"I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks—understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both."
Reading The Reader makes me very uncomfortable. On the one hand, we cannot simply ignore and forgive the atrocities of the holocaust, the genocide, the truly horrific crimes against humanity that happened during World War II. What if that was my family that had been sent to a concentration camp? My grandmother as test subject? My uncle as a bag of skin and bones brutally whipped? My cousin made in a candle? Unforgivable. Unthinkable. That a fellow human being is capable morally and emotionally of inflicting this pain and suffering on another person is incomprehensible. That a whole country allowed this to happen is unforgivable.
On the other hand, what about the context? Putting ourselves into that time period, experiencing the pressures of the government, the military, the brainwashing, the propaganda, the fear, we can see how an atrocity like the Holocaust became a reality, became possible.
And herein lies my moral dilemma, the same moral quandary that boxes Michael in:
When I try to understand "Hanna" (or WWII Germany) I feel like I am committing a crime against humanity—because I am failing to condemn the atrocities in a way that the atrocities demand to be condemned. How CAN I forget the human fat candles? The human skin lampshades? By "understanding" the German perspective, I am necessarily, automatically, positioning myself against the victims of the Holocaust. There can be no "buts" or "howevers." A crime such as the holocaust SHOULD have no mitigating circumstance.
But like Michael says, when I condemn it as it MUST be condemned, then I am unable to "understand" Germany, unable to recognize the complex situation that existed during WWII. Without "understanding" then we only have wounds and no healing.
So here we are, Michael and I, floating in an impossible space, plagued by guilt because we cannot simultaneously condemn as we should condemn and understand as we might be able to understand.