Symbolism in The Book Thief:
In Nazi Germany, at the height of Hitlers power the streets of Munich are dark and downtrodden. A once ruined nation has been “rebuilt” into a better Germany by the Fuhrer in order to retake the lands they once owned and to make a pure and complete nation. Liesel and her family must endure this like so many other families in Germany, however unlike others they do not support what their government is doing but there is nothing they can do to express their true beliefs in fear Hitler will “take them away”. The author uses symbolism to express this idea, reflect Germany’s situation as a whole and display the feel of certain scenes in order to conjure a particular emotion in the reader.
Fear envelopes 1940’s Germany in many forms but most prominently in the shape of the Swastika; the symbol of Nazi power and a unified German people that means something much more sinister for many citizens. Based off an insignia that ironically symbolized abundance and prosperity it has been twisted and distorted into something much darker. the authors use of its symbolism gave me a feeling that it was either deeply feared or unconditionally loved amongst the German people. To explain the Swastikas effect on German society, Zusak uses symbolism to separate it into three different colours; red, white and black.
White is the colour of the snow spread across the world as Liesel makes her way across the country with her family to her new home in Munich. For me white is a symbol of purity, innocence, stagnation and lack of emotion, it gives me a feeling of serene peace but also bleak sadness and I believe that is what the author was trying to get across in this chapter. After the death of her brother, It seemed to me Liesel was not only lost in the world but also in her own head; “First up is something white, of the blinding kind”. This conjured scenes of being caught in car headlights like a rabbit frozen to the spot unable to move and not sure what to do next, or like being caught in a blizzard completely disorientated and lost. I felt this was what was happening inside Liesels mind, it was not yet black with sadness but white with utter confusion. During winter on Himmel street the cobblestones and roofs are covered in a thick blanket of snow. In the winter living is hard, with little work and food to go round. Once again the symbolism of white gave me a feeling that the whole city was covered in a white stupor, unable to push through and lost within their own houses, like society is being pulled down by the heavy weight of the snow above. “The world was sagging now, under the weight of all that snow”. For me white symbolized the snow that took lives away and buried them during the war.
Black is used by Zusak to symbolize death. The passing of many people is painted with it but for me it also symbolizes depression, sadness and authority. The inky black section of the swastika flag is like a signature for death. It is the insignia that is infamous in the world today as it was the symbol the Nazi’s power over their own people. It struck fear into many and submission into others. To defy it meant you got taken away and for Jews was a death sentence. However the ink that Liesel writes colorful and innocent tales about the people she loves and the places she goes is also black, which gave me an idea of how the uses of writing and knowledge can be so contrasting like the humble word shaker written over the blanked out pages of Hitlers “Mein Kampf”. Black marked the arrival of death many times during the book thief, when ash and soot covered the ground after bombings like the imprints of his foot steps and when he came in the darkness of the night to lift away the Hubermanns souls. To me Black is a symbol of destruction and the aftermath and Death saw this through eclipses; “there seemed a quick shadow again, a final moment of eclipse”. Black symbolizes the end for many things, like the closing of a film in a cinema or turning out the lights to sleep, but in death it symbolizes a finish, a completion of something greater in a great flourish. I believe black shows us the best way to die.
Every time I look at the swastika it seems as though the satin red is dripping of the fabric of the flag like blood. Its dark meaning still lingers on like a blood stain on a carpet, unable to be soaked out or removed it simply stares at you reminding you of the past. Blood is always the first thing I think about when looking at the swastika as I believe that was what it meant for most, whenever the flag was raised on the German streets violence would usually follow, usually dished out by Nazi soldiers. not only does the flag symbolize blood but the colour red has become an unconscious symbol of evil or “the enemy” in our society today especially in popular culture. I’m sure this is partly due to the fear of the infamous red Swastika, a fear that has transcended through the ages and is still effecting us today. “A horizon of Nazi flags and uniforms rose upward, crippling her view”. Red is always present in Liesels life, it coats the ground in thin trickles of blood and fills the sky with crimson rain clouds, In some ways it is an atmosphere that surrounds everyone in Nazi Germany like the flag is being pulled over the city to weigh everyone down with sadness, violence and oppression. “the sky was now a devastating, home-cooked red”, I think in this line Zusak was trying to explain that what had happened to Himmel street on the day of the bombing had been devastating with all the reds of explosions and split blood but it had also been partly Germany’s fault as it was; (“home-cooked”). At this point in time I felt that Germany was not only red with anger, fire and blood but also blushed red with shame and defeat.
Overall these three colours show more than any image or description ever could, they conjure emotions in the reader that perfectly suit the books scenes and setting. Zusak’s use of symbolism gives us insight into the nature of German society during world war two, its effect on individuals such as Liesel and the Hubermanns and the shear terror and violence that occurred when living in a world ruled by maniacs, sadists and tyrants. In The Book Thief, the symbolism of colours was used to simplify the complicated and swirling world that existed during the war as if it was described by a young child who’s mind is still very clear and uncorrupted. Colours gave me a feeling that the world Liesel lives in is pure and readable. Although of course it is anything but.