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Words and Propaganda
Liesel learns throughout the course of the novel that words hold a remarkable power to compel people to commit acts of cruelty. At age 9, Liesel is illiterate, and the first book she learns to read is a manual about grave digging. Learning to read brings Liesel closer to the understanding that Hitler's propaganda is the root of his power and the reason why her mother, father, and brother are dead. Max, who understands well the effect Hitler's propaganda has had on his race, helps impart this lesson through his allegorical story "The Word Shaker." The story describes Hitler's use of oratory to brainwash Germany and compel German citizens to turn against the Jews; a young girl who understands the power of words is capable of defying the Fuhrer through words of compassion and love. Reading -- particularly reading Max's writings to her -- brings Liesel great joy throughout the novel, yet she despairs after seeing Max on his way to a concentration camp, and rips up a book, wondering what good words are. Ilsa gives Liesel a blank book and encourages her to write. Liesel ends up writing the story of her life, ending with the line, "I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right." This line conveys Liesel's realization of the manipulative power of words and indicates her attempt to master the art of writing for compassionate use, to make words "right."
Humanity and Dehumanization
The dehumanization of the Jews was an early stage of the Holocaust. Hitler vilified the Jews, progressively stripped them of their civil rights, and ultimately denied that they were even human -- thus were the Nazis able to try to exterminate the entire Jewish race. Max bitterly remarks that, as a Jew in Nazi Germany, a cold basement is the only place he deserves as he hides from persecution. In Max's fantasies of fighting Hitler, he imagines Hitler propagandizing against him, condemning Max personally as a villain and extreme threat to the German people. The pervasiveness of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda and the fact that Max is reduced to hiding in his birth country weigh heavily on Max's conscious, and he appears to resign himself to the notion of his own inferiority. Death's cynical narration echoes this sentiment. Max's self-deprecation is probably tied into his feelings of guilt over having left his family to save himself.
Of Hans giving an old Jew being sent to a concentration camp a piece of bread, Death narrates: "If nothing else, the old man would die like a human. Or at least with the thought that he was a human. Me? I'm not so sure if that's such a good thing." Death struggles to understand humanity's capacity for both good and evil. Death is stunned both by the murderous Nazis and mankind's irrational taste for war and by the few human beings who exhibit remarkable compassion and strength, like Hans and Liesel. Wondering if the human race is worth anything, Death is torn by this opposition and cannot reconcile it: "I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race -- that rarely do I ever simply estimate it." Ultimately, Death tells Liesel in the last line of the novel, "I am haunted by humans." It is the capacity of human beings to make different moral choices and the apparent capriciousness of these decisions that haunts Death, which is only capable of a single action.