The Book Thief

The Book Thief Summary and Analysis of Part Four


THE ACCORDIONIST (The Secret Life of Hans Hubermann)

Max is standing in the Hubermanns' kitchen. He asks Hans if he still plays the accordion, and Hans says yes. The rest of this section is a flashback to Hans' past.

Hans was a mediocre 22-year-old soldier fighting in France in World War I. He was not particularly eager to fight. Hans befriends a German Jew named Erik Vandenburg, who teaches Hans to play the accordion. The day the platoom is to go into battle, the Sergeant asks which one of them has good handwriting. None volunteered. The Sergeant says that whichever man does will not be going into battle, yet no man wants to seem like a coward. Erik nominates Hans, who is sent to write letters for the captain. The rest of the men are all killed.

Hans keeps Erik's accordion and tracks down his family to tell them what happened. Hans credits Erik with saving his life. Hans is surprised to find that Erik has a young son named Max. Hans leaves Erik's widow with his name and address and offers to help if they should need anything.

Hans returns to Munich and works as a painter. He and Rosa have two children, Hans Junior and Trudy. In 1933, Hitler comes to power, and Hans thinks that he does not hate the Jews, because a Jew saved his life and many of his customers are Jewish. As the persecution of the Jews picks up, Hans steadily loses business because he is not a member of the Nazi Party. In 1937, Hans applies to join; afterwards he sees a Jew-owned store vandalized and grafittied. Over the owner's objection, Hans offers to repaint the door. Angry over what he has seen, Hans punches through the door and window of the Nazi Party office and tells a member that he cannot join. In 1938, the Jews are cleared out of town and Hans' home is searched by the Gestapo. Luckily, Hans, whose application was added to a waiting list and not formally withdrawn, is allowed to stay. Hans is not ostracized by his neighbor in part because he plays the accordion warmly. In 1939, six months before Liesel's arrival, Hans is approached by a man named Walter Kugler, who asks if Hans likes to keep a promise.


The scene from earlier resumes. It is November 1940 and Max is 24. Liesel sees Hans and the stranger standing in the kitchen, and Hans tells her to go back to bed. Hans tells Max not to worry about Liesel.


This section is a flashback to Max's past. Growing up, Max loved to fight. His father died when he was two. When Max was nine his mother was broke and the two moved in to his uncle's home, with six cousins. At thirteen, Max's uncle died. Watching his uncle die quietly, Max resolved that he would never die without a fight, and says "When death captures me, he will feel my fist on his face." Death comments that it likes that "stupid gallantry."

As a teenager Max continues fighting among a group of friends and enemies. Max fights a kid named Walter Kugler and wins; the two go on to fight thirteen more times, and they become good friends. In 1935, Max loses his job for being a Jew. The Nurmenburg Laws are passed, barring Jews from having German citizenship and marrying Germans. On November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass"), Jewish stores and homes across Germany are attacked. Walter provides an opportunity for Max to hide, but Max initially refuses to leave his family; he ultimately does so. Max's mother gives Max a piece of paper with Hans Hubermann's name and address.

Max hides in a storeroom for the next two years, and Walter periodically visits him with food; one day Walter tells Max that Max's family is gone. In 1939, Walter vists Hans, who agrees to keep his promise and help Max. Hans gives Walter some money, maps, directions, and a copy of Mein Kampf with a key, and in 1940 Max makes the dangerous journey to Molching.


Rosa finds Max and Hans in the kitchen and gives Max some pea soup. Liesel silently watches them. Max vomits because his hunger has made him less able to hold down food.


Max sleeps in a spare bed in Liesel's room. The next morning Liesel is kept home from school. In the basement, Hans tells Liesel about what happened to him in the war. Hans tells Liesel in no uncertain terms that she must never tell anyone about Max. Hans explains in detail what would happen if she did: Hans would burn Liesel's books, Liesel would be taken away, and Hans, Rosa, and Max would all be taken away and never return. Liesel cries uncontrollably.


Max sleeps for three days, and Liesel watches him with fascination. When Max awakes, Liesel is staring at him.


Max resolves to sleep in the cold basement from now on, hidden by a drop sheet and some paint cans. Max feels guilty and ashamed to go on hiding. After a few days, Liesel is made to take dinner down to Max. She sees Max reading Mein Kampf and tries to ask if it is a good book, but fails.

In the weeks that follow, Rosa's acts very subdued. She loses another laundry customer, but does not yell about it. Rudy and Liesel walk to school as usual, and Rudy first mentions a sadistic Hitler Youth leader named Franz Deutscher. Liesel still visits Ilsa Hermann and becomes fascinated by a book called The Whistler. Meanwhile Max's health deteriorates in the cold basement.

