The German Guard

I am as many know obsessed with History and the World Wars are especially close to my heart, because, well simply because I do not understand how men and women could have been so cruel to their own kind and secondly, most importantly, I am sometimes scared, that we as a species never learn from our mistakes and we are going down the same path! This urge to read up on the subjects leads me down to various paths of Fiction and Non Fiction and sometimes, I find myself with a book, I would not usually venture to read, had it not been set on this premises so close to my heart!

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is one such novel. I have not seen the film, but I have heard rave reviews about both the novel and the film and both were highly recommended by many people whose opinion I respect. However I could not quite bring myself to read this one; the idea of sexual relations between a 15 and 36 year old, somehow seemed to have hints of pedophilia and even my broad, live and let live philosophy had trouble digesting! So I waited and procrastinated and then one Sunday afternoon, I found myself at lose ends, challenging myself to do something different and suddenly The Reader found me!

Set in the early years post World War II Germany, The Reader, traces the lives of Michael Berg, a lawyer and Hannah Schmitz, a former guard at Auschwitz. Micheal first meets Hannah, a streetcar conductor, when he is 15 and falls ill, near her house and she assists him with aid, before sending him back home. Once recovered, he goes to thank Hannah and they begin a relationship. One key aspect of the relationship is that Hannah expects Micheal to read to her, every time he visits. One day however, Hannah abruptly leaves town and Micheal is left with the guilt that it was his conduct that drove Hannah away! After a gap of several years, while attending a seminar that follows the trial of some of the former Nazi guards and soldiers, Michael meets Hannah again, only this time she is one of the accused, held responsible for the death of many Jewish woman and children, who died in a church fire where they were being held captive under the supervision of Hannah and several other women guards, when an allies bomb stuck the church trapping the women and children in a horrific fire, killing all most everyone. As the trial progresses, Micheal realizes that the evidence is circumstantial and a good lawyer, would have disposed off the whole thing in a couple of days. However, Hannah seemed to willfully volunteer information, that held her, more of the accused guards responsible for the death of those women and children and agree on matters that may not be wholly true. As the trial progresses, Micheal wonders about Hannah’s behavior and action, until stumbling on the secret that holds key to Hannah’s action and in protecting that secret, Hannah accepts all that is thrown her way, leading to unintended consequences!

Like I said, I was not comfortable with the premises of the book, because of which I held of on reading it for a long time. There is no denying that there is streak of eroticism that is there in the book, but as I rushed through its pages, I realized it so much more than that! The guilt of the war of the post war generation of Germans, comes searing through the pages, as Michael speaks for a whole generation, that could not believe that their parents were capable of the kind of brutality that Nazi Germany unleashed. Their struggle to ‘love and respect” the elders comes clashing with the historic reality of their elders and the struggle to somehow make peace or distance themselves from that past is heartbreaking! The burden of this generation with what to condemn and who to condemn and how to make sense of it all, is tragically and beautifully described by the author, capturing the pain, the guilt, the confusion and raging anger!Hannah’s secret that symbolizes the German population during the Nazi rule, is at the very heart of the book, that questions on how the common man could turn away from what was truly an abhorrence in the name of mankind and live to exist with it everyday! This sheer negligence of moral responsibility and how that generation tackled this, forms the very essence of this novel. Sensitively written, in some of the most heart rending prose, the book offers no apology for the Nazi Germany, but rather a bewilderment of how a nation and its people can go so wrong and its consequences that echo on the future generation. With a deep understanding of his country and the people, Schlink, wrote on what can only be called a masterpiece that makes us question our sense of morality and the option of “no alternative” that hides behind it the complete and utter failure of moral courage!

I did not love this book, but I was touched by it. It remained with me for a long time and I needed to distance myself from its overwhelming difficult questions, to write an objective review. It is not an easy read; I do not mean in terms of word count, but in terms of message it brings. But it fulfills the most important criterion of a novel, the ability to make the reader hold up a mirror to his or her face and question the most important principles of life! It is a book that needs to be read, if for no other reason, than simply because we need ensure that we do not commit the same mistakes as our predecessors!


16 thoughts on “The German Guard

  1. I’m with you cirtnecce (including regarding the fear that we don’t seem to learn. It’s should-destroying. I can see why people become cynical as they get older.)

    It’s a long time since I read this book, but it still stays with me. Such a complex story about ethics and morality, but I will never forget that sense of people doing what they were told no matter how cruel that direction was, that idea that “I was just following rules” could be a valid excuse. As you say, that failure of moral courage. It’s confronting. And then that overlaying issue of education and literacy. It’s a book whose impact you don’t forget a decade later.

    1. It is a complex story and there is so much more to this book that what it initially appeared on the surface. It is a powerful book and I think in times such as these, books like these, written by people who know the consequences of failing to stand up for what is right, is even more critical in days such as these!

      1. Books that resonate with the current times despite having been written in the past, are some of the best books that endear always! 😀

  2. Bookman got this when it first came out and rushed through it and liked it and gave it to me to read and still have not gotten around to it! One day! I am glad to know that in spite of your concerns about it you still enjoyed it.

