The Nature of Crime during World War II
What if crime during wartime is viewed the same as crime in normal times? In Nazi Germany, crime during wartime is seen through a different lens in comparison to crime not during wartime. In The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, Hitler is ruling the Germans with propaganda during World War II, around 1939-1945. During wartime, the nature of crime is atypical because of the circumstantial times that are brought upon them. Liesel and Rudy are only stealing when it is necessary, showing that they have a moral code, and to the narrator, their small crimes are petty and are forgiven compared to the crimes of Germany. With a warped idea of crime from the Nazi’s, basic human rights and freedoms are considered criminal, and with a contribution to the human rights crisis, a dissimilar nature of crime in a time of war is created. With a warped idea of crime from the Nazi’s, normal criminal acts are considered acceptable. On Hitler’s birthday, all books involving anything other than German knowledge must burn. Germans love fire and one way to honor them is to burn things that make it harder for him to brainwash people. Everyone is required to attend the burning and Liesel is noticing that although something inside told her that this was a crime-after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned-she was compelled to see the thing lit (109).
Liesel has a deep connection with literature and it is shown throughout the course of the book. She loves books and knows that the burnings was a crime-after all because it is destroying her ability to learn about events outside of Germany or Hitler’s ideological propaganda. The propaganda that Hitler uses allows people to believe that Germany’s problems from World War I are because of the Jews. With a lack of education, many of Germany’s crimes and the human rights crisis are allowed because many people did not know any other way. This lack of education makes the normal small crimes like stealing food acceptable. With Hitler as the leader, crime is viewed in a different lens. During World War II, 11 million people are killed in total, 6 million being Jews. Hitler views Jews as problems from the first World War and uses propaganda in the form of media to get people to kill them. By the end of the war, there are, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up (112). World War II kills many people and causes destruction across the world; therefore, many countries are involved, and it causes death in many places. Zusak uses multiple points of views of Death, to show how others view it. Death gets to travel around the world and view all the destruction. The amount of crime makes stealing seem petty compared to the bombs dropping all over Germany. Hitler’s warped idea of crime, from the use of media for propaganda, makes normal criminal acts seem minuscule. The small crimes of many German citizens are seemingly petty compared to the crimes of Germany.
In Germany, many things are going on during the war. Hitler is recruiting most citizens that are not Jewish and killing all the ones that are. In addition, Hitler is taking and killing all Jews or putting them in concentration camps, When the soldiers pulled over to share some food and cigarettes and to poke at the package of Jews, one of the prisoners collapsed from starvation and sickness (389). The prisoners are Jewish people that are taken captive based upon their beliefs. They are treated like slaves and are not given any food, water, medication, or even a place to live outside of a crowded cage. The Jewish people are being killed and taken prisoners for beliefs, that less than 1% of Germany has (Oktar). Hitler is using ideological propaganda to show that it is acceptable to kill innocent people. This is one of the many major crimes that Germany is involved in during the war. It makes Liesel and Rudy appear more just for their small crimes because they are barely doing anything compared to the concentration camps of the time. Stealing seems petty in relation to the mass murder of people, including Jews. Secondly, the German soldiers are treating the Jewish people as tools to get more people to join in the war. On top of being killed and put into concentration camps, the Jews are put on display to get more people to join in the war. One day, the soldiers take out the Jews and allow the suffering faces of depleted men and women reached across to them, pleading not so much for help-they were beyond that-but for an explanation. Just something to subdue this confusion (392). The Jewish people did not know why they are being attacked for what they believe.
For some, they want an explanation, for others, they want help to escape the disease-ridden camps that killed many friends and families. People are being paraded to inflict hatred and fear among them. These Jews are sick, hungry, and tired, and it made people believe that the Jews are to blame for the diseases in Germany. German citizens contribute to these crimes in allowing them to go on, making them seem less unjust from what they actually are. The German people allowed many monstrous crimes to go on and it makes little crimes like stealing seem petty and small in comparison. With customary morals, Liesel Meminger and Rudy Steiner are only stealing when it is necessary. Liesel is the protagonist of The Book Thief. She learns to read and write from her father and begins to have a deep connection to literature. Rudy is Liesel’s best friend and partner in crime. Together, they steal food and books because the rations they get are little and Liesel is desperate for something to do. One day, Rudy is trying to get Liesel to steal a cigarette from her father; however, Liesel shows morals saying, I don’t steal from my papa’ (348). After the rationing starts, food has become scarce. Some people, like members of the Nazi Party, are receiving more food than others. Liesel and Rudy’s families are struggling to find money and food. This results in more little crimes from lots of children to feed themselves. These small crimes mostly go unnoticed and they are minuscule problems compared to the problems of war. Rudy wants Liesel to steal from herr father for him to benefit from cigarettes.
Liesel is stealing from strangers, that she has no personal connection to, therefore, she does not feel any guilt. When she is asked to steal from her father, she exhibits her moral code and will not steal from him. In addition, Liesel shows her morals once again by displaying emotions. Liesel and her mother run a laundry business around the neighborhood. Once the bombs start to come, they are out of business. Their last customer is the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Herman. She is important to Liesel because she knows about Liesel’s theft of books. After she finds out, she allows Liesel to use her library until she fires Liesel and her mother. Liesel then starts yelling at the mayor’s wife. Continuously, Liesel steals books from the mayor’s wife to rub it in her face. Eventually, Ilsa Herman finds out and writes Liesel a letter. When Liesel read the letter, she reacts positively, and she realizes that (she) was a criminal. But not because she’d stolen a handful of books through an open window. You should have knocked, she thought, and although there was a good portion of guilt, there was additionally the juvenile trace of laughter. As she rode, she tried to tell herself something. You don’t deserve to be this happy (370). Liesel realizes that she is a criminal of emotions and books. She feels guilty for feeling happy because the mayor’s wife is extremely nice to her and she disrespects her multiple times by yelling and stealing. The juvenile trace of laughter shows that Liesel is still a child, even though she has to grow up quickly. She is twelve, and she still needs to have fun. In a time of war, children must grow up quickly and learn many new things. They also must be mature and keep secrets for their parents. Liesel continues to reveal her childish side by showing that even when someone is forced to grow up, one can still be immature.
While a time of war can be difficult, with certain morals, little crimes seem much less immoral. Crime during wartime is different in many ways. On a normal day, many people will be caught stealing, which during wartime, it is considered a tiny crime. Liesel and Rudy show that even with a tiny crime, someone can show a moral code, making a small crime seem even smaller. Death as the narrator adds a different point of view showing destruction and crime. From Death’s perspective, Liesel and Rudy’s crimes are petty and are forgiven in relation to the crimes of Germany and the other countries involved in the war. Nazi Germany with Hitler as the leader, contributes to the human rights crisis because the basic human rights and freedoms are considered criminal. The nature of crime in Nazi Germany is atypical because of circumstantial times of war that are brought upon them.
- Oktar, Adnan. The Role of Propaganda in the Holocaust. ProQuest, 28 Jan. 2018, search.proquest.com/docview/869507001/BA598E01CD2348B1PQ/4?accountid=2363.
- Zusak, Markus, and Trudy White. The Book Thief. Knopf, 2013.