In early December, Hans brings Liesel to the basement to resume their lessons and finds Max frozen and sickly. Max begins sleeping on the floor by the fire in Hans and Rosa's bedroom. At Christmas, Hans Junior does not come home, but Trudy does. Trudy is not told about Max. Max apologizes for Hans' son not coming home, and Hans says that his son has the right to be stubborn.

Max overhears Liesel remark that his hair looks like feathers. By the fire, Liesel finally asks Max whether Mein Kampf is a good book, and Max says that it is saved his life. Max begins telling the story of his life over the next few weeks. Hans remarks that Liesel, too, enjoys fighting, and Liesel is surprised that he knows about the time she beat up Ludwig Schmeikl.

Max and Liesel both have nightmares, and one night Liesel asks Max about them. Max tells her he sees himself waving goodbye to his family, and Liesel tells him about her brother. Liesel brings Max a newspaper she finds in a garbage can, and Max gratefully does the crossword. On Liesel's birthday, Hans and Rosa give her The Mud Men, a book about a "strange father and son," and Max apologizes for not getting her anything. Liesel graciously hugs Max for the first time, and Max wonders what he could do for her.


Max cuts out pages from Mein Kampf and paints them white. He draws on them a story called The Standover Man, which he gives to Liesel. Liesel reads it three times then goes down to the basement and sleeps beside Max.


The question of whether or not Hans is a coward is solved in this part. Hans' life is miraculously saved by a Jew in World War I, and for the rest of his life Hans is gracious to Jews despite the threat of imprisonment in a concentration camp for helping them in the wake of Kristallnacht -- indeed, Hans is lucky that he is not taken away for vandalizing a Nazi Party office. Risking his life to hide Max is Hans' courageous payback for Max's father Erik's good deed. Hans feels guilty over the fact that Erik, who had a son, died while childless Hans survived. By caring for Max, who still suffers from the loss of his father at a young age, Hans performs an important fatherly duty.

Max's fighting streak and defiant attitude contrast with the sickly, hiding person he has become in the Hubermann's basement. Max, who has resolved not to die without a fight, feels deep shame for the fact that he survives while his family has likely died. Yet Max's very existence and will to survive represents defiance against Hitler's racial extermination policies. Hans cleverly subverts Nazism by using a copy of Hitler's book Mein Kampf -- the very wellspring of Nazi ideology -- to assist in hiding a Jew. Max briefly considers giving the book, his only possession, to Liesel for her birthday, but likens that to a lamb handing a knife to a butcher. Instead Max also subverts Nazism by physically whitewashing the pages of Mein Kampf and painting an entirely different story over them. The text of Mein Kampf, riveted with attacks on the Jewish race, peeks through under a story about the friendship between a hidden Jew and a German girl.

The Standover Man is one of two complete illustrated stories that appear within The Book Thief. The story is of a bird who is scared of men standing over him: the plot is identical to Max's own life. The first "standover man" is his father, who vanishes at a young age. As a boy, he enjoys fighting, and whenever he loses another boy would be standing over him. When he comes to a safe house, it is a girl, not a man, standing over him. They share interests ("TRAIN," "DREAMS," "FISTS"), and the girl says he looks like something else. The picture on this page is of a man looking into a mirror and seeing a bird -- this is a reference to Liesel's comment that Max's hair looks like feathers. The girl asks the bird about his dreams, and both his and Liesel's recurring nightmares are pictured: Max saying goodbye to his family, and Liesel sleeping with her younger brother at the side of her bed. The bird now thinks they are friends, and that on her birthday the girl gave a gift to him, a hug. The "best standover man" he has ever known is not a man, but a girl. The final page is Liesel reading in the basement, with words like "VALUABLE" and "DAYLIGHT" written on the wall: this is a reference to Liesel's basement writing practice.

The idea of Max being represented by a bird suggests that while he is physically "caged" in the basement, his spirit is free and proves indomitable by the Nazis. The "standover men" in Max's life suggest his inner vulnerability: losing his father at a young age, for example, is compared with losing a fight. Yet a girl, not a man, standing over him brings him comfort as they become friends. Max has reached perhaps the most vulnerable point of his life thus far: he can continue to survive only at the mercy of the Hubermanns. His friendship with Liesel brings him such comfort that his best standover man is a young figure of compassion, not antagonism, and loyalty, not abandonment.

Abandonment is a key element of the lives of both Max and Liesel. They each have nightmares: one where Liesel is "abandoned" by her mother and brother, another where Max "abandons" his family. Neither of these episodes should be called true, deliberate abandonment, but both characters obviously feel guilty and deeply saddened by them. Significantly, Germany and her passion for war and violence is the central cause to the novel's abandonment episodes. Max's father dies in the first German war, and Hans' son has abandoned his father to fight in the second. Likewise, Hitler's persecution of Jews and Communists has divorced Max and Liesel from their old families.