiedet, aber nicht bewältigt" (p. 84).

"Ich habe nie aufhören können, das Zusammensein mit Gertrud mit dem Zusammensein mit Hanna zu vergleichen, und immer wieder [...] hatte ich das Gefühl, daß es nicht stimmt, daß sie nicht stimmt" (pp. 164-5)

As a result he decides to look for women that remind him of Hanna, in order to make his relationships work.

Thus Hanna and Michael, their complicated relationship and its consequences seem to agree with Bartov's assessment. Hanna, the murderer, is a victim, in multiple ways she victimizes Michael, the representative of Bartov's "next generations of Germans", who thus becomes the victim's victim, and who himself states that "mein Leiden an meiner Liebe zu Hanna in gewisser Weise das Schicksal meiner Generation, das deutsche Schicksal war" (p. 163)

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