‘The Reader’ is set in what was West Germany. At the end of WW2, the Allied Powers each occupied and took control of four newly established zones within the country, with the western areas coming under control of the UK, the USA and France. In 1949, eleven of these states were amalgamated into the Federal Republic of Germany, with the eastern zone (which had been under Soviet control) becoming the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. Berlin was divided into two, so Bonn became the capital city of West Germany. Germany did not become reunified into one country until 1990, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
The story begins during the late 1950s, by which time West Germany had made considerable economic recovery from the disaster of WW2. This was in large part due to the introduction of the Deutsche Mark in 1948, as well as aid provided by the USA. In 1950, West Germany had been allowed to regain control of her coal and steel industries, which enabled her to make a great deal of money by supplying goods during the Korean War of 1950-53. In 1955 West Germany was declared fully sovereign, and joined NATO. The country was generally stable politically, until student unrest began to emerge in the 1960s, much of which was concerned with the desires of younger Germans to confront the country’s
Unlike East Germany, which was a communist state, western cosmopolitan culture became a great influence, and gave the country an opportunity to assert modernity. For this reason, reunification in 1990 was not as monumental socially as it was for East Germany.
Heidelberg is a large, densely populated city located in South-West Germany. It is a very popular tourist destination, largely because of its long history and ties to Romanticism. Parts of the city date back to the 5th Century, and the University (established 1386) and the original library (1421) are the oldest in Germany.
The old town lies on the southern bank of the River Neckar, with Heidelberg Castle above. Part of the castle dates back to the 15th Century; despite sustaining serious damage over time, restoration and preservation work have allowed the site to be used for cultural events, including an annual summer festival.
Although it suffered some damage during the war, the city was never subjected to Allied bombing. Consequently the University was able to reopen almost immediately after the end of WW2.
Heidelberg is twinned with Cambridge, UK.
Although the location of Hanna's trial is not named in the text, it is likely to have been Frankfurt. Located about an hour away from Heidelberg, a series of war crimes trials was held there from 1963 to 1965 (although all of the 22 defendants were male).
Situated on the Main River in the state of Hesse, Frankfurt is the fifth largest city in Germany. It is also the financial centre of the country. Unlike Heidelberg, the city was targeted during the Allied bombing raids of WW2, resulting in the destruction of the old medieval buildings and over 5,000 civilian deaths.
Reconstruction yielded a far more modern city landscape; Frankfurt is the only city in Germany with a high number of skyscrapers. These include the Commerzbank Tower, the tallest building in Europe.
Various concentration and extermination camps are referred to throughout The Reader. Specific information is provided in the Bookmarks, but to provide a sense of scale, here are the locations of all the camps in Europe.