Markus Zusak began his career as a successful writer of young adult fiction, but for his fifth novel, Zusak set out to relate the experiences of his parents growing up during World War II for an adult audience. Zusak has said that much of the inspiration for The Book Thief came from the stories his parents would tell him when he was a child.
Zusak's father, a house painter, was an Austrian who spent the war in Vienna, which in 1945 was besieged and captured by the Soviet Red Army. Zusak's mother was a German who grew up in Munich, where she witnessed firsthand both the intense bombing of that city by Allied planes and the degradation of the Jews during the Holocaust. Of his mother's influence, Zusak has said:
"Two stories my mother told me affected me a lot. The first was about Munich being bombed, and how the sky was on fire, how everything was red. The second was about something else she saw...
One day, there was a terrible noise coming from the main street of town, and when she ran to see it, she saw that Jewish people were being marched to Dachau, the concentration camp. At the back of the line, there was an old man, totally emaciated, who couldn't keep up. When a teenage boy saw this, he ran inside and brought the man a piece of bread. The man fell to his knees and kissed the boy's ankles and thanked him . . . Soon, a soldier noticed and walked over. He tore the bread from the man's hands and whipped him for taking it. Then he chased the boy and whipped him for giving him the bread in the first place. In one moment, there was great kindness and great cruelty, and I saw it as the perfect story of how humans are." (http://www.randomhouse.com/features/markuszusak/author.html)
Both the bombing of Munich and the Holocaust, as expressed by Zusak's mother, figure strongly in The Book Thief. For example, Death's emphasis on colors as a way of avoiding tragedy contrasts with the horrific and unavoidable redness of a firebombed city. Likewise, the scene of Jews being marched through town with just a singular act of kindness offered to them is a pivotal point in The Book Thief, one which encapsulates the novel's central tension between human kindness and human cruelty.
The Book Thief is also a novel about the power of words. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power in no small part through the sheer power of words, delivered through violent speeches, propaganda, and Hitler's seminal book Mein Kampf. Hitler denounced the Jews, the Communists, and the influence of recent enemies like France as he delivered a message of nationalism, Aryan racial superiority, and the promise that he would remake Germany into a world power that would dominate Europe for the benefit of the German people. In the midst of a worldwide Great Depression, when the German economy lay in ruins after the nation suffered an embarrassing defeat in World War I, Hitler's message was persuasive -- and dangerous. After coming to power, Hitler pursued a policy of rapid militarization and the systematic extermination of those the Nazis considered to be social undesirables: communists, homosexuals, the disabled, gypsies, Poles, Soviets, opponents to the Nazi regime, and the Jews. Hitler ordered that these people be sent to death camps and murdered, and he used the German state machinery -- from the secret police who sought hidden Jews, to the conductors who drove the trains, to the guards who oversaw the concentration camps -- to achieve this end.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the German people were not necessarily intent on murdering millions of Jews and others. Yet Hitler's sheer persuasiveness, along with his total control of Germany's police and media, compelled average Germans to go along with the Holocaust. The Book Thief emphasizes both the danger of words and their potential redemptive value. On Hitler's birthday, Liesel Meminger defies the Nazis and steals a smoldering book from a public burning of banned literature. Her friend, the Jewish refugee Max Vandenburg, hides the map and key to a safe house in a copy of Mein Kampf. Later, Max rips out pages from the book, washes them in white paint, and draws on them a story that is entirely different from the virulent anti-Jew material that Hitler originally wrote. The Book Thief illustrates that just as words can impel human beings to commit horrific atrocities, words can counteract this vileness. Words can forge a remarkable friendship between a hidden Jew and a German girl, words can defy the Nazis when Hitler's propaganda is erased, and beauty and kindness are planted on his pages.
The Book Thief was published in 2006 in Zusak's native Australia as a work of adult fiction, but was marketed as a young adult novel by the American publisher Knopf. In just a few years after its initial publication, over a million copies of The Book Thief have been sold. In 2007 the novel received a Michael L. Printz Honor selection, a citation given for literary excellence in young adult literature.