Friday, April 17, 2009

German Guilt

© MMIX v 1.0.1

And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'

The Reader [1] leaves me with many things to ponder. Chief among these are 1). effects two world wars have had on Germans, 2). the philosophy of Law, and 3). Love.

The sombre tone of The Reader expresses the reality that Germans have been made to carry the can for the 20th century's two world wars. I find this objectionable — it is not fair or true. Joe Schlesinger [2] summed up my sentiments in his CBC documentary when he said that Europe today resembles Bismarck's plan of the 19th century. "Germany is at peace today and is surrounded by friends."

The carnage was for nothing and it cannot be blamed exclusively on "The Germans". Germans, along with everyone else, are reminded every day that they committed the ultimate crime, The Holocaust, or as Norman G. Finkelstein calls it, "The Holocash". The Reader is a Holocaust Movie. The other villains of WW II, the Japanese, have not been defamed in such a manner, nor should they have been. The sanctimonious Holocaust survivor lecturing "Michael Berg" in her luxurious NYC apartment at the end of the movie may plant a seed of doubt in the minds of some viewers. Perhaps that scene exists for that reason. The Germans in The Reader are constantly dealing with "German guilt," as have real Germans for the last 60 years. This is the greatest injustice of the 20th century — which was an epoch of bloodshed and injustice. And we are responsible for it.

Virtually nothing we have been told about the 20th century is true. We can begin looking at the past with that premise and start looking for the truth.

"Hannah Schmitz" is a tragic figure. She was a young woman (early 20s?) who had been trying to survive in WW II. She first appears in The Reader as a young woman (probably late 20s or early thirties) in post-War Germany. She takes pity on 15-year-old "Michael" who has taken shelter from the rain in the entry to her apartment. Hannah helps Michael and takes him to his home when the rain stops. He is diagnosed by the family doctor with Scarlet Fever. When he recovers, Michael returns with flowers. He and Hannah become lovers. Hannah lives in a decrepit apartment, she is a ticket-taker on the tram, she cannot read or write. Hannah bravely faces life and plays the cards as they are dealt. Michael comes from a well-to-do family, goes to Heidelberg Law School and becomes a lawyer. Their love affair lasts only one summer, before Michael goes to university. Hannah runs away when she is given a promotion to work in the office. She is illiterate. She is ashamed. Hannah keeps her secret.

While Michael is in Law School, he is taken to a trial of former SS guards. One of them is Hannah who is accused of leading a crime and writing a report about letting 300 prisoners die in a fire. Hannah could not have written any report because she is and was illiterate. She is accused by her fellow guards who have made a deal for lenient treatment. Michael knows Hannah is innocent, but he remains silent because Hannah, herself, does not want to reveal her secret. This may seem idiotic, but it is what a good lawyer might do. I, myself, could not keep quiet. It is idiotic. Michael is not Hannah's lawyer. Michael is not even a lawyer. Michael is a law student.

Perhaps Hannah and Michael are both caught in the web of "German guilt" and they accept their punishment for their crimes: being a German is a crime today, after all. This has been going on for a century. "Well, they deserve it." Do they?

Love exists and survives regardless of what is happening around the characters in the movie (as it does in life). Hannah's act of kindness at the beginning of the movie is truly touching. Sex is an expression of love in the movie. Years later, love triumphs when Michael starts tape recording the books he had read to Hannah during their affair and sending them to Hannah in prison. Hannah is enlivened. So is Michael. Hannah uses the books and tapes to teach herself to read and write. But when Michael withdraws his hand during their one visit in the prison, Hannah decides to commit suicide. Michael was not rejecting Hannah, he had become distant, but she didn't know that. Love is expressed again when a case worker calls Michael to have him agree to look after Hannah when she is released. But when Michael comes with flowers to take her away, she is dead.

In the final scene, Michael takes his daughter to Hannah's grave and explains to his daughter who Hannah was. Michael had become a distant person, but he had always loved his daughter and Hannah.

The Reader, like the 20th century, itself, is a tragedy.

The real lesson of the 20th century is summed up by Bob Dylan: "for, the times they are a-changin". [3] Honest hard work and quality products have brought the Germans and the Japanese (and the Indians and the Chinese and others who have been beaten down by us) to the forefront — because we bought and continue to buy their stuff. Just ask General Motors whose chairman, Rick Wagoner, testified in Congress that the auto industry is the last major industry that the United States can call its own. Everything else has gone somewhere else, he said. Truth and justice are rewarded. We must be patient. We must have faith. When the British embarked on building the Channel Tunnel with the French, they had to admit they were far behind the French in some areas of engineering, construction and trains (which the British had invented 200 years ago). The British had to swallow their pride and pull up their socks. We will have to do the same.


No comments: