More than just a book, The Reader reminds that the concepts of guilt and responsibility are not clear-cut ideas, and even more so during the Nuremberg Trials. Guilt is simply one of the many human emotions, but the feeling of guilt is unique to everyone and there is no one meaning for guilt. Though guilt is such a strong feeling, judgments must not be made simply on how "guilty" one feels for their actions. If that is so, then Hanna would never have gone to jail at all. Judgments should instead be made on the actions of a person and whether the person was right or wrong in what he/she did. This is the concept of responsibility. How responsible a person was for their actions should determine how "guilty" a person is for their crimes. But responsibility is such a difficult question to resolve and deal with because how can you judge how responsible a person is for their actions? In the case of Hanna's trial, how was responsible? The powers that be made the decisions, but people under them carried out these decisions. So who is responsible? The people who made the decisions, or the people who carried out the decisions? It seems that the person who holds the knife must be the one responsible. But fortunately and rightly so, justice is never so easy.
Guilt and responsibility, being human emotions can never be pinned down, because it is human nature to be fickle and therefore there will always be a gray area when it comes to determining the true meaning (if there is such a thing) of guilt and responsibility. The problem is that we have come to believe that guilt and responsibility is the same thing, but in reality they are poles apart. This misunderstanding comes around due to the fact that courts often give the verdict "guilty" or "not guilty." But just because a person have been proved without any doubt that they are responsible for the crime, it does NOT mean they feel any remorse or sadness for committing the crime. Two different eras, two different circumstances and two different philosophies. Hanna is the product of her illiteracy and a time where orders were made to be followed not discussed. Hanna's illiteracy has led her to be "socially isolated" and therefore she has distorted view of what is right and wrong. On the other hand, Michael is the results of a more well educated and informed generation that believed they clearly understood the distinctions between right and wrong. Been of different eras and circumstances, Hanna and Michael both have different opinions of "responsibility", but just because Michael comes from a philosophical and well-educated background does not mean he is right in his thinking. Contrary to beliefs, a university education does not give you a better understanding of the raw human emotions and feelings, which are displayed in The Reader. Guilt has no less an ambiguous meaning than responsibility. Guilt should never be dealt in court as some people believe, but instead must be resolved internally. Responsibility should be dealt externally, but leave guilt alone. It is up to the person and only that person whether he/she is guilty and then whether they should take the next step and deal with their guilt.
For Michael, a law student, the Nuremberg Trials is much like his own personal crusade. It is about punishing the guilty, those responsible for the atrocities that were committed by the past generation. But also like the Crusades, they charged headfirst into the fray, eager to find the responsible party, so they can exonerate themselves of the guilt they feel. Yet they let themselves down in the way they conduct these trials. Instead of finding all the people who were responsible, they choose instead to find scapegoats for the actions of many. They believe they can purge the collective guilt of the German nation by simply punishing a few. In The Reader, Hanna is the scapegoat. The Holocaust was not the work of a few, but rather that of a whole nation. It is true to say not everyone in Germany...
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