From The Vault
The Book Thief and Nazi Youth Movements
By Maria Mougridis
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, narrated by Death, starts with Liesel Meminger, a nine year old girl and her brother going to live with a foster family. On their way to this new home, the brother passes away and has to be buried. At his funeral, Liesel steals her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, and that’s how Death first comes across Liesel. This book shapes the beginning of her life, and through the other books she steals, Death follows her personal story. The Shoulder Shrug, Mein Kampf, The Standover Man, The Word Shaker, The Whistler, The Dream Carrier, The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus, The Last Human Stranger, and The Book Thief are the books throughout the story that shape Liesel in some way. These are also the books that Death uses to tell Leisel Meminger’s story. Although most of these books were stolen by Liesel, The Word Shaker was written by Max Vandenburg, and it discusses their relationship; The Book Thief is Liesel’s memoir that she writes towards the end of the novel.
Originally published in 2005, The Book Thief has since won many awards, and was made into a movie adaptation. As recently as 2014, Markus Zusak won the Edwards Award sponsored by YALSA for several of his books including The Book Thief. He was also honored in 2007 with the Michael L. Printz Award of Excellence Honor Book and the Kathleen Mitchell Award. Not only has the book done very well, but the movie adaptation has also won some awards. In 2013, when the movie first came out, it received a Breakthrough Artist Award for the actress, Sophie Nélisse as Liesel. At the Hollywood Film Festival in 2014, Nélisse also won the Spotlight Award. In 2014, The Book Thief movie was nominated at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes for Best Original Scores. The Book Thief, reviewed by April Barnnon, an English professor at Arizona State University, said in 2006 that “This book provides a unique testament to the Holocaust, and in so doing, forces the reader to reflect on what it means to be human.” This is an added testament to the quality of this book
When the novel begins, Liesel is nine years old and living with Hans and Rosa Hubermann in Nazi Germany. When Liesel first arrives at the Hubermann household, she is scared and continues to have nightmares, but she eventually warms up to them with the help of Hans “Papa” and The Grave Digger’s Handbook, which Papa uses to teach Liesel to read. As the story progresses, Death introduces the character of Max Vandenburg, the Jewish son of the man who saved Hans Hubermann’s life during WWI. Since Max is Jewish, and special to Hans, he and Rosa agree to hide him in their basement. Although tensions are high among the Hubermann household, Max becomes a part of this unique family. For many months, which turn into years, Max stays with the Hubermanns until the threat of discovery finally drives him away. During his stay with the family, Liesel matures and becomes more aware of the world around her.
Another important character in this novel is Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend. Rudy is the ideal Nazi stereotype with his blond hair and blue eyes, yet his beliefs and behavior do not fit with the Nazi ideologies. Rudy idolizes Jesse Owens because of his athletic ability and has no concern about Jesse’s skin color, but to Adolph Hitler, someone like Jesse does not fit into the white supremacy image. To Rudy, the ideal person is someone like Jesse Owens, the African-American who won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games which were held in Munich, Germany, thus showing how far away Rudy stands from ever truly fitting into the Hitler Youth or Nazi Parties. Rudy’s desire to show his leaders that he is superior leads to the Hitler Youth’s intense interest in him. Although he is already a member of the youth movement, his winning multiple races at the local carnival draws the undesired attention and scrutiny of the group’s leadership. Although there is a fairly complicated plot in The Book Thief, young Liesel and Rudy’s friendship reflects the societal pressures of organizations such as the famous Hitler Youth and on individuals. Rudy Steiner is a member of this organization and it plays an important part in shaping the life of Rudy and his family as well as Liesel’s emerging maturity.
To understand the formation of Nazi youth organizations, it is important to understand the rise of the Nazi Party. In 1919, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), later shortened to Nazi, was established. The Nazi ideology included racist and anti-Semitic German nationalism, fierce opposition to communism, and a rejection of liberal democratic government structures. The party also opposed big business and international financiers. In 1921, Adolf Hitler became the party chairman, and within the following year party support grew due to an economic crisis in Germany. Following this in 1923, the Nazi Party attempted to overthrow the German government but was unsuccessful. Due to this unsuccessful coup, Hitler was arrested and the party was outlawed. During Hitler’s imprisonment, he wrote his manifesto titled, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), and in 1924 he was released from prison. With his release, the Nazi Party used legal, political means to gain power and in 1933 the Nazi Party was declared the only legal political party in Germany.
