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Trauma and Memory in Contemporary German Literature

letteratura tedesca

Second year elective: Trauma and Memory in Contemporary German Literature


Analyse and summarise the key ideas and arguments of the following passages from Kant's famous piece "What is Enlightment?" (1784).

Give a detailed analysis of the motifs of illiteracy/ reading in Schlink's  Der Vorleser.

Can it be argued that Hanna's crime represents the failure 656e49g of Enlightment?


Bernard Schlink's  Der Vorleser is a love story and a Holocaust novel at the same time. The main characters of this novel are Michael Berg, who is the narrator as well, and Hanna Schimtz.

Michael is fifteen when he meets Hanna, who is thirty-six, in the street. He is having a cough attack that forces him in vomiting while he is having a walk. As[1] a result, she helps him in cleaning his face and clothes. This first meeting is representative of all their future relationship, indeed, as Martin Swales Points out, these love story is quite marked by a sort of sadomasochism that "bounds" the young boy to the mature woman.

In addition to their difference in age, there is another big difference between the two lovers, which is their cultural background. Actually, Michael's background is an academic one, "his father is a professor of philosophy and he is receiving the kind of schooling that prepares him for university."(Martin Swales, Sex, shame and guilt: reflections on Berbard Schlink's "DER VORLESER (The reader) and J.M. Coetzee's "DISGRACE", pg. 7). On the other side, there is Hanna, which is illiterate. But this is something that is not said until the second section of the book, especially because even Michael doesn't know anything about that at the beginning of their story. Michael informs his readers of this in the same moment he discovers it, but it doesn't happen before the second part of the book. Actually, in the first part of the book very little is known about the woman, and the only thing that can be used to characterise Hanna's character is her strange behaviour and attitudes, such as her obsessively body care and attitude in front of reading. As well, she has a strange reaction when he asks her name for the first time (pg 34) and he asks her about her war time past (pg 40) (J.J.LONG, Bernard Schilnk's "Der Vorleser" and Binjamin Wilkomirski's "Bruchstücke": best selling responses to the Holocaust", PG 56).

The whole book can be divided in two sections:

The first section is made up by the first part of the book. This is the part in which the two lovers meet each other and begin their relationship. It ends when Hanna mysteriously disappears;

The second and the third part of the book make up the second section. In this section it is told of the reencounter of the two lovers that happens during a trial for some people who were Nazi perpetrators during the II World War. Michael goes to assist it, because it is part of one seminar of one course he attends as a student in the faculty of law. During the trial he discovers that Hanna Schmitz is one of the accused.

The trial is quite important for the post-war German history because it "embodies.the issue of the Nazi past, of coming to terms with the past"(........) At the end of it, Hanna is convicted and she has to spend several years in jail.

The last part of the book talks about these years and how the two lovers create a new relationship.   

During the trial several points, that were not clear at all in the first section, are solved and have reason to be. As J.J.Long points out, her behaviour in the first section is highly unusual and unpredictable. Moreover, she has quite strange reactions, which are not clear at first. For example, she gets quite angry either when Michael tells her that he doesn't take school seriously or when, during their Easter holiday, he goes to fetch her breakfast and leaves her a note on the night table. In the same episode she refuses to fill up the hotel register and, later in the narration, she is accused not to have answered to the court's communiqués. Moreover, her refusal to undergo a handwriting test comes from the fact that she is too ashamed to admit in front of the court that she can't neither write nor read. As a consequence, she prefers to be convicted as a war criminal rather to confess her ignorance.

Another fact that seems to be interesting to underline is that Hanna asks Michael to read aloud for her, as the Jews girl she used to do with her, while she was attendant in the concentration camp. Not only does this fact give the reader one more indicator about the difference in role the two lovers have in their affair, but also it allows the reader to think about the books they read in the first section and the ones Michael records on tape in the second part, in order to send them to Hanna, while she is in jail.

It is interesting that "Odyssey" is the first book he records for Hanna, because the main character of this book has to pass different trials before the Fate Allows him to come back home. So this is not just an important reading because of its historical importance, it is a metaphor of life as well. Actually, all the trials Ulysses has to face could be seen, as all the different trials people have to pass to become wise people.

In the first section, the first two books he reads aloud are Schiller's "Emilia Galotti" and Lessing's "Kabale und Liebe". Both are defined as bourgeois tragedies and they can be seen as a sort of preannunciation of the tragic end of Schlink's novel that could be called a modern bourgeois tragedy as well. But these two novels are important for Schlink's book, because they were written during the Enlightment period, when such themes as the difference between freedom and inevitability of the men's fate were greatly discussed.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his work "Was ist Aufklärung?" (1784), moved these speculations about fate and self-determination in particular. Actually, in this piece, it is possible to find some of the points that not only can be seen as part of Michael's background (his father was a philosopher), but they can be used in trying to come to terms with the past. As Martin Swales points out,

"Hanna's trial embodies [.] the issue of the Nazi past, of coming to terms with the past", that is defined in Schlink's Der Vorleser as Vergangenheitsbewältigung. In addition to that her illiteracy alerts us to the moral illiteracy of the perpetrators of Nazi war crimes.

Actually, the first three lines of Kant's work can be used as a point of start to demonstrate that Swale's opinion is not false at all. These lines say

".Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.. "Have the courage to use your own reason!.."

Following that, Hanna Schmitz can be considered as an example of lots of Nazi perpetrators. For this reason, it is possible to note that being illiterate she was almost unable "to make use of her understanding without direction from another". (I. Kant, "Was ist Aufklärung?" 1784, first paragraph).  This is proved by the fact that when she realises what she had done during the Nazi regime, she doesn't feel able to face the other people judgement and she prefers to commit suicide. (J.J.LONG, Bernard Schilnk's "Der Vorleser" and Binjamin Wilkomirski's "Bruchstücke": best selling responses to the Olocaust", PG 56).

