The Clare Spark Blog

August 13, 2009

Was Nazism no more than a search for Order? The Reader as case study: some first thoughts

Anyone on the social networking sites or in the blogosphere must notice that more and more persons are objecting to characterizing either Republicans or Democrats as Nazis or their leaders as comparable to Hitler in the current debates concerning health care reform. Amen to that.

But then I was thinking, how is it possible, eight decades since conservative nationalists facilitated the Nazi seizure of power, that the public at large, along with its journalists, are not au courant with such crucial matters as Hitler’s multiple class bases, the exact nature and sources of his antisemitism, the nature of his bond with the German people (see Saul Friedländer’s complaints on the neglect of that subject:, let alone Carl Schmitt’s legal theories, or the structural or policy similarities of the fascist dictatorships with other bureaucratic collectivist societies coping with the monetary crisis of the 1930s? I would argue that this collective lapse is more than a little responsible for the lack of consensus on what is antisemitism, and how it could be combated.

A case in point: the movie version of former jurist Bernhard Schlink’s very popular and honored novel, Der Vorleser, made into a movie The Reader, with script by renowned British playwright David Hare. This rather bad, though (over) praised, movie, should be considered along with the flood of books (and films) chewing over the nature of collaboration with Hitler’s Germany, or Mussolini’s Italy, or Occupied France and Vichy.  For instance, famed conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, the leading conductor in Germany and often criticized by the emigres as an exemplary sellout has been presented in Ronald Harwood’s movie Taking Sides and numerous monographs, many of which defend his conduct (but not Michael Kater, who skewers him), while the most convincing arguments in Harwood’s script are made by a philistine American major (played by Harvey Keitel). Meanwhile, Furtwängler defended himself as upholding high German culture while the mob was in power, but the best biography I read (Kater’s) hardly pictured him as a resister or inner emigre, but rather one who cultivated powerful persons during the Nazi period, not to speak of his repertoire: lots of Wagner, with those Beethoven works that reinforced the Germans as a heroic people with a superior culture (for instance the Ninth Symphony). Think too of the appropriation of Goethe and Schiller, and neoclassicism in general during the Nazi period.

Enter the movie The Reader. The unlikely leading character, Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet), is gradually revealed to be illiterate. I have consulted my favorite scholar of working class culture and politics, and he says though her German (in the novel) suggests that she came from the countryside, it is inconceivable that she could not read and write. Indeed, since the Reformation especially, there were determined campaigns in Northern Europe to educate “the lower orders.” My friend believes that she could certainly have written a letter or filled out a form. But the thrust of the movie is her hunger for high culture as transmitted by her adolescent lover (a character associated with the erudition of Goethe). Her taking the job of a guard at Auschwitz is hinted at in the movie as perhaps an outgrowth of her cultural incapacity and naivete. She never demonstrates signs of antisemitism, but the movie does, particularly in the last scene, when her grown-up ex-lover Michael Berg (played in maturity by Ralph Fiennes) goes to New York to deliver the suicide Hanna’s money to the lone survivor of a church in which Hanna and other guards allowed three hundred Jewish women and children to burn to death. This wealthy Jewish character (who turns down the legacy as absolving Hanna of her crime)  turns out to live in vulgar splendor on Park Avenue, while Michael, now a lawyer, lives in modern but much more modest circumstances.  But the Jewish survivor does suggest that Michael give the money to an organization that promotes literacy in Germany (and elsewhere?)–probably one of the best educated countries in the world, and in the late nineteenth century possessing the most advanced working class in Europe. In my view, the movie and the novel were contrived to build sympathy for the hapless, miserable Hanna, who would have been a good German if only she had learned to read the classics of European culture, starting with Homer’s Odyssey.

Kate Winslet's wedding hat

Kate Winslet’s wedding hat

You would never know from this film that antisemitism was at the heart of Hitler’s war aims and of the Nazi project in general.  What is equally bad is the moral relativism suggested by the judge who teaches Michael’s seminar in judicial ethics. Is even the mention of Carl Schmitt (now being revived by some New Leftists) off limits for script writers? And what about the hand-to-hand combat waged by German intellectuals in 1986 and after as they debated whether the Third Reich was a deviation from the main contours of German history, or the logical result of German racism and imperialism? Or John Maynard Keynes famous book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920) predicting disaster for Europe because of the punitive Versailles Conference settlement, instigated by Britain and France, with the blessing of Woodrow Wilson? All these questions were evaded by the largely sympathetic focus on the character of the tragic Hanna.[Update: 5-14-14: The Keynes argument is advanced by would-be aristocrats, and is contradicted by Niall Ferguson’s views, one of which is that the Great War could have been averted had UK diplomats not overestimated the military strength of Germany. More to the point, he blames inept handling of economics that created the disastrous inflation of 1923. (The ruined middle class would be a strong component of Hitler’s base.)]

Even if we ignore the missing historical context, what about the depth of the attachment between young Michael and his much older lover? He never gets over her loss and is undone by the discovery that she was a part of the Nazi apparatus as he witnesses her trial several years after their summer affair was abruptly terminated by Hanna’s unannounced departure to parts unknown. Indeed, he is presented as an emotional basket case throughout. Why? Is he a typical over-emotional German romantic, styled after the young Goethe, author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, or the quasi-autobiographical novel Wilhelm Meister? Was the German crime primarily instigated by authoritarian fathers, stern and cold, as the father is here depicted. That was one theory propagated by Harvard social psychologists after the war: It was not anticapitalism/antisemitism/anti”Jewish Bolshevism” or the weakness of the Weimar republic, or the legacy of Bismarck, or the machinations of conservative nationalists that fueled the Nazi movement, but the authoritarian father that incited revolt in the sons, often with a Byronic twist. (see my blog below on the dissemination of  Hitler as failed artist, as a formulator of an eclectic and novel ideology, hence an outsider to normally sane Germans.)

