Death, as The Book Thief’s narrator, connects book burning with Liesel’s opportunities to obtain her first few books, which in turn led to her stealing more books. In this context, Death discusses burning more generally as an aspect of German passion and behavior. Death tells the reader that crediting anti-Semitism as the reason that Nazi Germany developed is only a partial explanation. Death also mentions Hitler, to whom he refers ironically as “a somewhat overzealous leader.” Other elements of the rise of Nazism include the hatred and bigotry that spread through the country.
To Death, these seem like subsidiary causes. He claims, instead, that Germans had a love for “one particular activity,” and that without this love, “all would have come to nothing”: the combination of the other elements would not have been enough. “To burn” was what Germans loved.
Death goes on to illustrate the broad range of things that Germans loved to burn, which were among the widespread war-time activities. The list begins “Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people…” As Jewish houses of worship, synagogues became frequent targets. The Reichstag is the building in Berlin where the German national parliament meets. In February 1933, only a few weeks after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the Reichstag was burned down. Blaming the Communists for the arson attack, Hitler used the incident as an excuse to add thousands of Nazi police and consolidate his rule with a decree granting him sweeping powers of repression.
The last item in Death’s list is, “of course, books.” A by-product of the “good book burning” that Germans enjoyed, Death claims, is that people like Liesel could use them to get books that somehow escaped being consumed. From a book burning held on the Fuhrer’s birthday, Liesel snatched The Shoulder Shrug “from beneath a steaming heap of ashes.”