In this way she allows Michael as well in not to confront "Hanna" as she has became during the years in prison -fat and without any care for her personal hygiene-. Actually, the fact he doesn't go once in visiting her before the last period of her detention, can be symptomatic of the fact that he is not just angry with her because of her past behaviour. Michael behaves in this way because he is not ready to face a different Hanna from the one of his eroticised memory.

He prefers to leave their only contact to the tapes he sends her. In those tapes he records his voice reading aloud for her, as he used to do when he was fifteen. But he does nothing else but reading. Actually, it looks like he refuses even to say anything more personal to her, as he was punishing her because of her guilt. He feels like his moral deliberation doesn't allow him to have a normal relationship with such kind of woman.

As Kant says in the fourth paragraph of his piece

"For any individual to work out himself of the life under tutelage which has become almost his nature is very difficult...... There are few who have succeeded by their own exercise of mind both in freeing themselves from incompetence and in achieving a steady pace."

It is possible to recognise Hanna's efforts, the fight she has to overcome to reach her Enlightment, in her first handwriting that is described by Michael in the book, when he says

"..Hanna hatte den Stift mit viel Kraft geführt; die Schrift drückte auf die Rückseite dürch.." (B. Schlink, Der Vorleser, 1995, pg 177).

Actually, she sends him a card from prison and the way she writes it shows that her effort is quite big, because, not only does she want to learn to write, but also she wants to read in order to know more about the concentration camps.

In the second paragraph of Kant's work it is said that

"Laziness and cowardice are the reason why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction.., nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage.... I need not to think if can only pay- other will easily undertake the irksome work for me."

In Kant's opinion men's tutelage comes from lack of will to be really free, because it is easier to let other people to make decision, which can be significative, or not for our life. As a consequence, in the philosopher's opinion, the tutelage comes from lack of resolution even though men have the ability to make their own decisions.

This idea clashes with the medieval idea that man are kind of puppets that can't decide if their own life because of the Fate.

At the same time, Kant recognises that it is not possible to reach autonomy and enlightment where there isn't any freedom (such as in the case of the Nazi perpetrators). Indeed he says that

"For this enlightment.. nothing is required but freedom."

The people who lived under the Nazi regime were not free at all and there were just few of them who were really conscious of that. Most German people didn't realise the Nazi crimes until they were showed them after the end of the II World War.  They trusted the regime so much that they didn't want to ask themselves if they were acting badly or not especially with the Jews.

On this side Hanna is a good example, because she was one of those people that, instead of trying to "assault authority" (as Kant would say) she prefers to obey without ask herself any question whether her actions were good or not, in order to save her own interests: her work and her life.

That's why, when she realises her guilt, she refuse all that she was before the trial, starting to her obsessively cleaning habits. Actually, as Martin Swales points out, during her permanence in jail,

"She learns to read in prison, and she reads about the concentration camps" (pg 14)

and as a consequence, this leads her in

"indwelling her own bodylines"(pg !!).

She becomes neglect about her body as she is refusing all the habits she had assumed while she was working for the Nazi regime. (This last one was quite obsessive talking about physical appearance and body care).

As said before, one of the key ideas of Kant's work is that religion is the biggest cause of men's tutelage. He explains why in the twelfth paragraph of his work, when he says,

"I have placed the main point of enlightment- the escape of men fro their self-incurred tutelage- chiefly in matters of religion because our rulers have no interest in playing guardian with the respect to the arts and science and also because religious incompetence is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all."( I. Kant, "Was ist Aufklärung?" 1784, twelfth paragraph).

In addition to that, there is another key idea that can be underlined in this work and it is the cosmopolitan solidarity. This one, together with the religious tolerance, was one of the key ideas of the Enlightment itself as well, but it was completely denied during the II World War, not only by the Nazi regime.

In my opinion, Hanna's crimes have really been caused by her illiteracy and this can been seen as the failure of the Enlightment. Actually, if Enlightment had succeed in helping people to use their own reason, German people - and all the rest of the world as well- such as Hanna wouldn't have allowed all the things that happened during the War.

Hanna's crime is just an example of all the things that took place in Germany during the Nazi regime, just because people were not enough brave to attempt an assault on the authority consequence, in order to protect their life and that of their beloved. As a consequence most Nazi perpetrators were just like obedient robots to their leaders, because of their ignorance, which should be seen not only as Hanna's illiteracy, but even as the lack of courage Kant talks about in his famous piece.

Actually the rhetoric question Hanna asks the judge during her trial

"Was hätten sie gemacht?" (pg 123)

has the same implications of the answers lots of other perpetrators gave during  different trials, when someone asked them why they did such awful things to other human beings. To this question lots of people answered that, they did it because someone had told them to do it, because it was their job and they didn't' have the chance to choose whether doing it or not.

But, as Michael is well aware, it is not easy to judge the action of these people. Actually it looks like he thinks that coming to terms with the past is not the duty of the new generation. It looks to be a too hard work, especially because it is not easy to really understand why people like Hanna didn't tried to resist to the Nazis and because most of them are part of the Germany that was born in the post-war years.

In conclusion, it looks like that, especially in the second part of the book the attitude of reading has had a great importance in this book. Actually, the Vorleser of the title is discovered to be the narrator that was not reading just for his lover but for us as well. Moreover, through the reading both the characters have the chance to reach a new self-consciousness, even though in Hanna's case it doesn't work properly because she commits suicide.


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