I will update and correct these preliminary thoughts on the movie and the novel that inspired it after I read the novel. I need to know more about the judge in the film and Schlink’s legal philosophy. In the meantime, Hollywood found yet another way to miseducate the American and European publics about the popular support for Hitler and the conduct of ordinary people who carried out the day to day work of the Shoah. As for David Hare, he is no friend of the Jews or of Israel.

[Update 8-16-09:] I have read Schlink’s novel as translated by Carol Brown Janeway, and am more disgusted than ever by the movie. The novel is quite interesting, for it focuses in an intertwined fashion on both whether or not Germany was collectively responsible for Hitler and the Holocaust, along with the damage done to Michael Berg’s ability to love others, for his obviously Oedipal bond with the much older Hanna while he is only fifteen, ties him to her for life, and he is both obsessed with her, submissively dreaming of her as a dominatrix (see my blog on S-M elsewhere on the site), or struggling to maintain his distance, even when she needs him. After he discovers that she was in the SS and could  have, but did not, save 300 Jewish women trapped in a burning synagogue, he goes “numb” for he cannot reconcile the conflicting desires for both “understanding and condemnation.” That his conflicts were even deeper owing to the Oedipal nature of their affair, is beyond the powers of the author to describe, but readers will easily pick it up. Let it suffice for this brief discussion that he feels his betrayal of her, more than he feels her betrayal of either him or of Germany. And she was not from the countryside, as my scholar friend surmised, but from Hermannstadt, a city in Romania with a significant German population. Her religion is never specified, but could have been Evangelical Lutheran, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox. [It seems unlikely that she was an atheist, for Michael plans for her attending Church organizations after her release from prison, though of course she kills herself when she senses that he will not resume the affair with her owing to her old age and unfamiliar repellent smell.] That she was in fact illiterate seems contrived, especially given her quick grasp of  world literature and later determination to read all about Holocaust survivor stories and scholarly works on the camps (she obviously had no idea what she was doing when she joined the SS). She seems to be a symbol for German Nazis from the working classes, languishing stupidly in mass culture, but who could have been saved from Hitler by an earlier immersion in the classics of the West. Of course numerous educated Germans had no problem supporting Hitler, but that is not brought out in the novel. Nor is there any discussion whatsoever of pre-existent antisemitism, either in Germany, in Michael’s family, or in Hanna’s upbringing.

David Hare, the script writer of the film, could have done much more with Schlink”s agonized book, but apparently chose not to. He (or the director) did make an outrageous change near the end of the film, when Michael takes the suicide Hanna’s legacy to the remaining survivor of the burning Church. In the film, the survivor lives in a luxurious apartment on Park Avenue (all in shades of [Jewish?] gold), whereas in the book, she lives near Central Park on the East Side in a row house on a block of old brownstones, where many of the small back yards are filled with trash. No Rothschild relative there.

The book is sufficiently interesting, even gripping, for use in college classes, for it does emphasize the emotional deformations of the children of the generation that either supported the Third Reich or lamely endured under it. There is also no doubt in the book that Michael cares about legal history, for he studies law as practiced under Hitler, though without comment as to the Carl Schmitt factor. What I said earlier about the cold father is present in the book: Michael feels that his father never cared for the family, only for his work on Kant and Hegel. All in all, Michael ends up as an existentialist/nihilist, emotionally dragged hither and thither and unable to have a healthy relationship with anyone, such is the permanent attachment with Hanna and the invisible Mother (or Father!) whom she must have masked. [I am inclined to think that Hanna is a mask for Father, for the Mother is invisible in the book and kind in the movie. Added, 8-16-09] And he concludes that there has been no progress in the law (as the Enlightenment and its aftermath must suggest), only an irredeemably evil human nature that can kill others as their job requires with complete indifference. So Hanna gets off the hook again: humanity is no damned good and never will be.

I have also read three reviews of the film, all treating it as erotic, evasive regarding antisemitism,and shallow, but none wondering about the underlying ideology (as I understand it). One would have to know that one widespread interpretation of the Nazi takeover was an Ortega-style  “revolt of the masses” theme, thus exonerating other classes from 1. Installing Hitler in the first place; and 2. Opposing the Weimar Republic and of course the Soviet Union. So the film, like the book, is giving an entirely cultural explanation. And these (negative) reviews (from The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times) failed to note the most important emotional or ideological content of the film: the implausibility of Hanna’s illiteracy (which could not have been typical), the denial of progress, the filthiness of human nature, and the permanent damage done to Michael Berg’s psyche by the Oedipal attachment to Hanna—he is obviously masochistic, and takes blame onto himself for everything that happens.

By the way, I didn’t find either the film or the novel to be pornographic. But then I am a female. These reviewers should look to their own unconscious longings if this film turns them on.   For an excellent and detailed treatment of the book, see Karin Doerr, “Re-Reading Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader as a Mirror of Germany’s Holocaust Memory,” The Genocidal Mind, eds. Dennis B. Klein et al. (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2005): 199-223.

1 Comment »

  1. […] also my blog on the book and movie The Reader….] Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Leave a […]

    Pingback by The centrality of the Holocaust to Nazi war aims « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 24, 2011 @ 6:54 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: