Nazi Germany and the Second World War
Hitler in Munich, 1933
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHitler in Munich, 1933 - Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

 

Hitler in Munich, 1937
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHitler in Munich, 1937 - Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

  You don’t always get what you wish for. Especially in Nazi Germany.

The Book Thief is set in the midst of the Second World War in Germany. Thanks to a mass of novels, films and TV programmes about the period, we all imagine we know what it was like to live through such a time, but do we really?

Life in Germany was tough. Still scarred from defeat in the First World War and the financial collapse of the 1920s, Germany was doing all it could to claw its way back to being the economic power it once was. Leading the country on this journey was Adolf Hitler, an energetic politician with big ideas. He promised German citizens work, money, a pure, strong country and hope. To some extent he kept his promises; Hitler oversaw a huge expansion of industrial production, and improvements to roads and infrastructure. But he also brought more than a decade of terror, censorship, heinous propaganda and racism, violence, human rights atrocities and the fanatical fascist persecution of thousands of innocent people.

In our Western culture of free speech and independent thought, it is almost impossible to imagine a life lived in suppressed silence as millions of people struggled to balance the urge to stand up for morality and human justice with the consequences that would have for themselves and their family.

Suppression, fear, terror and prejudice were all part of daily life for millions of German people during this time. The depth and strength of the human spirit pulled ordinary citizens through, as is beautifully explored by Zusak in The Book Thief.

Munich
Children in Munich, 1937
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeChildren in Munich, 1937 - Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

 

Munich (München) is a city of just over 5 million residents, the third largest in Germany. It is the capital of Bavaria.  

Munich was the birthplace and headquarters of the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, commonly known as the Nazi Party). It was also the location for the first concentration camp (see below).

The city suffered heavy bombing during the war, and was subjected to 71 air raids by allied forces over the six years. It was meticulously rebuilt after the war.

The story of The Book Thief takes place in the fictional town of Molching, just outside Munich.  

 

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Dachau Concentration Camp
Dachau Gates
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeDachau Gates - Credit: joeandkaty, Flickr

Dachau concentration camp was built in 1933, about 10 miles outside Munich.

It was the first concentration camp opened by the NSDAP. 200,000 prisoners were held in Dachau over the subsequent 12 years; about 70,000 of these were Jews. The death toll at Dachau is officially set at 25,000, although the real figure may be much higher.

Like other Nazi concentration camps, Dachau's slogan was "Arbeit Macht Frei", literally (and ironically) meaning "work makes you free".

By the time it was liberated in 1945, the camp was severely overcrowded, with 30,000 people incarcerated. Sanitary conditions were horrendous and diseases spread quickly.

The camp is now a memorial and museum.