The Book Thief’s Publication and Reception History: The Book Thief is author Markus Zusak’s most successful novel to date. Upon its publication, it became an international bestseller and was translated into over thirty languages. The novel received rave reviews and won myriad awards, including the 2006 Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book, the 2006 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, and the 2007 Book Sense Book of the Year. In 2013, it was adapted into a major motion picture.
- Unique Writing and Narrative Style: The Book Thief received immediate praise upon its publication for its innovative writing technique and narrative structure. The story is told from the point of view of Death. Although traditionally viewed as dark and menacing, Death in The Book Thief is personified by his likability. In the opening paragraphs, Death writes, “I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s.”
- Controversial Content: Zusak’s sympathetic portrayal of Germans during World War II has caused surprise. However, Zusak wanted to remind readers that there was another side to Germany besides Nazi Germany. Early on in the novel, Zusak clarifies this through Death’s narration: “In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching support for Adolf Hitler. That leaves 10 percent who didn’t. Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent. There was a reason for that.”
The History of the Holocaust: The novel takes place in the midst of World War II (1939– 1943) in the fictional city of Molching, Germany. The history of the Jewish Holocaust greatly informs the heavy, dark subjects presented in The Book Thief.
- The Persecution of the Jewish People: When the novel opens in 1939, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Third Reich, has implemented the Nuremberg Laws which renounced the German citizenship of those with non-Aryan blood. In addition, anyone deemed a danger to the nation, including millions of Jews, communists, socialists, homosexuals, and gypsies, were deported and killed in concentration camps throughout Europe. Although the main characters of The Book Thief are not Jewish, they are still persecuted for their political beliefs. Liesel’s father is a communist and is presumably killed in a concentration camp before the story begins. The Hubermanns are communists and Jewish sympathizers who are conflicted about whether to join the Nazi Party for their family’s safety. Their life-threatening decision to protect a Jewish refugee makes up the core of the novel, and reflects the experiences of many Jewish sympathizers during World War II who risked their lives to protect others.
- The Fictional Bombing of Molching: The novel reaches its conclusion following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Many of the characters in the novel, including Hans and Rosa’s son Hans Junior, are sent to Russia to fight in the invasion, a brutal period in which millions of soldiers died of starvation and exposure. While World War II would not officially end until Hitler’s death and Germany’s surrender to the Allies in 1945, the novel concludes with the Allied bombing of Munich and Molching, Germany, the fictional city in which the novel is set.
WWII Historical Fiction as a Genre: In recent years, World War II historical fiction has become an increasingly popular genre for publication and for classroom learning. As generations pass and fewer young people have exposure to 1930s and 1940s history, authors and historians are taking effort to tell stories about WWII as a way of remembering and honoring the past.
- Markus Zusak’s Background: Australian author Markus Zusak (1975–) was born to immigrant German and Austrian parents who survived World War II. Many of their stories growing up...
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- in Vienna and Munich inspired the scenes and characters inThe Book Thief. Zusak’s mother, for example, was like Liesel, a foster child who watched the bombing of Munich. Zusak’s father, like Liesel and Rudy, was a member of the Hitler Youth. Zusak accredits one of his mother’s stories for inspiring The Book Thief. His mom witnessed a group of Jews walking down a Munich street on their way to Dachau, the first concentration camp in Germany. An old man could not keep up with everyone else, and a young German boy ran up to him and gave him some bread. The Nazi soldiers intervened, took the piece of bread away, and whipped both the German boy and Jewish man. In the novel, Hans Hubermann recreates this scene, offering an old Jewish man a piece of bread. As a result, he is whipped by a Nazi soldier.
- The Importance of Historical Fiction: Authors of historical fiction base their stories in reality and take artistic liberties about setting, characters, and events. Zusak roots his novel in the history of WWII as well as his parents’ experiences, but creates a fictional world in Molching, Germany. Many authors of historical fiction believe in the ability for this genre to make history more accessible for future generations, claiming that simply memorizing historical facts does not engage students’ imagination. Historical fiction allows students to inhabit the perspective of someone of the past and to envision what it was like to live during a different time and place very much unlike their own.
The Power of Words: Liesel recognizes the importance of words to unite people in times of devastation and chaos. For example, she creates a bond with Hans by learning to read with him, connects with Max over his novel The Word Shaker, which he writes over a copy of Mein Kampf, and soothes herself and her neighbors by reading to them during the air raids over Molching. Death even gives Liesel the title “the book thief,” because she steals nine books throughout her life, including The Grave Digger’s Handbook which she stole on January 13, 1939, the day her brother died and she last saw her mother.
- Nazi Propaganda: Joseph Goebbels understood the importance of propaganda to further Nazism. As Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels used film, pamphlets, and music to enforce Gleichschaltung, the notion of Nazi totalitarianism in all matters, including the media and culture. German society was enraptured by Nazi propaganda and easily succumbed to what Goebbels had advertised as the appeals of Nazism.
- The Nazi Book Burnings: In an effort to enforce Nazism and purge Germany of so-called corruption, university students burned thousands of Jewish and politically radical books in bonfires across university campuses before and throughout the war. The Book Thief reflects the effects of book burnings when Liesel collects dilapidated and discarded books throughout her life, some even at these book burnings.
- Mein Kampf: Max Vandenburg performs a radical act by defacing Mein Kampf, covering the paper in white paint, and writing his own story on the pages. One of the most important books in Nazi Germany, Hitler’s Mein Kampf was perhaps the greatest form of propaganda throughout the Third Reich. It outlined Hitler’s political ideology and his hopes for the creation of an Aryan nation.