Guilt in The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is set in Nazi Germany in World War II. Narrated by Death, the novel takes as its protagonist Liesel Meminger, a girl who grows up in a foster home where Jews aren’t seen as evil, in a departure from attitudes in the rest of Nazi Germany. Max, a Jew living in the Hubermann’s basement, carries guilt on his shoulders as much as anyone else. He left his family, endangered a man’s life, and jeopardized a whole family by living in their basement. Nazi Germany makes Max feel this way, persecuting Jews and threatening anyone who shows compassion towards the Jewish religion; naturally, guilt is a burden carried on the shoulders of many characters in The Book Thief.

In The Book Thief, Max is the character who bears the most guilt. When a Nazi soldier knocks at Max’s family’s door, his mother finds a way to let him escape, but only Max can go, and he decides to leave: “If only he’d turned for one last look at his family as he left the apartment. Perhaps then the guilt would not have been so heavy. No final goodbye” (193). Max feels selfish and cruel, escaping the arms of the Führer and going to live a new life while his family is tortured and killed. He also feels guilty because he endangered the life of a dear friend, Walter Kugler, who helped Max find a family to live in. When Max arrives at 33 Himmel Street, and Rosa and Hans take care of him, Max says, “‘Better than nothing,’ Max assured him. ‘Better than I deserve— thank you'” (208). Max feels guilty because he knows he is putting the Hubermanns in great danger by living in their basement. The Hubermanns barely have enough to eat with three people, so Max also feels guilty for taking what little food they have. Max, living in a cruel Nazi Germany, bears the guilt of a position where almost all of his decisions will hurt or affect anyone around him.

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Nazi Germany, suppressed by the iron fist of the Führer, becomes so awful the Jews and the citizens that are all miserable because of the circumstances of that place. Death describes the weight of survivor’s guilt: “Living was Living. The price was guilt and shame” (208). Such a cruel society regularly forces Max to understand that he doesn’t deserve the most basic things that people take for granted, and he should feel guilty for having them. The Hubermanns are also plagued with shame because society consistently tells them they should feel guilty and ashamed for doing the right thing. When Michael feels guilt for leaving the war alive, he says to Rosa Hubermann, “’ Why do I want to live? I shouldn’t want to but I do”’ (487). He feels derelict for not staying with his mother during the air raid, thus feeling blameworthy for putting himself before his mother. Michael Holtzapfel has been through the death of his brother and the maimed and dead bodies of the war, and yet still wants to live, hating himself for it. In Germany, World War II, whether you were a Jew or one of Hitler’s most loyal followers, Nazi Germany is so cruel it makes people feel guilty for having the desire to live.

Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, inspires the lives of many hate-filled individuals but also saved the life of Max Vandenburg. On his way to the Hubermann household, he receives a book from his savior: “Midway through May 1940, Mein Kampf arrived, with a key taped to the inside cover. The man’s a genius, Max decided, but there was still a shudder when he thought about traveling to Munich” (195). Now, instead of Hitler holding and possessing Hitler, Max is holding Hitler in his hand, escaping near death and receiving a second chance. Max is traveling to a new, strange, world, with only the familiarity of the power of Hitler and his book Mein Kampf. When Liesel is thinking about writing about her life, Death narrates, “When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything. Was it when she first set eyes on the room with shelves and shelves of them? Or when Max Vandenburg arrived on Himmel Street carrying handfuls of suffering and Hitler’s Mein Kampf?” (30). Hitler’s book Mein Kampf means “My Struggle,” and Hitler completely opposes Jews, but Death also describes Max also bearing the suffering. The jewel-like words falling from Hitler’s mouth and sprouting from the pages of Mein Kampf are eloquent enough to make a whole nation fall in love with them and believe that Hitler suffered while Jews don’t suffer at all. Mein Kampf is truly both a torture weapon and a heroic object that saved a Jew’s life.

Many of the characters in The Book Thief have lost family members, and many wrestle with the survivor’s guilt of continuing to live while their loved ones do not. Hans believes he owes his life to Erik Vandenburg, who saved him during World War I. As a result, he believes he is responsible for caring for Erik’s family in any way they need, and allows Max, Erik’s son, to reside safely in the Hubermann’s basement. Max, however, also has his feelings of responsibility. When he arrives at the Hubermanns’ house, he is so consumed by guilt over having left his family to die, taking the little food the Hubermann’s have, and endangering the whole Hubermann household for his own survival. Guilt in The Book Thief is an idea many characters fight with, and many characters like Michael Holzapfel give in to the guilt of wanting to live.

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