Words are one of the most powerful ways we communicate with each other. In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the impact of words and language is felt throughout the novel. From the negative impact of the anti-Jewish propaganda present in Nazi Germany to the reassuring effect of Liesel’s reading in the bomb shelter, words have both a positive and negative influence on the major characters. The composition of the novel also demonstrates this theme through the narrator’s use of metaphor and other literary devices to make sense of the world and communicate ideas to the reader. Within the story and in the way the story is written, Zusak promotes the philosophy that words—both their presence and their absence—have power.
The fact that Liesel is writing in her basement is the only reason that she survives, her love for words give her the motive to write very early in the morning, in a cold, dark, German basement. It is in-direct, but the power of words is the reason that The Book Thief’s life is saved. Secondarily, words that are not even meant to mean very much can also have the power to save lives. Words that Hans says to Max and his mother, although not meaning to, give Max the sanctuary in which he was able to live; “‘He saved my life’…’He-if there’s anything you ever need'” (Zusak 179). During World War 1, Max’s father Eric saves Hans’s life by electing him to not go into battle, on the particular day that the entire battalion is killed. Riddled with survivor’s guilt, Hans offers Max anything that he ever needs, not knowing how much influence those words would have on to come. The simple, guilt laced words that Hans says, not meaning to be extremely influential, are powerful enough to save Max’s life from the Fuhrer. Finally, like many, many words in Nazi Germany, some are evil, and some have the ability to take people’s lives. Adolf Hitler’s words are the most effective murderers of them all, he uses only his words to kill 6 million Jews “Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing.
There are other ways words are dangerous. Hans puts himself at risk when he paints over a slur on a Jewish shop. There is inherent power in the act of naming; the Nazis claimed this power over the Jews by propagating derogatory names. Hans, in refusing to use or accept the slurs, refuses to acknowledge this power, and weakens its effect. His refusal also makes it clear his actions will not be influenced by propaganda, and are therefore unpredictable, risky. Hans Hubermann is only ever harsh to Liesel on two occasions, the first being when she says, “‘I hate the Führer'” (Zusak 115). He sympathizes with the sentiment, but knows if the wrong person heard those words, they would put Liesel in danger. If people cannot articulate their hatred toward their leader, for fear of personal harm, that leader can use their silence as an indicator of consent, and can feel secure in his position because without words, no one can challenge him. The second time Hans is harsh to Liesel is when he tells her how important it is to keep Max a secret; he threatens to burn her books. So the words, “There’s a Jew in my basement” (Zusak 244) would destroy the books that taught her the power of words in the first place.
While The Book Thief explores the ways that words can hurt as well as heal, the message is ultimately hopeful. Death has carried around Liesel’s book, The Book Thief, and her words, “so damning and brilliant” have given him a new view of the human race, “so ugly and so glorious” (Zusak 550). Death notes that though he serves villains and disasters, there are moments and stories he allows to distract him, and The Book Thief is one such story. For Liesel, even as words took her mother away from her, endangered her best friend, and isolated her when they were beyond her grasp, words were what connected her to the people she loved. Words were powerful enough to save her, in the end.