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The Book Thief | Context


Nazi Germany

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany, just before and during World War II, which began on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland. Great Britain and France supported Poland; Italy, and later Japan, supported Germany, and soon Europe was at war. The United States officially joined the Allied forces against Germany in 1941.

Bombing Civilians

World War II bombers did not have precise targeting. Civilians were always potentially in harm's way. However, both sides did in fact aim at civilian populations to create fear. The Nazis used bombs and rockets to target British civilians throughout the war. By 1943 British and American planes were ready to attack Germany. The Royal Air Force made the decision to bomb German civilians to build unrest and fear in the Nazi homeland. Allied air strikes killed approximately 410,000 German civilians during World War II. Some critics and historians consider the Allied bombing of civilian targets to be war crimes.

Targeting Jews

Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. By 1939, when The Book Thief begins, his power was absolute. Hitler, also called the Führer (leader), was the head of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, more commonly known in its abbreviated form as Nazi, and commanded the allegiance and obedience of all German citizens. Part of Nazi doctrine was the belief in the racial superiority of the Aryans, a supposedly pure-blooded German race. Although any non-Aryan was considered inferior, and the Nazis did not hesitate to attack any group they saw as genetically or socially inferior, their harshest persecutions targeted the Jews.

The Nazis began by marginalizing Jews—limiting their ability to take part in daily life as they had known it for centuries. The Nazis attacked Jewish businesses, made it illegal for Jews to associate with or marry non-Jews, forbade and burned books by Jewish authors, limited Jewish attendance in universities, and taught anti-Semitic concepts in German schools. Some Jews who had the resources fled from the country, but many could not afford to leave or were later prohibited from leaving. Many Jews who remained were arrested by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. Then the Nazis began a campaign to rid Germany of Jews forever.

Mass Murder: The Holocaust

The first recorded mass shootings of Jews occurred in 1941; the Nazis killed hundreds of people at a time. But the Nazis wanted a more efficient way to carry out genocide. They developed gas chambers that looked like large shower facilities, located in concentration camps. Once prisoners were inside these chambers, the Nazis gassed them with carbon monoxide or pesticides.

The characters in The Book Thief live near the Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, the first such prison facility the Nazis created when they came to power in 1933, initially held Communists and other political prisoners as well as "social undesirables." Later, during the war, Jews were sent to Dachau. Although Dachau itself did not have gas chambers, prisoners were shipped to a nearby extermination center. Among those who remained at the camp, many died from abuse, overwork, starvation, and disease. Some estimate that more than 41,000 people were killed at Dachau with over 200,000 imprisoned there and in surrounding sub-camps.

Historians estimate that six million Jewish people—men, women, and children—died during the Holocaust. Between 1939 and 1945, an estimated 34 to 46 million more people of all nationalities and races died on the battlefields or on the home front, making World War II the largest and deadliest war in history.

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