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."
Liesel's thievery is a form of defiance and self-actualization. By stealing a book from a book burning, she defies Nazi censorship and takes her education into her own hands. When Ilsa offers Liesel a book, Liesel refuses it because she is enraged at Ilsa for firing Liesel's foster mother Rosa. Instead, Liesel breaks into Ilsa's home and steals the same book, later stealing others. Ilsa realizes what Liesel has done and is amused by it; she "helps" Liesel steal from her library by leaving her window open and placing books in visible locations. Ilsa is an encouraging figure who desires to help Liesel continue to read, even if it must be on Liesel's terms. Rudy and others steal food because they are hungry, yet Rudy is unable to burglarize a wealthy home despite his anger over the Army having "stolen" his father.
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.
Hans Junior accuses his father Hans of being a coward for not supporting Hitler, yet in Nazi Germany, it would take much more bravery to defy Hitler and defend the Jews than it would to go along with Nazi ideology. Hans lived through World War I by not going into battle on the day everyone else in his regiment died; he repays Erik, the man who saved his life, by hiding Erik's son Max in his basement during World War II. The punishment for being found with a hidden Jew was certain death. Before the war, Hans brought scrutiny upon him and ruined his business by painting over anti-Semitic slurs written on Jewish-owned houses and shops. When he sees Jews being marched through town on their way to a concentration camp, Hans gives an old Jew a piece of bread and is whipped by a soldier for doing so. After that incident, Hans anticipates the secret police taking him away; when he sees two Nazis wearing black trenchcoats on his street, Hans even runs out and tells them that it's him they want.
Hans regrets giving the Jew a piece of bread because of the potentially disastrous consequences of this deed, but Liesel, impressed by Hans' bravery, tries to reassure him. Liesel and Rudy also give bread to a group of Jews. Later, when Liesel sees Max among a group being sent to Dachau, she defies the Nazi soldiers by latching onto Max and is as well whipped for doing so. These small, individual acts of bravery and defiance in the face of popular Nazi fervor are mostly symbolic. Yet the failure of Germans who doubted Hitler's intentions or were horrified by the Nazis' inhumanity to speak up in the 1930s helped bring about Hitler's rise to power and complete domination of the social, military, and political machinery of the nation. To publicly defy the Nazis after Hitler's rise would require bravery of suicidal proportions.
Abandonment and Survivor's Guilt
In the prologue, Death explains that it is not the dead, but the heartbroken survivors of the dead that it cannot stand to look at. Different characters treat abandonment and guilt in different ways. Michael Holtzapfel survives the Battle of Stalingrad, but is unable to stand his guilt over living when his brother Robert died and ultimately commits suicide. Ilsa Hermann becomes a quiet, sullen woman after her only son is killed in 1918, yet Liesel brings her happiness and she urges Liesel not to make the same mistake she did by suffering for the rest of her life.
In World War I, Hans' friend Erik Vandenberg saves Hans' life by volunteering him for a written assignment on the day everyone in the regiment is sent into battle. Erik dies, and Hans feels guilty over Erik's death because Erik had a young son: Hans transmutes this guilt into a promise to help Erik's widow and ultimately saves the life of Erik's son Max. Max too feels guilty over leaving his family to hide from the Nazis. For him, the price of living "guilt and shame."
Death describes Liesel as the "perpetual survivor": she loses her mother, brother, Hans, Rosa, and Rudy, among others. Liesel is traumatized over the death of her younger brother and the realization that her mother has been persecuted by the Nazis. Liesel initially feels abandoned because her mother gave her up for adoption; she later realizes that her mother did this out of love, to save her daughter's life. After seeing Max be sent to a concentration camp, Liesel is able to turn her despair into writing the story of her own life. At the end of the novel, Death remarks that Liesel has experienced both beauty and brutality, suggesting that Liesel was ultimately able to come to terms with the fact that the human condition necessarily involves both suffering and happiness after having experienced extreme versions of both.
Death observes colors as a distraction from the anguished survivors of the dead: "I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see--the whole spectrum... It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax." In its three encounters with Liesel, Death describes three colors: white, from the snow outside when Liesel's brother died; black, from the night sky when the American pilot crashed his plane; and red, from the sky during the firebombing that took the lives of everyone on Liesel's street. In the prologue, Death conflates these colors into the Nazi flag: a black swastika in a white circle surrounded by a field of red. Death's evasion of human misery draws it to a stark emblem of Nazism, the very cause of that misery within the story. Much like the German people who disagreed with Hitler's violent anti-Semitism, Death tries to look away from atrocities but can only arrive at the cause. Death also tells the reader that it observes "a multitude of shades of intonations," that "a single hour can consist of thousands of different colors." Death's willingness to observe different shades in the color spectrum indicates Death's fundamental indecision about whether the human race is totally good or totally evil, suggesting that in Death's analysis, human beings are at various times capable of being either good or bad.
When Hans dies, Death remarks that Hans' soul is light, because most of it has been put out into other places, including "the breath of an accordion." Liesel writes that the accordion "breathes" when Hans plays and sometimes imagines Hans as an accordion: "When he looks at me and smiles and breathes, I hear the notes." Hans' accordion represents Hans' innate kindness and ability to bring joy to others. Hans does not play the accordion very well, but he does play in a lively manner that people enjoy listening to, and Hans is able to make money playing at a local tavern. When Hans defies the Nazis by painting the homes and businesses of Jews, he is saved from ostracism partly because people like his music. Hans' emotional state is at times expressed through his accordion; when he discovers that Max is in a concentration camp, Hans butchers every song when he tries to play. When Hans is forced to serve in the military, the accordion serves as a stand-in for him; his wife Rosa clings to the accordion at night while Hans is gone. Liesel takes the accordion to Hans' corpse and imagines him playing it; the damaged instrument is the only thing Liesel recovers from the Hubermanns' destroyed home.
The accordion itself was originally owned by Erik Vandenberg, who taught Hans to play when the two served together in World War I and saved Hans' life. After the war, Hans brought the accordion to Erik's widow, who told him to keep it.
Foreshadowing is a literary technique in which events that occur later in a story are hinted at in advance. The narrator Death reveals almost all of the crucial events of The Book Thief in advance, especially when certain characters die and under what circumstances. In the prologue, Death explains that the novel will include, among other things, "a girl" (Liesel), "an accordionist" (Hans), and "a Jewish fist fighter" (Max). Death also reveals here the bombing raid that takes place at the end of the novel as well as the death of an American fighter pilot; Death describes Liesel as a "perpetual survivor," indicating that she lives through the war while others around her die. The Book Thief contains a great deal of foreshadowing: hints and outright revelations about the characters' fates and the outcomes of various events can be found in every part. Zusak's use of this technique keeps the reader's focus on the actual processes by which the characters meet their ends and emphasizes the futility of the characters' individual actions in the face of an all-consuming war.
The Book Thief Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Book Thief is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.