The book is based in Germany during its Post Nazi era. The central theme of the book is guilt of the post Nazi generation arising from the war crimes committed by the preceding generation against the Jews. The book encapsulates this theme through the story of Hanna Schmitz (36) and Michael Berg (15). It starts with an affair between the two which barely lasts a few months when Hanna mysteriously deserts Michael, leaving him heartbroken and traumatized. A few years later he ends up in Law School and happens to witness a trial of a five defendants including Hanna Schmitz for their participation in the Holocaust as SS guards in a concentration camp. His pain resurfaces leaving him numbed, when he discovers the truth about his former lover.
Is it possible for a person to do something immoral and still be good?
Although Hanna is accused of a heinous crime, she is still portrayed as a less culpable character in the book. But the book does not talk about what Hanna did or did not do, therefore leaving a room for much philosophical debate about morality. It led me to question, ‘Whether a person can do something immoral and still be good? Specially someone like Hanna’. Fortunately I found this article Nazi Ravensbrück camp: How ordinary women became SS torturers by the BBC which sheds some light on my query. And I am afraid the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Even though this book briefly talks about retroactive justice, one can feel the question of suitability of this legal principle in a war crime scenario throughout the book. If you are wondering what the term means and why is it important, the answer is as follows. Retroactive law means a new law that intends to take effect from a particular date in the past rather than from the present date. Retroactive justice means adjudication of matters from a past date under the rule of a new law. It is issue here because, before World War II the concept of war crimes, for instance, genocide, were non-existent; brutality against enemy soldiers and non-combatants was not criminalized and was accepted as being nature of war. In Hanna’s case, in the post WWII scenario when war crimes are defined and made illegal, she is being tried for a war crime retroactively.
Law evolves. What was legal a ten years ago may be illegal now and vice-versa. But strictly from a moral standpoint, this book looks at the dilemma faced by Michael’s generation when they look back at the culpability of the preceding generation for genocide either by action or deliberate inaction. How will they forgive their parents, teachers, former Nazis holding position of power.. even as judges.
Thinking out loud…and you too can perhaps think about this in your spare time – Can we recognize the wrong done by our previous generation? If we do recognize it and do nothing about it then we are guilty too; what do you do with that guilt? Disassociate, associate, forgive, actively try to bring a change or something else? (Leave a comment below)
It is argued by many that the plot does not do justice to the reality of these trials and the post WWII situation, but to them I would say, ‘Yes it does not, but this book is a work of fiction which primarily concentrates on the lives of two people and how their actions affected each other. This book is not historical non-fiction, and that gives author the right to explore his chosen theme and present his work in whatever way he wishes‘.
The book arouses a question among its audience, was Hanna exonerated of her crimes? You need to decide that for yourself by reading the book or watching the famous adaptation by the same name. But when the same question was posed to the author, Mr. Schlink, simply responded in an interview, saying,
The Dead Cannot Forgive. Forgiveness, can only come from those you have wronged. You can’t get forgiveness from someone you have killed.Bernard Schlink
About the Author
Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany in 1944. He is a former judge and a professor of law at Humboldt University of Berlin and at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City.
I thank you for sharing Contemporology’s love for reading and inquisitiveness. I hope it encourages you to scrape off time from your busy schedule and dedicate it to lifelong learning. Take care ❤