The Book Thief is a novel centered on the life of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl who is ten when we meet her and fourteen when the book ends. The novel is set in a small town near Munich in Germany. It opens in January 1939—World War II officially began on September 1, 1939 with Germany's invasion of Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.

When we meet Liesel, she is being abandoned by her mother, who has been forced to give Liesel into the care of foster parents because of affiliation with communists. It appears that Liesel's father has been either arrested or killed. Liesel's little brother dies on route to the foster home. Liesel has essentially lost everything when she comes to the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann in the village of Molching on a street called Himmel. She is distrustful, confused, and full of despair. She's having nightmares. Hans befriends her, comforting her when she awakes terrified. He teaches her to read. Hans has refused to join the Nazi Party—a decision that will ultimately prove very dangerous for him and his family.

The Book Thief's author, Markus Zusak, grew up in Australia. His mother was originally from Germany, his father from Austria. They emigrated to Australia in the late 1950s and Zusak says the book is based on stories he heard from his family.

“When I was growing up in suburban Sydney," he writes, "I was told stories of cities on fire and Jews being marched to concentration camps. Both my parents grew up in Europe during World War II, and although they were extremely young at the time, in hindsight, they were able to understand many things. Two stories my mother told me about growing up in Munich always stuck with me. One was about a burning sky when the city was bombed. The other was about a boy being whipped on the street for giving a starving Jewish man a piece of bread. The man sank to his knees and thanked the boy, but the bread was stripped away and both the taker of the bread and the giver were punished.”

BT_collage.jpg"It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . ."

BT_BookBurn.jpgPlease Note: The Book Thief is also a film, but the book and the movie are not identical. The film is like a skeleton without the flesh. It's important you do not depend on the film in order to answer the issues that will come up in class regarding the book.


Book Burning in Germany

Hitler also controlled the press. When he took power in 1933 the Nazis controlled less than 3% of Germany's 4,700 newspapers. In the end there was no free press. See this article on the press during the Third Reich

Hitler Youth, Part I & Part II

HBO Hitler's Youth

Swing Kids: American film made in 1993. A copy of Swing Kids is on hold in the library. Please watch it!
Swing Kids (German: Swingjugend) were a group of jazz and swing lovers in Germany in the 1930s, mainly in Hamburg and Berlin. They were teenagers, most of them middle or upper-class students. They admired the British and American way of life, defining themselves in swing music and opposing the National-Socialist ideology and especially the Hitler Youth. As the film shows, it was dangerous to be a Swing Kid.

Watch Swing Kids online

Watch Swing Kids Online (alternative site)

The Big Lie:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” —Joseph Goebbels

Goebbels came to power in 1933 after Hitler was appointed chancellor. Within six weeks Hitler arranged his appointment as Propaganda Minister. One of Goebbels’ first acts was to organize the burning of ‘decadent’ books. Under Goebbels’ leadership, the Propaganda Ministry quickly gained and exerted controlling supervision over the news media, arts, and distribution of "information" in Germany.

"All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods." —Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

The Characters:

Yes. Death is a character. In fact, Death is the narrator, the teller of the tale.
Accordion Music
Vocabulary: Aryan—"While originally meant simply as a neutral ethno-linguistic classification, from the late 19th century onwards the term Aryan race has been used by people who promoted ideas about racial hierarchy, like the Nazis, who thought that the Germanic peoples were, in comparison to other peoples in the world, predominately descended from an ancient master race, whom they called Aryan." (Wikipedia)

A Summary of The Book Thief


  1. What is the significance of having Death as the narrator?
  2. How is Death haunted by humans?
  3. What is the role of colors?
  4. What are examples of sacrifice?
  5. What is the significance of stealing?
  6. What is ironic about Liesel’s obsession with stealing books?
  7. What is the role of Liesel's brother?
  8. How is Liesel’s relationship with Hans different from her relationship with Rosa? Why are they different and does that change during the course of the story?
  9. Describe Liesel’s relationship with Rudy and Max, how are they different, how are they the same?
  10. How does the author using the technique of foreshadowing? What are some examples?
  11. What are the different kinds of courage that are displayed during the course of the story?
  12. What is the significance of words? How does Liesel’s attempt to write her own book save her life?

More Background

The Rise of Hitler—How Did it Happen?

Racism & Hitler: Still in the News:

Sale of Mein Kampf on the Rise
Journalists & Protest Arrests (2017)

Laws And Propaganda Of Nazi Germany

Laws and propaganda are important aspects of The Book Thief's setting in Nazi Germany. The laws and the propaganda set the mood of the times, and a sick mood it was, as the novel shows us. Before the war, Nazis passed laws to effectively legalize the crimes they were committing and the crimes they intended to commit. From 1933 (when the Nazi Party took power) to 1939 (when the war began), the Nazis issued thousands of laws restricting every aspect of Jewish life.

The novel alludes to many of these laws and restrictions, such as Jews being required to wear yellow stars and otherwise identify themselves as Jewish. Jews were barred from government jobs, from being teachers, from attending school, from practicing their professions, from joining the military, from admission to hospitals, and from living among non-Jewish people.

The Nuremburg Laws stripped Jewish people of their German citizenship and their right to vote, yet barred them from leaving the country. Laws authorized the confiscation of all Jewish property, the arrest, detention and torture of Jews in concentration camps, and, ultimately, the large scale murder of Jewish people.

As we discuss in the theme "Language and Communication," Hitler and the Nazi Party used mass communication technology—radio, film, and print material—to involve the German people in carrying out the Holocaust. In this propaganda, Jews and other groups were spoken of in dehumanizing terms, referred to as vermin, cockroaches, as "a world plague," and represented as dangerous to society.
Nazi propaganda is also heavy on the euphemism. A euphemism is "an inoffensive or indirect expression that is substituted for one that is considered offensive or too harsh." Nazis used words like "cleansing," "evacuation," "resettlement," "special treatment," and "extermination" to refer to the murder of Jewish people.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Propaganda site and the German Propaganda Archive are loaded with visual material, writings, speeches, a wide range of Nazi propaganda. Check it out these resources deeper look at the world Liesel is living in.
—Taken from analysis on Shmoop.Com

Hitler.jpgMore History:

Nazis and the War Machine, Documentary in Six Parts (each section is 45 minutes):

Jesse Owen at the 1936 Olympics — Clip One Clip Two (Rudy Steiner has a passion for Jesse Owen)


Dr. Seuss cartoon from the early 1940s. Note the "America First" on the Momma’s blouse.

Heidelberg, Germany

Contemporary events: Jewish Hate Crimes in 2017 America