Historical References: As a work of historical fiction, The Book Thief mixes both reality and fiction. Zusak roots the novel in historical events; however, he also takes liberties, creating fictional characters, events, and settings. By combining these elements, Zusak has created a text that offers an objective glimpse into the past while simultaneously telling a universal story of growing up and maturing.
- Adolf Hitler’s presence permeates the novel. Referred to simply as the Führer, Hitler, as well as the SS (Schutzstaffel), instigated World War II and implemented the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed and in which Liesel, her family, and her friends attempt to survive.
- The bombing of Liesel’s fictional hometown of Molching is based on the real-life air-raids of Munich in the later stages of the war, carried out April 24 and 25, 1944. Munich, like Molching, was an economically and culturally prosperous city. The bombing was a major turning point in the history of the war and signaled an impending Allied victory.
- The Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht were major real-life events that cause the fictional Max to go into hiding in Walter’s home. The Nuremberg Laws were implemented in 1935 and had a twofold mission: to prohibit the mixing of German and Jewish blood and to forbid non-Germans from receiving and maintaining German citizenship. Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass,” was one of the first pogroms against Jews during the war. Between November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazis carried out a nationwide attack on Jewish businesses, homes, schools, and synagogues, and killed many Jews.
- Throughout the story, Nazi soldiers frequently drive their trucks through Himmel Street and make their Jewish prisoners march down the street. The effect of this was to instill fear. Many times, the Jewish prisoners march to Dachau, a historical city where the first concentration camp was established in 1933 and where upwards of 30,000 people died.
- Liesel and Rudy are both members of the Hitler Youth, an organization in Nazi Germany intended to raise an Aryan military and purify the German race of non-Aryan blood. The paramilitary organization was composed of Hitler Youth for boys between the ages of 14 and 18, the German Youngsters in the Hitler Youth for boys between the ages of 10 and 14, and the League of German Girls.
- Liesel’s neighbors the Weingartners have a cat named “little Goebbels,” a reference to the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. He was responsible for propagating a positive imagine of Nazism.
- Rudy’s idol, Jesse Owens, competed during the 1936 Munich Olympic Games. Owens was the first African American track and field athlete to win four gold medals during the games. His gold medals signaled a major victory against the Nazi regime’s claims about the inferiority of non-Aryans, which had come to power only three years prior the Munich games.
Literary Allusions: The Book Thief makes frequent allusions to literary texts, both real and fictional. Throughout the novel, Liesel steals myriad books. Most of these books are fictitious; however, some such as Mein Kampf and The Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus are real.
- Although Hans is reluctant to join the Nazi party, he eventually relents and signs up for service at the Nazi recruitment office. There, he receives a copy of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s 1925 manifesto and autobiography. The book details Hitler’s belief in anti- Semitism and the notion of lebensraum, or “living space,” the belief that Germans were destined to take over Eastern Europe. In The Book Thief, Max defaces Mein Kampf by covering the...
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- pages in white paint and writing his own story on top of Hitler’s words.
- When Liesel returns to steal another book from Frau Hermann’s library, she discovers The Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus, also more colloquially referred to as The Duden. This is a dictionary of the German language, which has been in print since 1880 and regularly receives new editions every couple of years.
- The Book Thief alludes to itself when Liesel writes her own story during the air raids over Molching. In a self-referential act, Zusak entitles Liesel’s novel The Book Thief.
Biblical Allusions: Although The Book Thief does not make explicit references to the Bible, certain scenes throughout the novel mimic events told in the New Testament. For example, Max emerges as a Christ-like figure, and Liesel’s bath in the Amper River recalls a biblical baptism.
- When Max falls ill, he sleeps for three days before he regains consciousness. His “resurrection” draws parallels to the New Testament, in which Jesus Christ is crucified and resurrected three days later. Zusak draws many similarities between Max and Jesus—Max has “twigs of hair” similar to Jesus’s crown of thorns, and both are persecuted for being Jewish.
- Liesel’s bathing in the Amper River after the bombing of Molching represents a symbolic baptism. As she dips into the river fully clothed, she performs an act of purification and cleansing, letting go of the past and commemorating those she lost during the war.