Adolf Hitler was a firm believer in the need to imbue the Nazi ideology into the minds of the youths at an early age, so began the Nazi youth organizations in 1922, which were officially formed at the Second Reichsparteitag (National Party Day) on July 4, 1926. The youth movement emphasized the Nazi ideologies as well as activism, physical training, nationalism, racial concepts, and absolute obedience to Hitler and the Nazi Party. Baldur von Schirach, a Nazi German who joined the party in 1925 became a huge developer of the Hitler Youth in the movement. Appointed to his position on June 18, 1933, Schirach was the leader and director of all the youth organizations including the Hitler Youth until 1945. By 1935, under Schirach’s leadership, sixty per cent of Germany’s youth were enrolled in the program.
At age ten, young German boys were eligible to join the youth movement. They were first investigated to ensure all members held the proper ideologies and if qualified, they were registered and entered into the Deutsches Jungvolk, the German Young People. When the boys turned thirteen, they went into the Hitler Youth until the age of eighteen, whey they would graduate from the program. The Hitler Youth, known in Germany as the Hitler-Jugend was founded in 1926. This program taught their students the proper Nazi ideologies. They learned and lived a life similar to the ancient Spartan way through strict dedication, fellowship, and conformity. Although this program was popular among the youths, many of the young boys who joined this organization did so without the consent of their parents. Also, the Hitler Youth was less ideological and more focused on preparing the young boys for military duty when they graduated. At the age of eighteen and after graduation, they would become full-fledged members of the Nazi Party where they would serve the state in the labor service and the armed forces until the age of twenty-one.
There was even a female counterpart to the Hitler Youth, called the League of German Girls in the Hitler Youth. The League was established in 1930, but was not very popular until the Nazi Party came to power in 1933. Also known as the Bund Deutscher Mädel, consisted of two sections; the Jungmädel, or Young Girls League, for girls aged ten to fourteen, and the League for Proper Girls aged fourteen to eighteen. This organization was the only female youth organization within the Nazi Party. These groups trained the young girls with the values of obedience, self-sacrifice, discipline, and physical self-control. They were also taught “racial pride,” comradeship, domestic duties, and motherhood, making them the ideal German woman. The goal of these organizations was to prepare the women for motherhood and to raise their children in the ways of National Socialism and the Nazi ideologies. Although popularity for the league was slow at first, membership into this group became mandatory in 1939. In order to gain a membership into the League, a young girl had to be an ethnic German citizen with no hereditary diseases.
During World War II, both the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls played notable roles. For the Hitler Youth members, as the war progressed, they went from preparing for battle to fighting in battle. In 1944, after D-Day, many Hitler Youths joined the army in assistance to the German army. The girls of the League had a major role in the ideological and propaganda side of the war. The girls collected money, clothing, and other donations to send care packages to the front lines. Some girls that were a part of the League's choir and musical groups would visit wounded soldiers at hospitals to sing and comfort them. Some of the older girls volunteered at hospitals as nurses’ aides. While many of the boys of the Hitler Youth took part in actual battles, none of the women of the League participated in actual battle or in the operation of any weapons.
With the end of WWII, and the fall of the Nazi Party, the process of “de-Nazification,” which was started by the Allied Forces to ensure that the Nazi party could not rise to power again was initiated. In 1945, the trials of the Nazi Party leaders began, and many Hitler Youth leaders, including Baldur von Schirach, were prosecuted. Schirach admitted to having misled and poorly educating the young people, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison for crimes against humanity. Ardent party members were permanently banned from holding public offices, some were imprisoned, and some sentenced to hard labor. To further “de-Nazify” the youths, many were shown documentaries and images of the Jewish concentration camps. The process was tough. It took many years for some of the former Hitler Youth members to truly accept Nazi defeat and a different view of life. Indeed, many never did! The Book Thief is a moving and wonderful work. The movie rightfully has drawn much attention to Liesel’s story and has dramatizes very effectively. Although many have criticized the film for “sugar coating” the Nazi role in the village as well as in Germany’s history, the film rightfully won numerous nominations and awards for its dramatic and historical values. As such, it offers a fine opportunity for young people to know and discuss in an initial way the moral and ethical values that begin to build the complexities of human conscience.