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All the Light We Cannot See | Context


World War II

All the Light We Cannot See is set in France and Germany during World War II (1939–45). Doerr skillfully weaves together a variety of elements from this dynamic and troubled period, beginning with the rise of Nazi Germany and ending with the bombing of Saint-Malo in northwestern France.

German dictator Adolf Hitler came to power as chancellor of Germany in January 1933. As head of the government, he moved swiftly to change laws allowing him to seize power. His goal was to replace the existing democratic system with a dictatorship. By late summer 1934 Hitler had combined the posts of president and chancellor and declared himself the Führer, or leader.

Hitler then began to build his war machine, establishing the German air force, expanding the German army through conscription or forced enlistment, and forming alliances with Italy and Japan, collectively known as the Axis powers. In defiance of the Treaty of Versailles that had concluded World War I (1914–18), German forces reoccupied the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone in western Germany, in March 1936. Austria was then annexed to Nazi Germany in March 1938. One year later, Hitler ordered the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia. Finally, after entering a short-lived alliance with Soviet Russia, Hitler's forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. In response Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, on September 3.

Denmark and Norway next fell to Hitler, followed by the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. In July 1940 Hitler unleashed his air force, the Luftwaffe, against Britain. The Axis powers then invaded and occupied Yugoslavia and Greece. Hitler then turned against Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, sending three million German troops into Russia in 1941 for an attempted invasion. The German Reich or Hitler's empire seemed unstoppable. On December 11, 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States following Japan's devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7. America declared war against Japan on December 8.

Though the tide would eventually turn against Nazi Germany, it was three and a half more years before its defeat by the Allied powers (Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and China). The war in Europe ended with Germany's unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945. By the time Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, ending the war in the Pacific, the worldwide human cost of World War II was approximately 85 million dead and wounded.

Hitler Youth

In the novel Doerr explores how Werner Pfennig, an intelligent boy with great promise, is seduced by the Hitler Youth and transformed into a Nazi.

The children of Germany were targeted by the Nazi regime, with the goal of transforming them into future soldiers and a technically skilled elite. Hitler believed a secure future for the Third Reich (meaning Germany's third regime, or empire) relied on strictly regulated education. In schools, children were immersed in National Socialism, or Nazism, Hitler's particular form of fascism or absolute government. Boys and girls also were encouraged to join the Hitler Youth, where they absorbed Nazi ideology. In the year Hitler took power as chancellor, all other youth organizations were banned or incorporated into the Hitler Youth. The pressure increased for German youths to join "voluntarily." Elite Nazi training schools, such as the Schulpforta school described in the novel, were established. Then in 1939 membership in the organization became compulsory.

Indoctrination began as early as age 10; membership in the Hitler Youth began at age 14. The young people were weaned away from their families, steeped in propaganda (biased information intended to support a political cause), and programmed to follow orders. With the approach of war, the organization became increasingly disciplined and politicized. Activities focused on the honing of soldierly skills; leaders fueled the young people's ideological zeal. In the novel a one-armed soldier at the school in Schulpforta sums up the goal for new cadets, saying, "You will all surge ... toward the same cause. You will forgo comforts; you will live by duty alone. You will eat country and breathe nation."

Radio Comes of Age

Radio plays a key role in All the Light We Cannot See. It was deftly employed as a propaganda tool by the Reich. In the novel a boy's exceptional radiographic skills are used at the front to locate and destroy enemy radio transmitters.

Radio was invented in the late 19th century, changing and expanding the world of communication forever. Suddenly music and voices could be carried invisibly through the air on radio waves, to be heard far and near. What now seems common seemed miraculous then. Still, it was many years before the radio became a household item.

In the early 1900s, radio was primarily used for communication with ships at sea by way of Morse code, a system for transmitting information through tones, lights, or clicks. During World War I it was recognized by the military as an excellent tool for sending and receiving vital messages. Following the war, the civilian population discovered the wonders of radio. It was a fresh, exciting way to get news and entertainment.

In Germany, leaders of the Nazi Party recognized the promise of radio for spreading propaganda. However, it was necessary to control what the public heard. A cheap "People's Radio" that anyone could afford was made available to German citizens in 1933. By design, it could not receive transmissions from outside Germany. Listeners heard only news, advice, speeches, programs for the Hitler Youth, music, and other forms of entertainment that had been approved by the German Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment. Any broadcast of American jazz and swing music or music composed by Jews was prohibited.

By 1938 the Nazis were beaming pure propaganda into German households over more than nine million radios. In factories and offices, workers were compelled to listen to scheduled government broadcasts. By 1941 the number of radios in homes had increased to 15 million, bombarding about 50 million people with a steady stream of indoctrination.

Paris and the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle

In the novel, Paris is the home of Marie-Laure and her father, Daniel LeBlanc. Daniel is the principal locksmith of the city's Natural History Museum (Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle).

The museum was founded in 1793, during the French Revolution (1789–99), a period of social and political upheaval that culminated with the rise of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Though it is now made up of a collection of sites scattered throughout France, the original three buildings were located in the Jardin des Plantes (Garden of Plants) featured in the novel. Among these is the Mineralogy and Geology Gallery. By spring 1940 the threat of a German invasion loomed over the city. In an interview, Doerr suggests the possibility that the museum's curators scrambled to crate up and hide the most precious gems and minerals in its collection. In the novel they most wish to hide a (fictitious) cursed diamond, the Sea of Flames.

Paris fell to German forces in 1940 and was occupied for four years. However "the City of Light" was a prize highly coveted by Hitler and so was shielded from the ravages of war during that time. But as the tide turned against Hitler, he could see Paris slipping from his grasp and ruthlessly ordered its destruction. The defiance of German general Dietrich von Choltitz saved Paris from this fate when he surrendered the city to French forces rather than follow Hitler's orders.


When Paris falls to the Germans, Daniel LeBlanc and his daughter flee to Saint-Malo, France, to live with Daniel's uncle Etienne. In this walled port city, the stories of Marie-Laure, Werner, and a Nazi treasure hunter converge.

Author Anthony Doerr first encountered this ancient city on a book tour of France. Located in Brittany, on the coast, Saint-Malo appeared to be centuries old, and indeed it had been founded in the sixth century. As a walled citadel, it had served as a stronghold for 17th-century privateers or maritime warriors. However, the city that captured Doerr's imagination was not the original, but a replica.

During World War II, Saint-Malo was occupied by German forces. In August 1944 American liberation forces bombed the city into rubble. After the war ended, the Malouins, or people of Saint-Malo, painstakingly rebuilt the entire city, block by block, from its castle to its cobbled streets, over a period of 12 years.

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