The Book Thief Themes

The main themes in The Book Thief are death, friendship, and war.

  • Death: Liesel's brother dies at the beginning of the novel, and his death is followed by those of the millions of Jews killed in the concentration camps. Death proves capricious, both in the victims it claims and the stories it tells.
  • Friendship: Liesel's friends provide support, entertainment, and love during the difficult years of the war. With their help, Liesel finds the strength to stand up to bullies and show compassion.
  • War: War creates moral ambiguity and forces people to make difficult choices surrounding survival, compassion, and personal beliefs.


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Death is not only the personified narrator of the story; it is also a prevalent theme. Set during World War II, death continuously intersects with many of those that lived in Germany. Millions of Jews died in the concentration camps, German soldiers died fighting for their country, and many innocent German civilians died as a result of the Allied bombings on their cities. Death also personally touches every character in the story. Liesel's brother dies in her arms, and her parents are most likely killed in concentrations camps. Max's entire family is probably killed in those same camps, and he spends a desperate struggle fighting against potential death the entire novel. Neighbors to the Hubermanns have sons, brothers, fathers, and uncles who die in the war, just as the Hubermanns' son is also out fighting for the Nazi cause. Hans has friends in the army who die while fighting with him, and he himself narrowly avoids dying while out on patrols. Death can come at any time, in any number of ways, and is a ruthless and inevitable part of war, and of life.

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In The Book Thief, friendship often arises in atypical places; war throws people together who would have never had a chance to get to know one another otherwise. Liesel is led to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who not only take care of her and love her, but become with her genuine friends. Max also becomes friends with the Hubermanns, and with Liesel, developing ties that are crucial to his survival and enrichment throughout the story. Liesel develops an unlikely friendship with the mayor's wife. Books are a common thread that tie these friends together. Perhaps the most endearing friendship of the novel is that between Rudy and Liesel; they are best pals, and often do risky and daring things for one another. Friendship occurs right in the middle of the chaos and despair of war, and it is friendship that makes the circumstances of living amidst the atrocities of war survivable.

Because the novel is set during World War II, war weaves its way into all of the characters' lives. It is the driving force that brings them together, that tears them apart, that makes their lives dangerous, and that forges their characters through the heat of its intense fire. This novel gives a unique perspective of World War II: readers see events from the viewpoint of Germans caught right in the middle of Germany. Readers also encounter people complicit with the Nazi regime and agenda, people mildly aware but unsure, people solidly opposed to the events, and people caught in the middle of everything, swept into the chaos that war brings. Perhaps most important, readers are able to glance...

(The entire section contains 760 words.)

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Chapter Summaries