Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

The characters in Friedrich constitute a cross section of the German non- Jewish and Jewish populations, and through them the reader learns how various people in both groups responded to the increasing persecution of Jews by the Third Reich. Richter draws his characters to represent larger groups within German society. Thus he sacrifices well-rounded characterizations for broader social perspectives.

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In a straightforward and unemotional manner, the adult Fritz reports his experiences as a young person from the age of four to the age of eighteen. Although the child matures, the narrative style remains consistent. Fritz reports that when his mother bathes the two little boys in the same tub, she jokes that Fritz looks like a "little Jew." His visiting grandfather demands that Fritz not play with a Jew. Fritz explains that his family is poor because his father earns far less money than Friedrich's father earns as a government postal official. Fritz also states that his own participation in the German Jungvolk is a necessary and expected part of everyday life, as is his father's joining the Nazi party.

Rather than expressing his feelings about what he reports, Fritz functions as a camera, simply recording what he sees and hears. His parents represent the obedient non-Jewish portion of 1930s German society who could have opposed Hitler's madness but, in the interest of personal convenience and comfort, did not act. Whereas Fritz's mother appears as a sympathetic, warm housewife who would deny her own mild anti-Semitism, his father knowingly accepts the evil because it offers financial and social benefits for him and his family. By joining the Nazi party in 1936, Fritz's father secures better work than he has ever hoped for, has enough money to take his family away on their first vacation, and receives an offer of an even better job. Although he does not agree with everything the Nazi party does, Fritz's father rationalizes his stance by asking, "Doesn't every party and every leadership have its dark side?" Fritz's parents demonstrate to the reader how genocide can occur in a highly educated and civilized society.

Friedrich's family observes different customs, such as welcoming the Sabbath on Friday night. But he and Fritz share the same interests, activities, and expectations. Therefore, Friedrich does not understand why he cannot share in all of Fritz's activities, and he even wishes to be part of the Nazi Jungvolk. Unfortunately, Friedrich's character is not sufficiently defined for the reader to understand the chilling innocence that prevents the boy from comprehending the scope of the danger enveloping him. But Friedrich is not the only one unaware of the imminent danger.

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Like Fritz's mother, Frau Schneider is loving, helpful, concerned with her family, and uninvolved with the outside world. A fine provider for his family, Herr- Schneider loses his government postal position because he is Jewish. He then obtains work at a Jewish-owned clothing store and continues to be generous to Fritz, as is Frau Schneider, who voluntarily cares for Fritz when his mother washes clothes for other people to help support her family.

Herr Schneider is also an uncomprehending optimist and nationalist. When Fritz's father joins the Nazi party and infers part of what is planned for Jews, he tells Herr Schneider to leave Germany. Friedrich's father refuses because he considers himself and his extended family German. Convinced that Jews will be treated equally badly anywhere abroad, he is certain that everything will "quiet down eventually," especially because the 1936 Olympics are scheduled to be held in Germany.

The interaction between the two families provides significant character insights. Even though they have spent almost twenty years as neighbors and parents of inseparable friends, the adults remain distant. The Schneiders are sensitive and generous both in words and actions, whereas Fritz's father gives only cryptic advice and does not offer to help Friedrich's family, even in the most desperate circumstances. This trait becomes most evident when Fritz's father breaks his unspoken promise to Herr Schneider. In spite of their fervent handshake in response to Herr Schneider's appeal that Fritz's father look after Friedrich and his mother, eighteen-year-old Fritz and his father do nothing to help Friedrich in his greatest time of need.

The major theme of Friedrich lies in the truths it reveals about how flawed human relationships can lead to such a tragedy as the Holocaust. When evil, irrationality, and madness are approved and supported as means to a seemingly good end, the process of civilization is in its infancy. When voices and actions of basically good people, such as Fritz's parents, can be stilled with the fear of violence, no one is safe anywhere.

Although Richter's choice to review evil events of the past through the eyes of youthful innocence may appear to signal hope for the future while also providing a sort of purification through expression of sorrow and guilt, that hope appears naive. Thematically, Friedrich echoes the same overwhelming pessimism expressed by Nobel Prize winner William Golding in Lord of the Flies: "The child is father of the man." Just as Golding's evil children destroy the others and survive to become Father, so might this novel be viewed both as a history and as an oracle of the future. Especially disturbing is Fritz's inability to recall comments his parents make regarding the plight of the Schneiders, and he himself appears to be only minimally affected by the action he describes. Readers are left to wonder whether Fritz has learned the moral lessons taught and demanded by history.

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