Words give one the ability to communicate, and often go unrecognized for their capability of being extremely influential, comforting, and manipulative. In Markus Zusak’s novel, “The Book Thief”, the powerful impact of words is a recurring theme. From the comforting effect of Liesel’s readings, to the negative effect of the anti-Semitic propaganda existing in Nazi Germany, words have the ability to leave positive and negative influences on people, and have control over major situations. The power of words is also demonstrated through the amount of danger that can arise when they are used incorrectly, during unsafe situations. Throughout the novel and in the way the novel is written, the author develops the ideology that words—regardless of the way they are used—have power.
Words have enough power to influence an entire nation. The use of words to influence negatively can be examined through Hitler’s use of propaganda to spread his hateful ideology, which gives him control over the entire German population. The majority of Hitler’s dominance as a leader is derived from his intelligence with words. The book “The Word Shaker” written by Max Vandenburg, can be seen as a symbol of the immense influence words have on a population. In his story, Max displays the Fuhrer deciding to “rule the world with words”, and sees Germany as “a nation of farmed thoughts” (445). This quotation represents how Hitler has seeded his ideology, of Germany being greater without Jews, into the minds of every single German. He cultivates his words by continuously spreading the same message across the nation, through a variety of conveyance methods such as books and speeches.
Similarly, Max’s daydream about boxing against Hitler symbolizes that words can surpass any amount of physical strength. During the boxing match, as Max delivers several powerful hits and Hitler begins to lose, the Fuhrer simply “turns his back on the Jew and takes the gloves from his fists”(253). He then starts telling the audience how Jews will begin to invade Germany and how everybody will soon have to start working for them. His hateful remark concludes by asking the audience to join him and “defeat the enemy together” (254). This daydream is an accurate representation of how powerful words can be. Although Max is physically superior, Hitler’s speech is far more powerful. His manipulative choice of words is able to turn the entire audience against the Jew, and results in the Fuhrer’s victory.
Although Max could have won the fight if Hitler was alone, once the Fuhrer had the entire German population supporting him, Max was weak in comparison. Hitler, a persuasive speaker, uses words by means of influencing and controlling the country, and as Liesel says “Without words, the Führer is nothing”(521). Additionally, as the novel is set in Nazi Germany during the time of the Holocaust, the anti-Semitic beliefs are specifically conveyed through the impact of words. At the time, the Jewish population is identified as a “disease” (110) that is infecting the nation. These labels have the power to dehumanize the Jewish race, which minimizes the severity of crimes against them (vandalizing their houses and shops, burning Jewish books and possessions). Hitler’s methods of spreading his hateful ideology exemplify that words are powerful enough to influence an entire nation, and dehumanize an entire race. Likewise, words can be powerful enough to sustain, connect and comfort people.
Liesel Meminger is seen as a symbol of all the good that can come from words. Firstly, she reads to Max often when he becomes very sick. She reads to him as if “the words alone can nourish him” (328).
Max is constantly trapped in the Hubermanns basement, even when he is not ill. He is sustained mainly by Liesel’s imaginative weather reports, as well as the reports of her day and the newspapers she brings him. She describes the weather in ways that only children do: “The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole…”(249). Liesel’s descriptions of the weather, as well as the newspapers help maintain Max’s sanity. Through Liesel’s descriptive words, Max is able to visualize what the weather is like, and the newspapers allow him to connect with the outside world. The numerous ways that words are presented to Max by Liesel help him stay as content as possible while living in the Hubermann’s dreary basement. Additionally, words have the ability to connect people and form relationships.
The mayor’s library symbolizes the forming of relationships, as it is where Liesel is able to bond with Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife, after discovering their shared love of reading. “There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it. ‘Can I?’…The woman nodded.
‘Yes, you can’.” (134). Their relationship begins with words, as they discover their shared love of reading, it ends with words, once Ilsa gives Liesel the letter firing her mother, and is mended with words once Ilsa gave Liesel the black book in which she is able to write the story of her life, “The Book Thief”. The power of words to do good is also seen through Liesel’s ability to comfort others. While air-raids become a common part of life in Molching, as Germany is beginning to lose the war, Liesel is able to comfort her neighbors through words during the air-raid by reading her books to them. “.
..soon a quietness started bleeding through the quiet basement. By page three, everyone was silent but Liesel…the youngest kids were soothed by her voice” (381).
Liesel’s calming words keep everybody at ease and prevents panic from arising. As previously mentioned, Liesel Meminger displays how much positivity can be brought into dreary circumstances, simply through a use of words. In Nazi Germany during World War One, the use of the wrong words at the wrong time can put one in grave danger. Max Vandenburg understands that being labelled as a “Jew” puts his safety in jeopardy, as well as the safety of those who help him. At the time, a Jew is known as someone who “violates the German ideal” (110). Therefore, Hans and Rosa Hubermann are in danger, as any German who attempts to assist a Jew will face harsh punishments, which is the reason for the family being so secretive around the topic of anti-semitism.
Furthermore, Hans, who is usually very gentle and loving, is only ever stern with Liesel when she uses words in such a way that would endanger her. When Liesel says “I hate the Fuhrer”(110), Hans is able to relate to her statement. However, he is aware that if the wrong person heard these words, Liesel would be at risk.
As a reminder of how important it is to use her words wisely, Hans threatens to burn all of Liesel’s books if she does not discard the dangerous words and phrases from her vocabulary. These threats make it clear to Liesel that words, as comforting and enlightening as they can be, also have the ability to put lives in danger. Hans puts himself at risk as well, when he paints over a racial slur on a Jewish store. “In sloppy lettering, the words “JEWISH FILTH” were spilling over at their edges… “I will come tomorrow”, he said, “and repaint your door.”” (181).
One way the Nazi’s claim power over the Jews is by spreading degrading slurs across the nation. Hans demonstrates his defiance to accept the hateful names, which lessens their effect. Him painting over the slur displays his support towards the Jewish people, which is a very risky decision, as he is going against the chosen words of the entire German population. For a citizen of Nazi Germany, it is crucial to understand the amount of danger their words can have, for saying even one wrong word at the wrong time could lead to a lifetime of regret and punishment. In brief, words are extremely powerful. They have the ability to comfort, connect and sustain, when they are used for good.
They also have the ability to influence, manipulate and dehumanize, when they are used for evil. Words can have both a positive and negative impact, as well as be highly dangerous if used incorrectly. They allow humans to communicate, and are rarely noticed for the powerful effect they can leave on people. As displayed in the novel, “The Book Thief”, words are the only tool necessary to change the world, and once people begin to understand the true power that can come from their choice of words, ….