Book Review from A* Old Girl


We were delighted to receive the following review from old-girl, Joanna Horsley, who achieved a grade A* in her German A-level examination and is now reading History (with a year in Germany) at Exeter University. Joanna studied the German book ‘The Reader’ with Frau Gladstone.

Der Vorleser (The Reader) by Bernhard Schlink

I studied Der Vorleser during Year 13 as part of my A2 German. I was initially drawn to the book for its historical value as it is set in post-World War Two Germany. The story is told in retrospect, through the eyes of Michael Berg. The novel begins in 1953 when Michael is fifteen years old and meets Hanna Schmitz, a thirty-six year old woman.

They begin a romantic, yet unconventional relationship. After Hanna leaves, Michael does not see her again until he is a law student and is participating in a seminar, exploring the post-war trials of those who committed crimes during the war. He discovers that Hanna is one of defendants, on trial for her role as a concentration camp guard.

As I read Der Vorleser, I realised that it was a far more complex book than I had originally thought. Schlink demonstrates in the novel how the German population struggled to come to terms with the crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany in the Second World War, in particular the horrors committed against the Jewish population in the Holocaust. Both those who experienced the war and future generations in Germany felt the need to come to terms with the past and the German word Die Vergangenheitsbewältigung describes this process.

Schlink does not give any answers to the questions he raises during his novel; he himself does not make any judgements on Hanna’s guilt and the guilt of the German population during the war. The reader is left to decide how guilty Hanna and the rest of the German population are for their involvement in the war. The reader has to ask themselves whether those who were not directly involved in the war, but simply allowed the crimes to be committed, should also be considered guilty.

Schlink makes the questions very difficult to answer, particularly in regards to Hanna’s role in the war. Her reasons behind her actions are highly unusual, and the reader is forced to consider whether her reasons can, on any level, justify her actions during the war.

Der Vorleser is incredibly thought-provoking and presents an unusual perspective on Germany’s actions in the Second World War and the consequences of these crimes for future generations.

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