    1. You must read it Stefanie. It is not an easy book nor a joyous book, but it is critical in helping understand some of the most significant and understated consequences of hatred and lack of moral courage that we bequeath to our future generations!

  3. When I read Mein Kampf, I read some background information that said the pre-WWII Nazi meetings of which Hitler was a part became more popular the more violent they became. This is a note from my book:

    “The Hitler putsch of 1923 made the (Nazi) Party more popular in the city than it had been before. When the Nazis drove dissenters — or imaginary dissenters —- from their meetings with cudgels, their audiences grew larger. Few people in Germany were at the bottom anti-Semitic, but the joy large number felt in promises of blood curdling treatment to be meted out to the helpless minority made them responsive to the suggestion. Smashing windows and street fighting were relied upon to win the crowd. The propagandists encouraged them all. ‘We shall reach our goal,’ declared Goebbels, ‘when we have the courage to laugh as we destroy, as we smash, whatever was sacred to us as tradition, as education, as friendship and as human affection.’ In the Vienna of March, 1938, ordinary citizens who had hitherto gone about peacefully, confessed to a strange delight in the sufferings visited upon the Jewish group.”

    A very disturbing and sad commentary on human nature.

    I’m going to let this book pass, but I’m very happy to have had the chance to read your excellent review!

    1. Very disturbing! What worries me more is we seem to be going down the path of same belligerence and hate, refusing to learn from the past, ready to harm/hurt someone on the basis of the difference of religion/color/sexual orientation and unable to see the mortifying future that we will be handing down to the generations to come! When will we understand, strength does not come from putting down the minority, but rather excepting everyone to come together as one! We are determined instead to hate and go on hating! I am very very saddened at the way, the world choosing intolerance and aggression over all those principles that make humans, humane! Sorry for the rant, but the world seems to be racing towards madness with most aboard on this disaster train!

      1. What concerns me is that the hate can often come under the guise of caring. People who are against intolerance, biogotry, prejudice or even political figures, can often be just as intolerant, bigoted, or prejudiced themselves and just as virulently hateful. You rarely see anyone responding with gentleness (but firmness), understanding or even maturity. As Adler says (and one of the things I appreciate about G.K. Chesterton), we should all be able to disagree yet still have respect for one another (read about Chesterton’s relationship with George Bernard Shaw for an extreme example of this). If we can’t, there’s something very wrong.

      2. Well put Cleo! Very well put! And I agree with you completely! The very fact of liberal, egalitarian community is to have respect for each other when presenting differing and contrary points of view. My only caveat to this and its more of my thought – can you really respect someone who propagates vitreous poisonous actions and by that I mean extreme actions like ethnic cleansing or other physical/economical/emotional trauma based on religion, color or sexual orientation? I do find it hard to respect such illogical hate and aggression. I am all for differing opinions but there has to be logic and respect both ways!

      3. I don’t think you respect them from a moral point-of-view, but I do, as hard as it may be, think you have a duty to try to understand their point-of-view. Why do they think the way they do? What has happened in their lives to colour their perceptions? Can you find anything in common in the ways you think? You somehow have to find a common meeting ground to even start to try to resolve issues. You’re never going to change anyone’s mind with anger or hatred, or even irritation or name calling or rampant criticism. It’s useful to look back and see how some of the great thinkers influenced their world ….. Socrates irritated people, but he did so only by questioning and trying to make them think —- and he changed things; Gandhi had a huge influence yet he was non-violent and compassionate (even though people irritated him often); Booker T. Washington never stayed in the past and obsessed over the way he was treated as a slave but moved forward, educating his race while trying to mend fences and treat people as people instead of as races. There are so many good examples to emulate, yet people are blinded by their own selfish needs and often act on impulse, very much like animals. And, for whatever reason, I don’t believe people grow up very much nowadays to reach a level of maturity that allows them to deal with important problems and crises. You’re right in that it’s very unsettling.

      4. Agree with you! I do think it is important to understand the reasons that led them to espouse such extreme aggression and talking and showing compassion is the only solution. And I think this compassion, is what makes us mature, which as we agree is not happening too much these days! Excellent examples btw!

  4. I think I will read this after your very interesting review. Sometimes it can seem that the Nazis might as well as won the war in the way that we just can’t seem to let them alone let alone the worrying return of this strand of politics. The Reader is also a reminder that no country has faced up to its historic brutalities than (at least the Western half of) Germany.

    1. You make an excellent point! We seem to never let go of the Nazi past and somehow the idea of a Third Reich lives through that! Having said that I think this book is critical because it is written by a man whose generation was the first to inherit the burden of the Nazi past and seeing things from that point of view is very interesting, and disturbing! I agree with you that no country sans Germany faced up to its brutality in such a manner; though in recent years I can think of many nations that made such an assault on humanity. Serbia to cite a glaring example and yet they hardly seem to have lost as much as Germany in terms of historic condemnation.

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