The Responsibility of German Citizens: Rhetoric, Close Reading, and Meaning in The Book Thief
Does following orders and laws justify allowing the mass persecution of a race? Is protecting one’s family a viable reason to tolerate the mistreatment of the Jews? During the Nuremberg trials, judges ruled simply following orders was an insubstantial reason to condone the actions of many of Hitler’s party officials. Although leaders who ran death camps and killed Jews blamed their involvement on obeying direction, half received the death sentence and the other half were sentenced to life imprisonment. The Nuremberg trials established “the idea that individuals are responsible for their own actions, even in times of war” (Danzer, 587). Similarly, in The Book Thief, the author Markus Zusak points out the responsibility of German citizens to speak out against Hitler’s actions towards Jews. The main character Liesel learns kindness towards Jews despite her community’s negative view of them when her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, shelter a Jew, Max, in their basement. Liesel forms a friendship with Max and bonds with him over their common loss of family. Later Max leaves the Hubermanns in order to protect them after Hans publicly gives bread to a Jewish man in the street. Throughout The Book Thief, Markus Zusak portrays the responsibility of a German citizen to protect the Jews and how a lack of leads to devastating effects with his diction and by utilizing juxtaposition and metaphor.
Early on, the author utilizes juxtaposition to demonstrate the contrast between Hitler-supporting Germans and those who disapproved of him and showcase each group’s responsibility for the mistreatment of the Jews. From the beginning of novel Liesel struggles to understand Hitler, the Nazis, and her community’s hatred of the Jews. Two contradictory characters in her life are Frau Holtzapfel and Hans Hubermann. Zusak presents Liesel’s neighbor Frau Holtzapfel as a devoted Nazi Party member with “one golden rule… if you walked into her shop and didn’t say ‘heil Hitler” you wouldn’t be served” (Zusak 49,50). Contrarily, Liesel’s father openly resists the Nazi Party. This is clear when Hans aids a Jew: after members of the Nazi Party paint a slur on a Jewish shopkeeper’s door Hans approaches the owner and says “‘I will come tomorrow… and repaint your door”, a promise he keeps (Zusak 181). Additionally, later in the book Hans attempts to aid a Jew marching to the death camp Dachau: “Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread” (Zusak 394). The contrast between these two characters depicts the undeniable split in society in Germany during World War II. However, Zusak examines the integrity of both types of German citizens when the people of Molching hide in the bomb shelter fearfully “waiting for their final demise” by asking the reader, “Did they deserve any better, these people?” (Zusak 375). The author chooses to create two very contrasting characters and throw them into the same life threatening situation to force the reader to contemplate German citizen’s responsibility to speak out and protect the Jews. Even though 90 percent of Germans fully supported Hitler, those who disapproved of his methods often remained silent. Those who chose not to remain silent were punished. The author expresses the need for society to speak out when something is wrong, even if they are of the smaller population. This is not the only time the author points out the responsibility of citizens during times of war.
In addition, Zusak’s diction when describing Max for the first time portrays the betrayal of the Jews by many German citizens. Zusak first introduces Max sitting in a dark secret storage room waiting for news of whether Hans Hubermann will help him or not. The narrator Death pleads the reader, “Please – try not to look away” in an attempt to portray Max’s misery and suffering (Zusak 138). When Hans agrees to shelter Max, he effectively saves Max’s life. By using the second person point of view the author appeals to the reader’s sense of compassion and sympathy, perhaps even pity, by using the word please to construct a helpless tone for the character Max. Zusak implores the reader not to look away in reference to Hans’ choice to help the struggling Jew. However, on a deeper level the author uses Hans’ situation as an example for all German citizens opposed to Hitler. In doing so, the author implies that the Germans who stood up for and aided the Jews were beneficial to society. Although Zusak gives credit to people who aided the Jews, he acknowledges those who remained silent in a very different way.
Finally, Zusak uses metaphors to enhance the negative effect both Hitler supporters and Germans who opposed Hitler silently had on the Jews, enhancing the need for citizens to take responsibility during the war. While hiding in the Hubermann’s basement, Max daydreams about fist fighting Hitler. During a part of the fight in which Max is losing, Death describes Max as a “punching-bag jew” who feels the “fists of an entire entire nation” on him (Zusak 253, 254). While some “made him bleed” and others “let him suffer” each allowed him to endure pain (Zusak 254). Those who made him bleed represent the Germans who outwardly despised and targeted the Jews, whereas those who let him suffer embody the citizens who did not feel the mass extermination of Jews was socially acceptable, yet remained silent in order to protect themselves and their families. In using the metaphor of a fist fight between Max Vandenburg and Hitler, Zusak comments on the damage all German citizens caused the Jews by either supporting Hitler or remaining silent. In doing so, Zusak urges the reader to understand the importance of voicing one’s opinion. Perhaps if citizens who disagreed with the Nazis spoke out during the Second Word War less damage would have occurred. The author expresses this to demonstrate to society the need for individuals to stand up for their beliefs. The metaphor for how German citizens treated the Jews successfully illustrates the need for society to voice its opinion in times of war.
Zusak thus informs the reader of a German citizen’s responsibility to protect the Jews throughout the book with his diction and by using metaphor and juxtaposition. In some ways, the author argues that it is unfair for Germans who genuinely care for the well-being of Jews, such as Hans Hubermann, to die from war in Germany. Society today follows Zusak’s views by staging peaceful protests against what many view as poor government choices. These methods of expression empower an individual to accept responsibility for his or her own communities treatment of people.
Danzer, Gerals A., Larry S. Krieger, Louis E. Wilson, and Nancy Woloch. “The War in the Pacific.” The Americans. By Jorge Klor De Alva. Evanston: McDougal Littell, 2007. 587. Print.Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2005. Print.
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