Words are one of the most powerful ways we communicate with each other. In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the impact of words and language is felt throughout the novel. From the negative impact of the anti-Semitic propaganda present in Nazi Germany to the reassuring effect of Liesel’s reading in the bomb shelter, words have both a positive and negative influence on the major characters. The composition of the novel also demonstrates this theme through the narrator’s use of metaphor and other literary devices to make sense of the world and communicate ideas to the reader.
Within the story and in the way the story is written, Zusak promotes the philosophy that words—both their presence and their absence—have power.
Because the novel is set in Germany during World War II, the negative influence of words is strongly felt, particularly in the anti-Semitic sentiments. In that time, ‘Jewry was…a label’ (216). People were further labeled by slurs like Jewish Filth painted on their homes and shops.
The Jews were referred to as a “disease” (110) infecting the country. These labels were powerful enough to dehumanize the Jewish people, lessening others’ moral turmoil regarding crimes against them.
There are other ways words are dangerous. Hans puts himself at risk when he paints over a slur on a Jewish shop. There is inherent power in the act of naming; the Nazis claimed this power over the Jews by propagating derogatory names. Hans, in refusing to use or accept the slurs, refuses to acknowledge this power, and weakens its effect.
His refusal also makes it clear his actions will not be influenced by propaganda, and are therefore unpredictable, risky. Hans Hubermann is only ever harsh to Liesel on two occasions, the first being when she says, “‘I hate the Führer’” (115).
He sympathizes with the sentiment, but knows if the wrong person heard those words, they would put Liesel in danger. If people cannot articulate their hatred toward their leader, for fear of personal harm, that leader can use their silence as an indicator of consent, and can feel secure in his position because without words, no one can challenge him. The second time Hans is harsh to Liesel is when he tells her how important it is to keep Max a secret; he threatens to burn her books. So the words, “There’s a Jew in my basement” (244) would destroy the books that taught her the power of words in the first place.
Any words that identify a person as something undesirable to the ruling party carry risk with them. Liesel knows only one thing about his father; he was a Communist. She comes to understand later that this label meant punishment, as communism is one of the “evil machinations” (110) infecting the country, according to the Nazis. Max recognizes how “Jew” has also become a dangerous word, and that it endangers not only himself, but those who try to help him. Jew is a label for those who “violat[e] the German ideal” (110), so those Germans who would help them are practically guilty of treason. These few assigned labels proliferate, gathering increasingly negative connotations, until a single word carries thousands of words worth of cultivated hatred and fear.
Much of Hitler’s power as a leader is derived from his skill with words. In Max’s allegory ‘The Word Shaker’, he sees Hitler as having decided to ‘rule the world with words’ and calls Germany ‘a nation of farmed thoughts’ (445). The seed of a thought – that Germany would be made better if the Jews were eliminated – can be cultivated through forms of mass communication like speeches, books, or radio. In Max’s daydreams, he faces off against Hitler in a boxing ring. Max lands a solid blow, only for Hitler to call out to the audience of Germans, reminded them that Jews are an infestation, and imploring them to “climb up into this ring” and “defeat this enemy together” (254). Hitler, an elegant speaker, uses words as a means to seduce, influence, and mobilize an entire nation. Liesel says it most aptly: “Without words, the Führer [is] nothing” (521).
Words are used to convey meaning, and yet can have many meanings, depending on how they are interpreted. German profanity, particularly the terms saukerl and saumensch, is used throughout the book. Liesel, when she begins living with the Hubermanns, is struck by the profanity, which is “vehement and prolific” (32). However, the words are intended and interpreted as terms of endearment. The clearest example is Rudy’s recurring request, “How about a kiss, Saumensch?” (241).
We see the reverse phenomenon in Max, who thinks of the words “thank you” not as a humble expression of gratitude, but rather “the…most pitiful words he could…say” (208); to Max, as a Jew in hiding, to say thank you means he is accepting undeserved kindness, and the words only feed his guilt. Sometimes, the subtext of a phrase is more important than the literal meaning. When Max arrives at the Hubermann’s door and asks Hans, “‘Do you still play the accordion?’ the question was really, ‘Will you still help me?’” (185). Ilsa Hermann gives Liesel a dictionary, and that section of the book is filled with definitions & related words. At times, the meaning suggested by the dictionary is “completely and utterly mistaken” (398), particularly its suggested synonyms.
