The setting of Germany during and after World War II plays a vital role in The Reader.
The dilemmas that define The Reader are dependent on its time and place. Hanna's illiteracy and lack of speaking out about it and Michael's failure to come to her defense exist because of the setting of Nazi Germany and post- World War II Germany. Nowhere is this more evident than in Hanna's trial. She is on trial for her actions as a guard for the Nazis during the Holocaust. The trial takes place after World War II, and Michael is a student studying ethics and the law in post- war Germany. This setting has a direct impact on both of them.
The setting is also very important from a symbolic point of view. Schlink depicts a Germany seeking to come to grips with all that it did during World War II and, specifically, the Holocaust. Hanna undergoes the same examination as she struggles to read and to learn the implications of her actions. Similarly, Michael struggles to better understand why he did what he did and its results. When Hanna pointedly asks the judge in her trial, "What would you have done," it is a reflection of the setting's importance in the novel. The actions taken during war and in the Holocaust force everyone involved to ask the critical question of whether what was done was right. Questions as this one that prompt reflection are magnified because of the setting in which The Reader takes place.