The Power of Words in a Time of War

Language plays a powerful role in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Although the book has many strong themes, one of the strongest is how words and language give a lot of power. This is demonstrated not only in the way that the characters interact with language, but also because of Zusak's talent in manipulating words to tell a beautiful and complex story. Zusak portrait a time language is used by a tyrant but individuals find a way to use words to bring hope and healing. Luckily for readers he uses this talent for good, but his book shows how this gift can also be used for evil.

Before we dive too deep into the good and evil that lies within the pages on this book, and within our own world, we should know how this book plays out. The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany throughout World War II. One of the most notable things is that this book is narrated by Death. The actual book thief turns out to be a young girl by the name of Liesel Meminger. She lives in a small town outside of Munich with her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Eventually a Jewish man comes and lives in their basement in order to escape the world of war going on around him.

Liesel first finds the power of words when she herself learns to read. Her foster father, Hans, teaches her. This not only brings the two of them closer together, but gives the girl a power she never knew existed before: knowledge.  Her foster father teaches her to feel the joys of learning. He introduces her to the powerful system of words.This first helps her to succeed in school. She was being unfairly punished because she had not had any education before coming to live with her foster parents.

Secondly, she was given the power to steal. Even though thievery is wrong and illegal, for Liesel Meminger it was empowering. She was addicted to the the words that she had learned to read, and she needed more. Stealing books also gave her a feeling of control over her life. She had something that she was good at, something that helped her and something that no one else did. When a Jewish man by the name of Max Vandenberg came to lived in their basement to escape the Nazis, Liesel became very close with him. They first connected over books, more specifically books that had been stolen.

Because the characters are struggling through a war, the threat of violence and bombs are alway looming over them. Whenever the bomb warning is in effect Rosa, Hans, and Liesel have to go to their neighbors cellar which doubles as a bomb shelter. Being in the shelter is tense and scary. Liesels decides to help everyone feel more relaxed by reading to them. Here Zusak describes her first time reading in the cellar. “By page three, everyone was silent but Liesel. She didn’t dare to look up, but she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out.” (Zusak 381) Liesel took power in that basement full of weak people fearing their lives, and she used her power to give them strength and hope. The system of words Liesel used was the same system that any other individual had, but she knew how to use them in order to give some good. Liesel was proactive about using the system of words and power that came along with those words, to not only to help herself, but to help all the other frightened individuals cluttered in a cellar. This however is not the last time Liesel shared the power she finds in language with others.  

One of the places that Liesel steals books from is the the library of the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann. When Frau Hermann eventually catches Liesel, instead of punishing her, she encourages Liesel to read and they soon became friends. The mayor’s wife also introduces Liesel to writing. The thought of being able to use your words as well as the words, as well as the words of others, for power is a new idea to her, but Liesel Meminger realizes its value quickly. She then starts to write her own story, which is so compelling that Death picks it up one day, and has never let it go. There must be some true power in the words in those pages if it is that appealing and meaningful to Death.

It is impossible to write of language and power in that era without addressing Adolf Hitler. Max talks a lot about Hitler, which is understandable because of how much Hitler has affected Max’s life. Throughout the book Max writes two books for Liesel, the second one is called The Word Shaker. Even though the book MAx wrote is largely about the friendship Liesel and Max have, it also talks a lot about Hitler and how he took power using words.The third paragraph in Max’s story starts, “The Führer decides to rule the world with words.” (Zusak 445) Hitler is a perfect example of someone who knows just how much power words have hidden within them. He used words to rally people against each other and create war. The words had spoke moved people to do unthinkable things. The words of the Führer brought the whole world to war, for the second time.The simplest way of putting it is that Hitler used the power of words for evil. It is sometimes hard to grasp how influence he with only words as his primary weapon.

We need to take a step back sometimes and review how we use language, It can be  easy to forget all the power that we own from the words that we use every day. In the end it all boils down to this, use your words to help and give hope to those around you. Do all the good you can and try to extinguish the evil.

Works Cited:

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.