The passages with the dictionary also illustrate that sometimes words are not enough; no definition will describe certain feelings precisely. When Hans is drafted, his goodbye is wordless and resigned. Rosa, a loud, swearing presence in the Hubermann house, is so distraught when Hans goes to war that she falls silent, and the life seems to go out of her. The same happened to the mayor’s wife when her son died. For these women, words are inadequate to describe their grief. Liesel, at her lowest moment, asks, “‘What good are the words?’” (521).
On the other hand, people can be powerless without words. When Liesel arrives at her new school, she cannot read or write, and is ridiculed by her teachers and by her fellow students. Liesel tries to find other ways to be powerful – by getting into a fight with Tommy Müller – but her palpable feeling of powerlessness only dissipates when her Papa teaches her to read and write. At the beginning of the novel, Liesel can do neither. Furthermore, her brother’s death has left her reticent. Her bond with her foster father Hans Hubermann, develops when they work through the alphabet and read The Grave Digger’s Handbook. The book represents the last time Liesel saw her brother and mother, and she reads it when she has nightmares. Finishing the book, she “conquer[s] not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way” (87). Literacy also builds Liesel’s confidence in the classroom, and she—at least partially—overcomes that feeling of powerlessness.
The ability of words to hurt and to heal is a very important idea in the book. Liesel on one occasion, injures someone with words. In her anger, after Ilsa Hermann tells her they will no longer employ Rosa to do the washing, Liesel tells Ilsa she is pathetic because she can’t cope with her son’s death. Liesel becomes “spiteful” and discovers the “brutality of words” (262). However, Liesel ultimately learns from Ilsa not to punish herself for remaining while the people in her life are taking. She heals herself by writing about her life, her brother, Max, and her time on Himmel Street. She ultimately saves herself this way; figuratively, in that she gains emotional closure, and literally, because she is in the basement, writing, when Himmel Street is bombed.
At times, words can sustain people. Not always be enough to save them, but enough to get them through. When Max becomes very ill, Liesel reads to him regularly, as though “the words alone could nourish him” (328). Even when Max is well, he is trapped in the Hubermann’s basement, sustained largely by Liesel’s creative weather reports. In another basement, when the whole neighborhood cowers in fear of a bomb, Liesel’s reading keeps everyone distracted enough to ease their fear and prevent a descent into panic. Most of all, Liesel’s words sustain Death; he carries her book with him and allows her story to distract him as he works. Her words are enough to help him endure.
In addition to healing and sustaining, words connect people. Words and stories are the foundation for Liesel’s relationships with Max and Hans. Ilsa Hermann’s library facilitates a strong, if tumultuous, connection between Liesel and Ilsa. Strangely, words also connect Liesel to Frau Holtzapfel, the neighbor who spits on the Hubermann’s front door. After Liesel reads in the bomb shelter, Frau Holtzapfel asks Liesel to read to her regularly in exchange for coffee and other goods. Eventually, Liesel even calls her a friend. This relationship evolves from despised neighbors to friends essentially due to weekly reading sessions. Words not only strengthen bonds, but connect people who may otherwise remain distant.
Zusak expands on the themes indicated by the text through the story’s composition. Twice, writing literally saves a character’s life. The first occurs before the start of the story, when Hans is fighting in WWI. He is volunteered to write letters for the captain while the others go into battle, and is therefore the only one to live. Mirroring this, Liesel is in the basement writing The Book Thief when the bomb hits Himmel Street. While this does not speak to the inherent power of words, it makes clearer the theme of words saving and healing people.
Zusak additionally describes words as though they were literal objects. Liesel has words “flung” (270) at her, words “[land] on the table” (330) as though they have mass. This is further explored in “The Word Shaker”, where they grow into “great forests of words”. Early in the book, the word Communist is personified in Liesel’s memory. She remarks that though she cannot understand the word Communist, she can “smell it and taste it,” and knows it “[wears] suits, uniforms.” (31) This imagery takes the concepts out of the abstract and makes it easier for the reader, and the characters, to understand the profound impact words and ideas can have on the world.
While The Book Thief explores the ways that words can hurt as well as heal, the message is ultimately hopeful. Death has carried around Liesel’s book, The Book Thief, and her words, “so damning and brilliant” have given him a new view of the human race, “so ugly and so glorious” (550). Death notes that though he serves villains and disasters, there are moments and stories he allows to distract him, and The Book Thief is one such story. For Liesel, even as words took her mother away from her, endangered her best friend, and isolated her when they were beyond her grasp, words were what connected her to the people she loved. Words were powerful enough to save her, in the end.